Hillsborough River State Park, one of the state’s oldest campgrounds, is leaping into camping’s latest trend, adding safari-style glamor to the camping experience of those who love to sleep outdoors but would rather not rough it.
It’s a new twist on an old adventure in a dense forest on a historic river that feeds Tampa Bay.
You won’t be tracking lions or giraffes on this safari, but you will be sleeping on a soft and comfortable bed in a luxurious tent with all the amenities, including air conditioning, while living among the birds, the gators and other wildlife that enliven this park’s 3,000 wooded acres.
Your safari will lead you to hike the park’s seven miles of trails through dense forest, kayak a slow-moving river with a section of Class II rapids or bicycle through the woods on the two-mile Wetlands Restoration Nature Trail and the 2.2-mile park road.
Fish the river for bass, bream and catfish, or engage in geo-caching games with your hand-held GPS devices.
Bring your binoculars and your camera. No safari is complete without a photo album!
Pets are welcome in most outdoor areas of the park.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.
- 'Glamping' at Hillsborough River State Park
- Traditional RV and tent Camping
- Group primitive camping
- Kayaking at Hillsborough River State Park
- Hiking and Bicycling at Hillsborough River State Park
- Historic Fort Foster bring area's history to life
- The swimming pool at Hillsborough River State Park
- Things to do near Hillsborough River State Park
‘Glamping’ at Hillsborough River State Park
A glamping concession opened in 2022 with six luxury “safari” tents at Hillsborough River State Park.
Glamping comes via Timberline Glamping, a company that started with locations in the Georgia mountains and now franchises glamping operations elsewhere, including Hillsborough River State Park.
The tents are completely furnished with a queen bed and one set of bunk beds.
The tent setup includes a floor, carpet, beds, lamps, comforters, chairs, a heating and air conditioning unit, electric outlets for charging devices, Keurig coffee maker and a mini fridge.
Glamping sites No. 19-25 are on the north side of the main campground.
Rambler Tip: The campground canoe/kayak launch is close enough to carry your boats from your ‘glamping’ campsite. The launch is a wooden slide down a steep riverbank. A medium-weight bow line is helpful.
Traditional RV and tent Camping
There are not any bad campsites among the 112 sites in Hillsborough River State Park’s three campground loops.
Almost all are shady. Some are closer together than others.
On our last few visits to Hillsborough River State Park, we’ve lucked out with sites close to the river with excellent access for our kayaks.
I didn’t plan it that way. When you book a campsite at popular state parks like Hillsborough River, you take what you can get, especially during the busy winter season.
This state park campground is close to Tampa and the communities of Tampa Bay, so it’s in high demand, especially in February and March during the Florida State Fair in Tampa and the Florida Strawberry Festival in nearby Plant City.
Each site has water and electric, including some with 50-amp hookups, a picnic table and fire ring. Each loop has restrooms with hot showers and laundry facilities. All three loops share a single dump station.
Hammocks are allowed on sites 41, 61, 110, and 111.
Seasonal flooding in the campground may be an issue during Florida’s rainy season (June through October), so contact the ranger station before you camp for updates at (813) 987-6771.
Book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call (800) 326-3521 up to 11 months in advance. The rate is $24 per night plus a $7 daily utility fee and a $6.70 booking fee. The utility fee includes water, electricity and sewer. (Utility fee does not apply to tent camping.) Discounts are available to Florida residents 65 and over and people on 100% disability.
Group primitive camping
Group primitive camping is available at four sites for organized youth or adult groups, defined as six or more persons affiliated with a recognized nonprofit or community organization such as Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, Sierra Club or church groups.
To reserve one of the four primitive sites, call the ranger station at (813) 987-6771, and call again the day before your arrival for trail conditions. Backpackers must check in at the ranger station at least one hour before sunset.
Kayaking at Hillsborough River State Park
Hillsborough River State Park boasts Class II rapids upstream from the kayak launch points, but not always. The rapids I saw barely merited Class I.
Still, it was difficult for my wife to navigate, so she turned around. I plowed through with little trouble. You have to follow your eye where the river runs swift and clear. Ripples indicate rocks in shallow water.
After a storm, though, I can see the potential for a more challenging passage than I encountered.
Paddlers are rewarded with fabulous views of this wilderness, toppled trees, alligators and turtles sunning themselves and birds whistling in the otherwise silent treetops.
Paddling upstream from the main launch across from the concession building is a good way the start your day. Even if you don’t paddle through the rapids, you can turn around and paddle downstream past the launch point for several miles before encountering “The 17 Runs,” a swampy obstacle course that is best left to the experts, making it a good place to turn around and go back upstream.
Rambler Tip: Call the ranger station at 813-987-6771 for river conditions before you paddle.
The primary launch for day visitors is across from the main concession building (next to the pool), where you can rent canoes and kayaks or launch your own boat.
There’s a second kayak launch in the campground with a slide running down the steep riverbank for your boat. I snared a campsite (No. 36) next to the launch, allowing me to keep my kayaks at my campsite, ready to paddle.
