Hillsborough River State Park offers a wilderness experience not far from Tampa

Kathy paddles the Hillsboro River
Kathy paddles the Hillsborough River (Photo by Bob Rountree)

There is a sense of history in the air when camping in the forest of Hillsborough River State Park, now a safe haven for birds and other wildlife spanning 2,990 acres .

This is the historic heartland of Florida’s west coast where Seminole Indians once held the line against the invaders (that’s us!). The natives were eventually pushed south — but not without a fight.

Those fights took place right here at the river, a strategic crossing for both the invaders and the invaded.

Hard to believe we’re just minutes from Ybor City and Plant City, where Americans, Cubans, Italians and Romanians would later settle to plant their crops and roll their cigars.

You can embrace that heritage, or just settle in for a week or a weekend enjoying this fabulous wilderness. The park offer RV and tent camping in the campground, primitive camping along the Florida Scenic Trail, hiking and bicycling (on- and off-road), kayaking on the slow-flowing river or just chilling in the half-acre, 70-degree pool in the main day-use area of the park.

 Kayaking at Hillsborough River State Park

The 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.

Once through the rapids, paddlers are rewarded with fabulous views of this wilderness, toppled tress, alligators and turtles sunning themselves and birds whistling in the otherwise silent treetops.

Touch base with the ranger station for river conditions before you paddle.

Paddling upstream from the main launch across from the concession building is a good way the start your paddle. 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. A good place to turn around and go back upstream.

My rule of thumb is to paddle upstream first, so you won’t need as much energy on the downstream return. If you paddle downstream first, stay aware of distance and time for the slower, upstream return.

The primary launch area 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 structure running down the bank for your boat. I snared a campsite next to the launch, allowing me to keep my kayaks at my campsite, ready to paddle.

Turn back!

Below the 17 Runs

As mentioned. 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 will be challenged by the downed trees, portages and shallow passages.

Best bet: Turn around and go back to the park take-out and pack up 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 park concession, or arrange a livery service to pick you up at one of three locations downstream (2, 4 or 6 hours) and shuttle you back for Sergeant Park for $29 per boat. There’s also a $2 parking fee at the park whether you rent a boat or bring your own.

This next stretch of the river is also wild and well-protected from development as a source of drinking water for the city of Tampa.

Canoe Escape offers both guided and self-guided tours and sponsors special events.

Camping at Hillsborough River State Park

Our campsite (#36) at Hillsborough River State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Our campsite (#36) is one of the best in the park for kayakers because it was next to the boat launch. I didn’t plan it that way. When you book a campsite at many state parks, especially during winter season, you take what you can get. In summer, local families can be expected to fill up weekends.

Overall, there are not really any bad campsites among the 112 sites in three campground loops. They all had a reasonable amount of shade and depth. Some are closer together than others, but that lends itself to interaction with your neighbors, which I think is one of the benefits of camping.

Just don’t talk about politics or religion. ;-)

The Hammock Campground Loop
Wide view of the Hammock Campground Loop. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Each site has water and electric, as well as a picnic table and fire ring, each loop has restrooms with hot showers and laundry facilities and all three loops share a dump station. Hammocks are allowed only on sites 41, 61, 110, and 111.

Note a warning that seasonal flooding may occur during Florida’s rainy season (June through October), so contact the ranger station for updates at (813) 987-6771.

Campground reservations can be made online or by phone through ReserveAmerica up to 11 months in advance.  All sites are $24 per night, plus tax and a $6.70 booking fee per stay. Florida residents age 65 and up are entitled to a 50% discount. The discount is also offered to those on 100% disability.

Rangers do not have access to the reservation system until the day of arrival, so don’t bother trying a side-door tactic. If a site is available that day, they’ll give it to you. They have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Primitive camping is accessible deep in the woods and across the river about 1.5 miles from the developed park area, a tenth of a mile off the 3.2-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail inside the park (blazed orange). There is no water, no electric and no restrooms, and only two sites allow hammocks. Cost to camp here is $5 per person. 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.

Contact the park for information about primitive group camping.

Hiking and Bicycling at Hillsborough River State Park

There are multiple opportunities for hiking, including a 3.2-mile segment of the Florida Scenic Trail, which is considerate a moderate hike through the park. Both the Florida Trail and the scenic 1.1-mile Baynard Trail are 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 the river’s rapids and follows the course of the river for several hundred yards, offering some great views of the rapids and river, as well as the natural beauty of the park. The nature trail segment is just 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

Although access is limited, we would be remiss not to mention the Fort Foster State Historic Site.

