The Tampa Bay area is blessed with outstanding public campgrounds that offer a potpourri of outdoor recreational activities — canoe and kayak trails, wilderness hiking, both off-road and casual bicycling, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, swimming beaches and swimming holes.
A natural Florida experience is the common denominator 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.
Two of the campgrounds on this list have a history that dates back to the birth of Florida’s state park system in the 1930s — Myakka River State Park and Hillsboro River State Park are both the product of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established during the Great Depression to create jobs. There are still structures at both parks that date back to those troubled days.
Five of the campgrounds are managed — and managed very well — by county parks departments: Hillsborough County (3), Pinellas County (1) and Pasco County (1).
Most impressive, in my view, are the three Hillsborough County campgrounds at E.G. Simmons Park, Edward Meddard Park and Lithia Springs Park.
My favorite of them all, from an aesthetic standpoint, is Edward Meddard Park near Plant City. What a beautiful campground!
From an activity standpoint, it’s hard to beat Fort Desoto, a Pinellas County park where I have camped often. The beaches here are award-winners.
The beauty of these publicly owned parks — aside from the natural beauty they offer — is their low cost. These are your parks, created with the help of your sales taxes, gas taxes and property taxes with a boost from the fees you pay to use them.
Here’s a brief summary of all nine campgrounds we like near Tampa Bay:
Alafia River State Park
Alafia has some of the most challenging off-road bike trails in the state, ranking in the top three mountain-bike destinations in Florida.
Off-road cyclists volunteered to build the trails, they maintain the trails and they use the trails day in and day out. The entire park is a former phosphate mine, full of steep hills and valleys — unusual contours for Florida. Despite its former life as a mine, it is flush with beautiful, mature trees.
The campground is on a comparatively flat corner of the park around a pretty little lake. There are mature trees and shade, but it is an open landscape rather than a forest setting.
Off-road bike trails dominate the rest of the park. There is a hilly one-mile loop trail specifically for hikers, where bikes are prohibited, but hikers aren’t welcome on the busy 17 miles of bike trails.
The park does have extensive equestrian trails and equestrian camping is available. These trails are open to hikers (and not bikers), but we didn’t find these great for hiking. Either we had a hard time following the trails — we kept ending up on bike trails — or the trail followed an uninteresting, sunny landscape. (It’s possible we missed the better equestrian trails.)
The small lakes in the park won’t be much challenge for kayakers, and despite the name, the Alafia River does not flow through the park. It is nearby, however, and it is an excellent kayaking and canoeing river. Also nearby is Lithia Springs Park, a popular swimming hole around a beautiful spring.
There are 30 spacious campsites with electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring. Rates are $22 per night.
ALAFIA RIVER STATE PARK, County Road 39 S, Lithia, FL. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online on the park’s web site, Alafia River State Park
E. G. Simmons County Park
A 469-acre county park on Tampa Bay has 112 campsites divided into two campgrounds. All but a dozen sites are waterfront, and each has a fire ring, picnic table, water and electric hookups with dump stations nearby.
The sites are spacious, although shade is in short supply and there is no vegetation between sites for privacy. Still, you can launch your small boat from your “back yard,” and that makes this a great campground.
We enjoyed the paddle trails, which run through dozens of mangrove islands and out into Tampa Bay. Mullet were jumping everywhere, a strong indicator that the fishing is decent in these nurturing backwaters.
There is a swimming beach on Tampa Bay and well-designed boat launch, and plenty of paved road for bike riding.
Reservations are not accepted; sites are assigned first come, first served. Once you’re in, you can stay up to 28 days at a time for a maximum of 180 days per year. We talked to several snowbirds who nail down a site for 28 days, renew it for another 28, then another 28, for a total of three months. Rates: $24/night ($18 for seniors over 55).
E.G SIMMONS PARK, 2401 19th Ave NW, Ruskin, FL (813) 671-7655. For more information, call or visit Ruskin Online – E.G. Simmons Park
Edward Meddard County Park
This 1,284-acre park, reservoir and campground near Plant City may be, in my opinion, the most scenic campground in the Tampa Bay area.
The 40 sites, all with water and electric, picnic tables and grills, accommodate RVs, tents and trailers on two loops within a heavily wooded area with a spectacular canopy and ground vegetation that provides excellent privacy.
The 700-acre reservoir, which is maintained by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, is a popular fishing hole with a boat launch, picnic area, a fishing pier and boardwalk to a small island with an observation tower.
For equestrians, a 3.2 mile bridle path runs through the park. Ask park officials about booking horses at nearby stables, if you don’t have your own.
Like E.G. Simmons, reservations are not accepted. Rates are $24/night ($18 for seniors). Walk-ons only, first come, first served, and you can book up to 28 days at a time, paid in advance. Credit cards are not accepted.
EDWARD MEDDARD PARK, 6140 Turkey Creek Rd, Plant City, FL (813) 757-3802. For more information, visit their website: Edward Medard Park and Reservoir
Fort Desoto County Park & Campground
One of my favorite campgrounds in the state, Fort Desoto has 238 sites, and most are waterfront, allowing to launch your canoe or kayak directly from your site.
There is a campground loop with 85 sites set aside exclusively for tents, vans and popup campers. The campground even has a loop set aside for campers with pets.
