The Tampa Bay area is blessed with outstanding public campgrounds featuring kayak, canoe and paddle-board trails, wilderness hiking, off-road or casual bicycling, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, beaches and swimming holes.
A natural Florida experience is the common denominator for these nine choice campgrounds near Tampa Bay.
E. G. Simmons County Park
This 469-acre Hillsborough County park on Tampa Bay has 103 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 there is no vegetation to afford privacy and little shade. But you can launch a small boat from your campsite. We saw kayaks at many campsites.
The paddle trails track through quiet bays and dozens of mangrove islands and out into the open waters of 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, a boat launch, and paved road for bike riding.
Campground reservations are not accepted. The park’s 103 campsites are assigned first come, first served. Once in, you can stay up to 28 days at a time for a maximum of 180 days per year. Rates: $24/night ($18 for seniors 55+ and $12 for seniors 65+ who live in Hillsborough County). Note: This campground is often booked solid during the winter snowbird season with availability easing after April 15.
Day use fee is $2 per person, and it costs $5 to launch a boat.
Edward Meddard County Park
This 1,284-acre park, reservoir and campground near Plant City may be the most scenic campground in the Tampa Bay area. The 42 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 tree canopy and ground vegetation for privacy.
The 700-acre reservoir, 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. Kayaks and canoes are available for rental: $25 for four hours.
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 age 55+, and $12 for county resident seniors over 65.) First come, first served, and you can book up to 28 days at a time, paid in advance. Credit cards are not accepted. (2021 rates)
Fort Desoto County Park & Campground
Another favorite campground, Fort Desoto has 236 sites, and most are waterfront, allowing to launch your canoe or kayak directly from your site.
One campground loop with 85 sites set aside exclusively for tents, vans and popup campers. Another campground loop is 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 the park provide relief from the sun, which can be brutal here.
Recreational opportunities are second to none. The beaches are consistently ranked among the best in Florida, bicycle trails connect all areas of the park, with paths extending north to the Pinellas Trail, and you can kayak to offshore islands on a calm day.
Fish can be hooked from shore, from the beach or from the park’s two fishing piers.
This campground is busy year around and often booked solid for the winter season. Reservations can be made online up to six months in advance, but Pinellas County residents can get a jump on non-residents by booking seven months in advance. RV rates are $43-$48 per night, including tax. Tent, van and pop-up sites are $38-$43. Spring for waterfront at the higher price, especially the beach sites in the tent campground. (2021 rates)
The park holds back 10% of sites and make them available online every Friday at 7 a.m. Additional sites may be available at the campground office each morning at 9 a.m. (Arrive early; there’s usually a line.)
FORT DESOTO PARK, 3500 Pinellas Bayway South, Tierra Verde, FL 33715 . Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance online or by calling the park office at (727) 582-2267. For more information about the park, read this article.
Hillsborough 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 is sparse between some sites.
The Hillsborough River cuts through the park with opportunities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Additional river access is available downriver at three public parks — John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Park, and Trout Creek Park.
At Sargeant Park, five miles west of Hillsborough River State Park on U.S. 301, you’ll find a well-equipped kayak and canoe concession offering canoe and kayak rentals and a shuttle between all three parks. For details, visit Canoe Escape or call 813-986-2067.
Hikers can explore 7 miles of nature trails, including a 1.2-mile nature trail that takes you through the woods to Class II rapids on the upper river. Bicycles are 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. This park is popular during the winter snowbird season, so monitor cancellations closely for availability.
HILLSBOROUGH RIVER STATE PARK. 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassas, FL 33592. (813) 987-6771. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance by calling 800-326-3521. For more information, read this article.
Lithia Springs Conservation Park
The major attraction of this 160-acre Hillsborough County park is its natural spring with an excellent swimming hole at the headspring. The spring feeds the Alafia River, offering multiple canoe and kayaking opportunities.
I found most of the campsites here to be isolated with loads of privacy, and the campground is well-maintained. My site was on a ridge above the river, completely surrounded by vegetation and invisible to the main park road and other campsites.
As is true in the other Hillsborough County parks, rates are $24/night ($18 for seniors age 55+, and $12 for age 65+ who are county residents). 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. (2021 rates)
The swimming area is extremely popular with locals, so much so that the county has divided the day into two time periods with a capacity of 200 swimmers in each slot, 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.
This campground is often booked solid during the winter season with availability easing after April 15. I also noticed at least one group of campers appeared to be living in the campground full-time.
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 park is a former phosphate mine, full of hills and valleys — unusual contours for Florida. Despite its former life as a mine, the park is flush with beautiful, mature trees.
The two campgrounds are 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 and, while spacious, there is little privacy between sites..
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. The park also has equestrian trails, and equestrian camping is available.
The Alafia River does not flow through the main section of the park, but there is river access a mile south of the park off State Road 39 on Thatcher Road. Best to go upriver for the most scenic paddle.
The park has 30 spacious campsites with electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring. Rates are $22 per night.
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 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 non-refundable $6.70 reservation fee. There are also equestrian campsites available and a primitive backpacking campsite ($5 per person), which entails a 2.5-mile hike. The primitive site has a picnic table and fire ring.
Myakka River State Park
One of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, Myakka River State 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 seven 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.
J. B. Starkey Wilderness Park (Tents only, rustic cabins)
This tent-only, primitive campground in Pasco County is a straight shot up the Suncoast Parkway (toll) from downtown Tampa, about 35 miles. And it’s worth the drive if you want to be immersed in a vast, quiet wilderness filled with wildlife.
A massive 12,000-acre park, part of a 18,000-acre water-management preserve, offers unlimited hiking and a seven-mile smooth, paved bike trail, which connects to the 42-mile Suncoast Trail. Bicycling here is perfect for families, as there are no road crossings.
Hawks, turkeys, owls, deer and other birds and wildlife are often seen. The park is far enough from a metro area and big enough to provide darks skies for excellent stargazing.
The campground is perfect for tent campers, and RV campers are prohibited. There are 16 shaded campsites set is mature woods with restrooms and showers and a small shelter but no hookups for electric or water. Water spigots are spotted around the campground for sharing. The only bathhouse is near Site 13. On the hiking trail, there are three remote primitive sites without any amenities.
There are eight cabins available to rent with four bunk beds, each accommodating up to eight people. Each bed has a mattress, but bring your own bed linens or sleeping bags. The cabins have a table and chairs and electricity to power an exhaust fan and a single electrical outlet. Cook outdoors on the charcoal grill or bring your own stove. There is a picnic table outside.
Although pets are allowed in day-use areas, they are not allowed in the campground or cabins.
The cabins are $50 per night. Maximum length of stay is 7 nights. Campground rates are $15 per night, and it costs $10 per night for the backpacking sites.
Reservations are accepted up to 30 days in advance online or in person at these 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 is first come, first served. Holiday weekends are tough to get in here. We visited midweek on beautiful March day and only one campsite and no cabins were occupied.
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.