Below the 17 Runs
Your paddle downstream within Hillsborough River State Park will come to an abrupt halt when you encounter the obstructed 17 Runs section of the river. Even experienced paddlers are challenged by the downed trees, portages and shallow passages.
Your best beet is to turn around and return to the park take-out, then pack your boat for John B. Sergeant Park.
Sergeant Park is about 7 miles south of the entrance to Hillsborough River State Park, and it’s the best place to continue your paddle downriver.
You can rent kayaks and canoes from Canoe Escape, the concession at Sargeant Park, or arrange their livery service to pick you up at one of three locations further downstream (2, 4 or 6 hours) and shuttle you back for Sergeant Park for $29 per boat.
There’s a $2 parking fee at the park whether you rent a boat or bring your own.
This lower stretch of the river is also wild and protected, preserved as a source of drinking water for the city of Tampa.
Canoe Escape offers both guided and self-guided tours and sponsors special events.
Hiking and Bicycling at Hillsborough River State Park
There are multiple opportunities for hiking.
The scenic 1.1-mile Baynard Trail is accessible from the stationary bridge near the park playground. We’ve hiked portions of both trails and experienced multiple eco-systems that represent the park as a whole.
The 1.2-mile River Rapids Trail is a loop that takes you to upriver to the rapids, following the course of the river for several hundred yards with great views. The nature trail segment is three-quarters of a mile and an easy hike from Parking Lot #2 on the main park road.
You’ll experience a mixed hardwood hammocks and riverine eco-system with varying elevations. Signs along the trail note the various species of plant life and a self-guided tour map can be obtained in the office that will point you to wildlife and bird nests, such as the red-shouldered hawk.
Early hikers may even experience a river otter sighting.
The Wetlands Restoration Trail, which is shared with bicyclists, is an easy 1.6-mile hike that intersects with the more strenuous 6.7-mile Fort King Trail, which is also accessible from a trailhead off U.S. 301 N.
There are several branch trails, marked and unmarked, that invite you deeper into the park’s interior.
Bicycling is permitted on the paved 2.2-mile park road and the unpaved 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Trail, which is just past the campground. Bikes can be rented at the concession building next to the pool for $10-$15 for the first hour and $5 each additional hour.
Historic Fort Foster bring area’s history to life
Tours are not being offered until further notice. Check the official park page for updates.
Once a week, weather permitting, park rangers offer guided tours of Fort Foster, a reproduction of the original fort built in 1836 to protect a strategic crossing on the Hillsborough River during the Second Seminole War.
Fort Foster was originally built in December 1836 by Col. William S. Foster, and his 430 men, who build the fort in three weeks using only hand tools.
The purpose of Fort Foster was to defend a bridge over the Hillsborough River and act as a resupply point for the soldiers in the field.
The fort was garrisoned on and off from December 1836 through April 1838.
From January 1836 through March 1837, the fort was garrisoned predominately by sailors. U.S. Navy Lt. Thomas J. Lieb, fifty sailors and 20 artillery soldiers, were assigned to defend the fort and bridge.
The fort was attacked on several occasions, but the worst was in February 1836, when the Seminoles attempted to set fire to the bridge but failed under aggressive musket and cannon fire from the fort.
Seminole attacks increased, and 150 Marine reinforcements were dispatched from Fort Brooke in Tampa. When the Marines arrived, the Seminoles “rethought their intentions and the hostilities nearly ceased at the bridge crossing.” — Florida State Parks
Tours of Fort Foster
Tours are offered November through April at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. Tickets can be purchased at the Hillsborough River State Park ranger station. The tour fee is in addition to the entrance fee to Hillsborough River State Park.
Each year, the site offers two living-history events: Fort Foster Rendezvous in January, and the Candlelight Experience at Fort Foster in December.
The swimming pool at Hillsborough River State Park
Rambler note: The swimming pool was closed for maiintenance in 2022 and is not scheduled to reopen until Summer 2023.
Swimming is not permitted in the river, but the park has a fabulous swimming pool for day visitors and campers.
An impressive half-acre in size, the swimming pool is surrounded by a spacious deck near a shady picnic area that includes open tables or picnic pavilions available for group rentals.
The pool is next to the concession building in the main day-use area of the park.
For updated information, or information about renting the picnic pavilions, call the Hillsborough River State Park ranger station at (813) 987-6771, Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
On a historic note, the picnic pavilions were built in the 1930’s by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which was created to give people jobs to maintain historic sites and build infrastructure at many of Florida’s state parks, including Hillsborough River State Park.
Things to do near Hillsborough River State Park
- Best camping near Tampa
- Paddleboarding Tampa Bay region: Best spots
- Tampa Thai temple: Exceptional Sunday market & brunch
- Alafia River: Fun kayaking and mini-rapids near Tampa
- Dunedin: Delightful biking, breweries, beaches & more
- Safety Harbor Spa: Healing waters are star of charming town
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.