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Best Camping Near Tampa: 9 choice campgrounds

Campsite at Hillsboro River State Park near Tampa

Campsite at Hillsborough River State Park

Public campgrounds are plentiful around Tampa Bay, offering a natural Florida experience for visitors who wish to get away from honking horns and urban irritants while still being able to enjoy the many attractions the area has to offer.

Without further ado, here’s a brief summary of the campgrounds we like near Tampa:

The 7-mile Starkey bike trail connects to the 42-mile-long Suncoast Trail

Paved bike trail at Starkey

J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park Campground. 10500 Wilderness Park Boulevard, New Port Richey, FL 34655. (727) 834-3247. This tent-only, primitive campground is almost a straight shot down the Suncoast Parkway (toll) to downtown Tampa (35 miles). The park is part of a 18,000-acre water-management preserve, offering unlimited hiking opportunities and a 7-mile paved bike trail, which connects to the 42-mile-long Suncoast Trail. There are only 16 campsites with no hookups, and RVs are prohibited, but this campground is the ultimate prize for tent campers. Water spigots are spotted around the campground for sharing. The only bathhouse is located near Site 13. Rates are $10 per night, and reservations are only accepted in person up to 30 days in advance, not by phone, making this convenient for the locals who flock here. Otherwise, it’s first come, first served. Fair warning: Holiday weekends are tough to get in here, but it’s definitely worth a call to evaluate your chances. (Ask about the primitive cabins, as well.)

Hillsborough River State Park. 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassas, FL 33592. (813) 987-6771. This state park has 112 sites with water, electric, picnic tables and fire ring. (Dump station available.)  The Hillsborough River cuts through the park, offering opportunities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Hikers will find seven miles of nature trails. Bicycles permitted on the 2.2-mile Park Loop and the 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Trail. Rates:  $24 per night, includes water and electric.  Some walk-on sites.

Fishing in Tampa Bay at E.G. Simmons County Park

Fishing at E.G. Simmons County Park

E.G Simmons Park, 2401 19th Ave NW, Ruskin, FL  (813) 671-7655. A 469-acre park directly on Tampa Bay with 88 campsites, each with a fire ring, picnic table, water and electric hookups.  (Two dump stations on site.)  Almost all sites back up to a canal, where you can launch small boats from your site.  Public beach and boat launch, as well fishing piers and shore fishing.  Rates:  $24 ($18 for seniors). No reservations accepted. Walk-ons only, first come, first served. Credit cards are not accepted.

Edward Medard Park, 6140 Turkey Creek Rd, Plant City, FL (813) 757-3802. Once known as Pleasant Grove, this 1,284-acre park and campground are on a reservoir maintained by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. There are 40 sites with water, electric, picnic tables and grills. A popular fishing hole, there is a boat launch, picnic area, equestrian trails and a fishing pier and boardwalk to a small island with an observation tower. Rates: $24 ($18 for seniors).  No reservations accepted. Walk-ons only, first come, first served. Credit cards are not accepted.

Site #40 at Lithia Springs Park Campground

Lithia Springs campsite

Lithia Springs County Park, 3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia, FL 33547. (813) 744-5572. This campground has 40 sites for RV, tents and trailers with fire ring, table, water and electric hookups. (Dump station on site). The major attraction of this 160-acre park is its natural spring with excellent swimming. The spring feeds the Alafia River, offering multiple canoe and kayaking opportunities.  Rates:  $24 ($18 for seniors).  No reservations accepted. Walk-ons only, first come, first served. Credit cards are not accepted.

Fort Desoto County Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway South, Tierra Verde, FL 33715 (727) 582-2267. Campground has 236 sites, and most of them are waterfront. 85 sites are set aside exclusively for tents, vans and popup campers.  A “Top 10” beach, biking, hiking, fishing, kayak and canoeing. Reservations accepted online up to six months in advance, but a large number of sites are available for walk-up customers (first come, first served).  Rates: RV, $38.50; Waterfront RV, $40.50; Tent, $33.50; Waterfront Tent, $35.50. No refunds for cancellations, although you will get a credit that you have up to a year to use.