While not all sites are spacious, there is excellent separation between most, and privacy is afforded by dense vegetation. Towering trees throughout provide relief from the sun, which can be brutal here.
Recreational opportunities here are second to none. The beaches are consistently ranked among the best in the state, bicycle trails connect all areas of the park and you can kayak to offshore islands on a calm day.
This campground is busy year around, but it’s consistently booked solid in winter. Reservations are accepted online up to six months in advance, but Pinellas County residents can get a jump on non-residents by booking seven months in advance.
The park holds back 10% of sites and make them available online every Friday at 7 a.m. Remaining sites are available at the campground office at 9 a.m. Rates: RV, $40-$45 (including tax); Tent, $35.$40.
FORT DESOTO PARK, 3500 Pinellas Bayway South, Tierra Verde, FL 33715 (727) 582-2267. For more information, visit the park’s web site at Fort Desoto Park (Pinellas County)
Hillsboro River State Park
This fabulous state park along the upper Hillsborough River has 112 sites with water, electric, picnic tables and fire ring. No hookups for sewer, but there is a dump station. The sites are spacious and shady, although ground vegetation between sites is a bit sparse, somewhat limiting privacy.
The Hillsborough River cuts through the park with opportunities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking. However, your range for paddling is limited by a vast swamp downriver called the “17 Runs”. Better river access is available below 17 Runs at three public parks — John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Park, and Trout Creek Park.
At Sargeant Park, five miles west on U.S. 301, you’ll find a well-equipped kayak and canoe concession offering canoe and kayak rentals and a livery service between all three parks. For more information, call Canoe Escape at 813-986-2067.
Hikers will find seven miles of nature trails, including a 1.2-mile trail that takes you through the woods to Class II rapids on the upper river. Bicycles permitted on the 2.2-mile Park Loop and the 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Trail.
Camping fees are $24 per night, plus tax and a $6.70 non-refundable reservation fee. Fees include electric and water.
HILLSBOROUGH RIVER STATE PARK. 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassas, FL 33592. (813) 987-6771. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or visit the park’s web site: Hillsborough River State Park
Lithia Springs County Park
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.
I found most of the campsites here to be quite isolated from one another. My site was on a ridge above the river, completely surrounded by vegetation and well off the main park road.
As is true in the other Hillsborough County parks, Rates are $24/night ($18 for seniors) and reservations are NOT accepted. Walk-ons only, first come, first served, and you can stay up to 28 days at a time, renewable up to 180 days. Credit cards are not accepted. For more detailed report on my visit to this campground, please read Camping Near Tampa: Lithia Springs Park
LITHIA SPRINGS REGIONAL PARK, 3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia, FL 33547. (813) 744-5572. Web site: Lithia Springs Park
Little Manatee River State Park
This is a big state park — 2,416 acres — full of great recreation opportunities and home to a beautiful, secluded campground shaded by live oaks and pines in a mature forest.
The Little Manatee River offers days of kayaking opportunities along a pristine river with clear water, a white sandy bottom and shaded banks. You can rent kayaks inside the park for short out-and-back paddles, or you can use the services of an outfitter adjacent to the park, who will provide livery service for three different segments of this gorgeous river, ranging from challenging all-day paddles to an easy three-hour float.
This is a good park for hikers, too. On the south side of the river, which is the main section of the park, there are miles of trails, including for equestrians. The most popular trails, however, are on the north side of the park, which is a wilderness area. You can hike a 3-mile loop or add a second loop for 6.5 miles of trail. These shady trails, with occasional views of the river, pass through a variety of habitats.
The campground has 34 campsites with full hookups. Rates are $22 per night, plus tax and a $6.70 reservation fee. There are also equestrian campsites available and a primitive backpacking campsite, a 2.5-mile hike. The primitive site has a picnic table and fire ring.
LITTLE MANATEE RIVER STATE PARK, 215 Lightfoot Rd., Wimauma, FL 33598 (813) 671-5005. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online at: Little Manatee River State Park
Myakka River State Park
One of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, this park has three campgrounds with a total of 90 sites.
Every site has water hookups and 50 amp electric service, and the 38 sites in the new Palmetto Ridge campground also have sewer hookups. A dump station is available for everybody else. Sites in all three campgrounds have fire rings and picnic tables.
The park is paradise for cyclists and paddlers, not to mention hikers and wildlife observation. I was amazed how close I could get to a red-shouldered hawk sitting quietly in a tree.
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 scenic Myakka River. Read a related story about my visit: Myakka River State Park: Playland on the prairie
MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, Florida 34241. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521, or online through the park’s web site: Myakka River State Park
Starkey Wilderness Park (Tents Only)
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, part of 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 near Site 13.
Rates are $15 per night from October through March, $10 the rest of the year, plus a $2 parking fee. Reservations are accepted in person up to 30 days in advance, not by phone or online, at only three locations:
- Land O Lakes Recreation Complex, 3033 Collier Pkwy., Land O Lakes
- Veterans Memorial Park, 14333 Hicks Rd., Hudson
- J. Ben Harrill Recreation Complex, 2830 Gulf Trace Blvd., Holiday
Otherwise, it’s first come, first served. 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.)
STARKEY WILDERNESS PARK, 10500 Wilderness Park Boulevard, New Port Richey, FL 34655. (727) 834-3247. For more information, visit this web site: Starkey Wilderness Park