ST. LUCIE COUNTY — The county this month opened almost four miles of new horseback riding trails winding through a west-county nature preserve.
Expanding the Paleo Hammock Preserve to include the adjacent Teague and Hackberry Hammock preserves gives riders 6.7 miles of horse trails on 700 acres on Carlton Road, about four miles south of Okeechobee Road. The trails meander through woods, fields and a variety of habitats, and boost the countywide horse trail total to about 36 miles.
The new trails and expanded parking lot — with shaded areas for horse trailers as well as hitching posts and picnic tables — cost about $25,000, with about half of that coming from bond funds, said Karen Smith, St. Lucie County's environmental resources director. The rest came from the county's general fund. Labor was provided by county employees and inmates.
The county, which owns about 7,800 acres of nature preserves, gradually has been improving and expanding trails in preserves purchased with money from the $20 million environmental lands bond fund voters approved in 1994.
Kathy Brown, a rider from Palm City, said she regularly visits St. Lucie to ride because the trails are so beautiful and well-kept.
"At Paleo, you don't see bugs and horseflies, you see butterflies," she said. "It is shady, and there are so many native plants and birds. You can see hawks circling around, and it's really very spiritual because there are old Indian mounds. The Indians inhabited the area 10,000 to 12,000 years ago."
St. Lucie's shady trails, which have informational signs, are known throughout the Treasure Coast for their natural beauty and wildlife, drawing riders from Martin and Indian River counties as well, Smith said.
Horse trails help attract environmental tourists, also called eco-tourists, to the county, helping to provide businesses with an economic boost, Smith said.
One entrepreneur, Alan Hayes, offers horseback rides on the beach, but he also offers horseback tours of the county's nature preserves. His business, Tours on Horseback, is a member of the Fort Pierce Authentic Tours organization that caters to eco-tourism.
The Paleo preserve contains a variety of habitats including wetlands, hammocks, open grassy fields, and massive old oaks, some well over 100 years old, Smith said.
"It's just magical out there," she said.
Last year, Bluefield Preserve trails were improved and the parking lot expanded to include hitching posts, picnic tables, rinsing water and room for horse trailers. There is no drinking water for riders.
The next project will be to improve the campground so riders can camp overnight. Currently, the primitive campground is set up only for hikers with tents.
When money becomes available, the county will focus on the 746-acre Pinelands Preserve, where there are six miles of trails on VPI Grove Road, off Okeechobee Road. The county will improve trails that frequently are wet and upgrade and expand the parking lot with amenities similar to those at Paleo.