Bike trails are challenging and well-maintained at Alafia River State Park

Mountain biking is the big attraction at Alafia River State Park

Alafia River State Park, County Road 39 S, Lithia, FL.  Alafia has some of the most challenging off-road bicycle trails in Florida, rambling 17 miles through the park’s varying elevations. Hikers and equestrians have another 20 miles of hiking and horse trails available, and there is access to lakes and the river for kayaks and canoes, as well as fishing.  The campground lies along the conifer-lined shore of Lake Alafia with great views. There are 30 spacious campsites with electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring.  Rates:  $22 per night. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online at online through ReserveAmerica.

Little Manatee River State Park, Wimauma, FL.  The 2416-acre park harbors about 5 miles of the 40-mile long Little Manatee River, which empties into Tampa Bay. The secluded campground in a sand pine forest has 34 campsites with full hookups. This park is popular with equestrians.  A 6.5-mile nature trail is available for hikers, and the river is open to exploration by kayakers and canoeists. Rates: $22 per night.

Campsites at Myakka River State Park, east of Sarasota

Campsites at Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, Florida 34241. One of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, this park has two campgrounds with 76 sites.  Each site has electric, water, a fire ring and a picnic table. (Dump station available). The park is paradise for cyclists and paddlers. There are 7 miles of paved park roads and backcountry dirt roads that wind through backwoods habitats. Canoe or kayak on a large lake or down the wild and scenice Myakka River.

So what about all those Snowbirds?

During the winter months, state and county campgrounds tend to fill up fast under the crush of out-of-state visitors, largely because they are naturally beautiful and low-priced, but don’t be discouraged.

Although popular, Tampa-area campgrounds tend to be under less pressure than campgrounds further south, and many set aside a limited number of sites for walk-ons. While this can be risky, it’s usually a manageable experience, especially during the week.

And some campgrounds don’t accept reservations at all, at any time, and you can often nail one. Just call the park office and ask about your prospects on your planned day of arrival.

Hot tip:

Public campgrounds in Florida, especially near Tampa Bay, experience frequent cancellations as snowbirds jockey reservations to find campsites further south. It’s a winter ritual.

Every morning at 8 a.m., those cancellations go back into inventory for you to grab online or by phone. State Parks and several private campgrounds are on ReserveAmerica.

Go to the Reserve America web site, enter your preferences (state=Florida, city=Tampa, leave “Park Name” blank), select your desired dates and search. Results will show what’s available and what’s not on your specified dates.

Things to Do Nearby

Pinellas Trail: On the west side of Tampa Bay is one of the most progressive and appreciated rails-to-trails projects in all of Florida. The 37-mile Pinellas Trail, which just marked its 20th anniversary, starts in Tarpon Springs and runs south through downtowns and neighborhoods in Dunedin, Clearwater, Largo, Pasadena and into downtown St. Petersburg. Dunedin is a great starting point to go in either direction because of ample parking, great shops and cafes along the trail. There’s a spur north of Dunedin that goes out to beautiful Honemoon Island. This is a multi-purpose trail for hikers, bikers and roller skaters. Read more in this Florida Rambler article: Treasured St. Pete bike trail

Busch Gardens: The Gulf Coast’s only theme park, Busch Gardens is a whole bunch of fun. Take a safari on the Serengeti Plains, or experience the thrill of your life on the SheiKra roller coaster. Busch Gardens is only 10 miles from Raymond James Stadium. Here’s a link to a video of the Sheikra ride.

Ybor City: Once the cigar capital of the world, Ybor City retains much of Tampa’s old city charm and Latin flavor. Restaurants, art galleries, pubs and patio cafes are everywhere, and you can still see Tampa’s famous cigar-makers practicing their trade. Best way to explore is by foot. Here’s a cool idea: Go to Secret City Walks and download a guided talking tour ($9.99) and maps to your iPod or MP3 player.

Fort Desoto: Even if you don’t camp here, you’ll want to go to the beach here. Fort Desoto’s beaches consistently rank among the Top 10 beaches in America. Read more in this Florida Rambler article: Fort Desoto Park

Besides the Pinellas Trail and Fort Desoto, the Pinellas County Park system offers a wealth of nature trails and paddling opportunities. Check it all out at their web site: Pinellas County Parks and Preserves

 

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