How a committed group of volunteers keep Hillsborough County's hiking and equestrian trails in tip top shape

The wilds are, well, wild. Without continual maintenance, hiking and equestrian trails can quickly become difficult to navigate. Downed trees, erosion, and overgrown vegetation are ongoing impediments that need to be managed on paths.

This is especially the case in Hillsborough County's nature preserves and conservation parks, where frequent rain and constant heat inspire nonstop growth and an ever-changing landscape. Thankfully, the Trail CATS, a devoted group of volunteers, work year-round to keep the County's paths safe and fun.

Trail CATS on the move

The Trail CATS, or "County Associated Trail Stewards," are a volunteer group dedicated to maintaining 165 miles of trails within Hillsborough County's 64,000 acres of nature preserves. Roughly 150 volunteers participate in the Trail CATS program.

The group meets monthly every second Saturday to tackle projects and trail maintenance tasks. Some volunteers, such as those at the advanced Trail Boss level, volunteer on their own schedule.

Projects include installing trail posts and signs, trimming overgrown trail vegetation, and repainting trail markers or "blazes."

Nature preserves in Hillsborough County provide a primitive wilderness experience. Development is kept to a minimum in preserves in order to protect natural areas and wildlife. However, volunteer Trail CATS invest considerable time and effort keeping the paths navigable and easy to follow.

From Trail Scout to Trail Boss

April Dittmann has volunteered with Trail CATS for several years. She grew up hiking and camping with her family in West Virginia and always had a deep appreciation for the outdoors. However, when she moved to Florida as a young adult, she focused on building her life and her hiking interest took a backburner.

Eventually, out of necessity, Dittmann rediscovered her trekking passion. When her mom got sick and Dittmann became her main caregiver, Dittmann realized she needed a stress release. She began to explore the preserves and parks around her and quickly became, in her own words, "addicted to hiking." Being outside and with others who shared her enthusiasm for wildlife was just the therapy she craved.

After Hurricane Ian blew across central Florida, Dittmann took her love for nature even further. While hiking after the storm, she saw firsthand how high winds and heavy downpours had put some of her favorite trails in shambles. Downed branches and whole trees littered the paths and needed clearing. Dittmann wanted to help restore the paths and joined the Trail CATS as a Trail Scout volunteer.

Today, Dittmann is a Trail Boss. Trail Bosses flag and blaze new trail routes, trim trails, lead other volunteers, and perform other trail maintenance duties. Trail CAT volunteers can earn the title of Trail Boss after attending at least five trail maintenance workdays as a Trailblazer and a Trail Boss training class.

Dittmann enjoys that she can give back to the community while spending time outside. She credits the Trail CATS program with expanding her social circle and her understanding of the environment.

"It's an awesome opportunity to meet other people that have way more knowledge than I do, and that is another reason why I got involved -- to learn from other people," Dittmann said about her volunteer work with Trail CATS.

Join the Trail CATS

Whether you're a nature enthusiast or just love a good hike, the Trail CATS program offers unique opportunities to contribute to the beauty and maintenance of Hillsborough County's nature preserves. Volunteers can earn stickers, patches, and invitations to exclusive hiking, paddling, and camping events. For more information and to sign up for upcoming events, visit Trail CATS or email

Interested in learning more about Hillsborough County's conservation parks and nature preserves? Subscribe to the Trailblazer Newsletter. Receive information directly to your inbox on upcoming guided hikes, birding tours, canoe trips, native flora and fauna, and everything happening in your favorite Hillsborough County conservation parks and nature preserves.