Take a hike: Park Service pushes start of back-to-nature program on Jan. 1

In this file photo, two couples enjoy the beach paradise of Carl E. Johnson/ Lovers Key State Park.

Photo by Cameron Gillie .cg, Cameron Gillie/Staff

In this file photo, two couples enjoy the beach paradise of Carl E. Johnson/ Lovers Key State Park.

If you go

Where: Black Island trailhead at Lovers Key State Park, 8700 Estero Blvd., about 10 miles west of Interstate 75 from exit 116.

When: 10 a.m., Jan. 1

What: Bring protection from the weather, sunscreen, water, camera and binoculars

Who: All ages are welcome though children must be accompanied by an adult. Pets on leashes no longer than 6 feet are OK.

Additional info: Hikers should call the ranger station at 239-463-4588 to register. The hike is limited to 25-30 people.

Cost: The hike is free with the price of admission to the park, which is $8 per carload of up to $8, $4 for individuals and $2 for pedestrians and bikers. Children under 5 are free.

— The Florida Park Service has a different way for New Year's revelers to step out.

Some 60 state parks, including Lovers Key State Park in south Lee County, are inviting the public to kick off 2013 by getting back to nature with a First Day Hike on Jan. 1.

Lovers Key is one of more than 650 state parks in all 50 states that are participating in America's State Park First Day Hikes this year, the second year the event has been organized by the National Association of State Park Directors.

"I think we really hit on something here," said association President Priscilla Geigis, who is credited with founding the event as director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts had been hosting First Day Hikes at its state parks for 20 years before Geigis challenged other state park systems around the nation to get on the bandwagon in 2011.

By the time New Year's Day rolls around, many Americans have gone to lots of holiday parties, eaten lots of food and are thinking about getting a fresh start, Geigis said.

"We thought we could capitalize on that," she said. "People really gravitated to the idea."

In 2012, just months after Geigis issued her challenge at a state parks directors meeting, there were 400 First Day Hikes in all 50 states, she said.

Florida's total of 60 First Day Hikes beats out all other states, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and one of those is in Southwest Florida's backyard.

Lovers Key State Park, comprising four barrier islands between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach, is home to manatees, dolphins, wading birds, marsh rabbits and bald eagles.

The park's ranger-led First Day Hike will wend for 1.2 miles through a butterfly garden, a maritime hammock and past canals where manatees often swim, park services specialist Katie Moses said.

"Anytime we have an opportunity to highlight our park, we definitely want to take advantage of that," she said.

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