Just a half hour from bustling downtown Tampa is one of Florida’s oldest state parks. Hillsborough River State Park is 3,383 acres of tranquil wilderness where one can relax and recharge. The Civilian Conservation Corps built it in 1938 and since then, it’s seen a lot of improvements. Today the park offers a well rounded assortment of outdoor activities to help escape the day-to-day pressures.
The Hillsborough River is the heart of the park, both literally and figuratively. From the headwaters, it flows southwest right through the middle of the property. It’s a wild and rich habitat. The lush green foliage, Spanish moss, and abundance of water set the scene for an animal watcher’s paradise. Large numbers of migrating and tropical birds make the area their home along with river otters, fish, frogs, and yes, alligators. The river, surrounding swampy backwaters, and abundant wildlife provide excellent opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.
Cycling, hiking, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking are all popular activities. Don’t have a canoe or kayak? The park rents them at the concession building. They also have a convenient offering of last minute supplies and gear for picnicking parkgoers and campers. Next to the concession is a big half acre swimming pool. The pool is the most popular spot. Parkgoers and a lot of local people swim there to get some relief from the heat and humidity. There’s even a poolside cafe where breakfast and lunch are sold. You can eat your meal at one of the seven CCC-built pavilions or one of the open picnic benches throughout the area.
The main campground is just down the road from the concession. It’s open to both RV and tent camping. They offer 112 sites on two loops. Both loops have facilities with restrooms, showers, and a laundry. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring, and running water. Most sites have an outlet for electricity. Hammock loop sites are in an oak hammock setting away from the river. The River’s Edge loop has some more exciting sites close to the river. Call to reserve a site.
If you prefer a more solitary setting, the Florida Trail Association maintains a 3.2 mile loop of the Florida National Scenic Trail on the other side of the river. Crossing the alligator-filled water is a pleasure on either the stationary bridge or the suspension bridge. The stationary bridge leads to a “FT” sign and orange blazes that mark the way along the riverbank. The mostly level trail leads through a shaded oak hammock and cypress floodplain to a short spur where a fire ring marks the spot for primitive camping. A reservation is required so be sure to call the park and set it up before heading out there.
Baynard trail is an easy one mile loop starting at the stationary bridge and ending at the suspension bridge. It takes you through some swampy areas that are prone to seasonal flooding. Some of the trail travels across short sections of boardwalk where the ground is flooded a good portion of the year. The wet environment is ideal for all of the mosses and fungi growing on the trees.
Multiple paths and signs lead to the Rapids Trail. It’s a loop trail just over a mile long that parallels the river and is very scenic. Looking out at the oak canopy over the river and the resurrection ferns on the enormous branches is quite a sight. The water is clear and blue when the river level is down but when the water rises it mixes with the dark waters of the swamp. Try to go here when the river level is down because not only is the water clear but the mosquitoes aren’t nearly as bad. Another advantage of low water is that the rapids are uncovered and the large rock outcropping can be really fun to walk and sit on while you enjoy the scene. This is the best hike in the park.