Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hillsborough River State Park

After 35 posts, I figure it’s about time to write one about the place that most often comes to mind when people are asked to name a wild destination in the Tampa Bay Area.

Set aside in 1938, Hillsborough River State Park is one of the oldest state parks in Florida and remains one of the most popular, due mostly to its large campground and excellent paddling opportunities:

Unbeknownst to most people, its hiking trails are fine enough to have been mentioned in Backpacker magazine, which chose to go succinct by summing them up in three sentences: “Walk beneath a crown of live oaks, palms, and magnolias so thick they can block the sun. Best time for wildlife: March through May. Look riverside for fallen trees and rotting logs -- they make ideal gator-sunning spots.”

I can personally attest that the Hillsborough River is teeming with alligators, for although my visits have always been in autumn rather than the March-to-May period cited by the magazine, I have never left without seeing some of the prehistoric-looking reptiles. And I’m talkin’ bout big ’uns:

The park contains a variety of habitats that are all accessible on foot. There are moist areas with riverine forests and cypress heads, plus dry areas where longleaf pines rise above fields of palmetto. There are spacious oak hammocks that look beautiful when dappled by the morning sun -- for an example, check out the photo just above the “About Me” section at the top of this blog, which I took during a visit here in 2008.

While trails reach most sections of the park’s 4,000 acres, it seems they all lead back to the river, and that is probably as it should be. The Hillsborough is a fine waterway that flows steadily yet seems laconic, perhaps because many of the things you see along it lend a tropical feel -- things like wading ibis, basking turtles, and a handful of overhanging palms:

However, there is one spot where the river courses over limestone outcrops to create something rarely seen in Florida -- rapids! -- and in that spot it definitely does not seem laconic. The following sight awaits you at the end of the 1.2-mile Rapids Trail:

Because this is a state park, there is an entry fee of $4 for single-occupant cars and $6 for multiple-occupant cars. In my opinion, a better option is to book a campsite for a night or two, which will run you $24 per night and ensure that you have more than enough time to to hike every mile of trail without feeling the least bit rushed, and then go canoeing as well. Every one of the campground’s 112 sites has electricity, running water, a picnic table, and a fire ring with a foldover grate that allows it to double as a grill.

As you may have gathered from the park’s appearance in the aforementioned magazine, backpacking is also available here, at a primitive campsite located along a 3½-mile section of the Florida Trail. There is no cost to book this site, but unlike those at the full service campground, it will not get you out of paying the entry fee when you arrive at the park.

Camping, regardless of whether you choose to drive to your site or hike to it, allows you the priceless chance to sit beside a campfire under the stars while sipping your beverage of choice. Coyote sightings by campers have increased in recent years but are far from guaranteed -- contrary to sightings of raccoons and squirrels, which you are almost guaranteed to see around your site no matter if it’s day or night:

Hillsborough River State Park is located on U.S. 301 east of Thonotosassa. It is less than 25 miles from downtown Tampa, which is impressive given how much of a wilderness it is. Happy Trails!


  1. Alligators and a canoe - I suppose it does make you concentrate on balance!!

    Nice looking place.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  2. enjoyed this post but I wonder camping out .. and the 'teems' of alligators; not an issue? I thought your 'about me' was going to tell me a story of one day when you did face an encounter.... The crocodiles of Australia aren't always so human-friendly unfortunately

    1. Hi Carole,

      Thanks for visiting my blog! Alligators do seem to be much more tolerant of humans than crocodiles are, especially if I am to believe the way your "salt water crocs" are portrayed on television documentaries here in the States.

      Alligators inhabit literally every body of water in the state where I live, including ponds in the middle of big cities, and people are accustomed to seeing them frequently. It is rare to hear of one harming a person, except when said person does something antagonizing or foolish - like hold meat in his hand at water level trying to attract a gator, and "succeeding" when his hand gets carried away with the meat (a true story from last year).


  3. HI John, I'm glad Sarah is with you, loving the outdoors. The pictures of Hillsborough River State Park look tropical and lush. It's a nice respite to visit you from this windy cold day in CO! I rode the lift with a guy from Tampa this week and thought of you. Have you been skiing this year? We are low on snowpack, but we still get out there most days! Hope you and Family are well.