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It’s common to spot wildlife along the trail, including these white-tailed deer.

Fall is in the air. The mornings are coolers and things are drier, which means it’s time to hit the trails. Actually, some of us hit the trails year round, but I know not everyone is comfortable running knee-deep in water. If that’s you, now is your time to get out and explore.

Southwest Florida has some really beautiful and fun offroad running spots. One of my favorites is Walton Ranch Preserve in North Port. Walton Ranch, which is at the north end of Toledo Blade Boulevard, was acquired by Sarasota County in 2010 and opened to the public in 2015. It consists of 3,760 acres comprising rangelands, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods and marshes. More than 19 miles of trails traverse these different habitats.

The property is still used for cattle grazing, so as you work your way through the different trails, you have to open and close gates. Trail markers help you find your way around, but it’s definitely a good plan to download a map and store it on your phone before heading out.

For the less wilderness-inclined, the ranch road bisects the property running roughly southwest to northeast. This road is mostly hard-packed dirt and marl in good condition. Following it will take you through a pasture and then beautiful hardwoods and past some old structures. Eventually you’ll end up at the back of the property, some eight or so miles away. Keep in mind, now you have to turn around and come back. This road not only makes a great run or walk, it is also a good spot to bike.

Another route, called the scenic loop, is a little more than 5 miles. Now a word to the wise: Scenic does not in any way mean easy! I’ve taken this loop a couple times and both times found it to be quite challenging.

You should also be aware that if you take any trails to the east of the ranch road, you may have to cross over retention ditches. My friend Debbie and I discovered this the last time we ran out there. We were there right about the time Walton Ranch closed for flooding. Needless to say, it was pretty damp out there.

We were well into our run and kept coming up with retention ditches between us and where we needed to be. And the cows were no help at all. We asked for directions, but they just looked at us like cows do. So eventually we decided to suck it up and cross — hip-deep in water. We called it refreshing. I’m pretty sure the cows were laughing at us.

Besides cows (and there are a lot of cows), there is plenty of wildlife to see. On our trip, we saw several deer, rabbits, snakes (no dangerous ones), birds and spiders. Additionally, there are almost always wildflowers in bloom.

Walton Ranch Preserve is located at 7020 N. Toledo Blade Blvd., North Port. The preserve is open from 6 a.m. until sunset year round. The preserve features a few picnic tables and some benches along the trails. Facilities are primitive … i.e., there’s a porta-potty at the entrance, and there is no onsite drinking water, so you’ll want to bring your own. To learn more, visit http://bit.ly/2yXVomu.

Betty Staugler is the Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program and an active runner. Contact her at staugler@ufl.edu or 941-764-4346.

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