Fort Foster
Fort Foster

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.  It took he and his men about three weeks to construct the fort using only hand tools and sweat.

During the Second Seminole War, the purpose of Fort Foster was to defend the bridge crossing 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 thru April 1838.  From January 1836, thru 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.  The attempts were thwarted by aggressive musket and cannon fire from the sailors and the artillery men within the fort.  Seminole attacks increased to a point that forced Lt. Lieb to send a message to Ft. Brooke, where Tampa is today, for reinforcements.  150 Marines were dispatched to Ft. Foster to assist the sailors.  When the Marines arrived, the Seminoles rethought their intentions and the hostilities nearly ceased at the bridge crossing.” — Florida State Parks

The tours are offered from November through April at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, and every 3rd Saturday at 11 a.m. during the summer.  Tickets can be purchased at the ranger station for $2 per person (age 13 and up), $1 (6-12), and the tour is free for children under 6. 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

Swimming pool at Hillsborough River State Park
Swimming pool at Hillsborough River State Park (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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 picnic area that includes open tables and picnic pavilions available for group rentals.

The entry fee for the pool is $4 plus tax per person, per day, for visitors ages 6 and up; children ages 5 and under are free.  The pool fee is in addition to the $6 per vehicle park admission. Pool hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, but lifeguards are only on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The rest of the year, the pool may or may not be open, depending on weather or major maintenance.

The 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 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.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Charlie E Allen

    The class 2 rapids at Hillsborough River State Park are protected, it is the reason why they chose that location for building the park. No one should be going on or through the rapids.

    • Bob Rountree

      Hi Charlie! Thanks for your input! Although the entire river is protected as a water source for Tampa, to my knowledge there are no restrictions on paddling through the rapids. I will seek clarification from my contacts at the DEP and get back to you soon. — Bob

      • Bob Rountree

        Here’s the official DEP response: “In addition to providing public access and recreational opportunities, state parks are also charged with resource protection. This park in particular was established to protect one of the only Class II Rapids in the state of Florida. Kayaking or canoeing across the rapids is not prohibited. However, because the rapids are made of brittle limestone that can be damaged or deteriorated by vessels going across them, it is discouraged”

  2. Avatar
    Geoffrey Sherwood

    Not Hillsborough State Park, but since you mentioned Sergeant’s here is some more info about the area downstream from Sergeant’s. These are the pickup locations mentioned in the article (2-4-6 hour paddles/floats downstream).

    If you have your own kayak you can put in at Trout Creek and paddle upstream to Morris Bridge Park, or put in at Morris Bridge and paddle upstream to Sergeant’s. You can also paddle downstream from Trout Creek to Lettuce Lake. You could put in at Lettuce Lake as well, but they want a lot more $$ to put in! Lettuce is relatively big water and the wind can be a nuisance. Besides, I find paddling on a lake to be kind of boring. The view doesn’t change much! Upstream paddling on all of these stretches is fine — and we weren’t about to pay to be brought back to our car!

    Our favorite stretch was Morris Bridge Park to Sergeant’s. We found that to be the most interesting stretch to us. It is pretty easy paddling upstream except for one small stretch in front of the observation platform that is on one of the hiking trails — the water runs fairly quickly there, but only for 100 feet or so. That stretch is just under 3 miles each way and makes for a nice 2.5-3 hour paddle. We’d usually be going about 2 mph upstream and 3 mph downstream according to my wrist GPS. There were always birds and turtles and usually a few alligators to look at (they don’t want anything to do with you, don’t be alarmed!). The river is quite twisty (but plenty wide) so there is always a new view around a bend.

    A very different experience can be had putting in off Fowler right in Tampa at Rotary Riverfront Park on the north side of Fowler just west of I-75 (turn off of Fowler at the IHOP). Paddling north/upstream from there on the Hillsborough River there are houses along the banks most of the way to Lettuce Lake. Some new and expensive, others old and simple. Very flat calm water. Interesting once or twice, but that wasn’t why we ‘yak!

    Lastly, if you are biking/hiking there is a 15 mile ‘main loop’ that runs from Flatwoods park through Morris Bridge Park and back to Flatwoods. In Flatwoods there is a paved 7 mile loop, but the rest of the trails are mountain bike land. Not that there are any mountains — nothing more than gentle grades; this Florida — and a whole bunch of side trails. These are all packed sand or dirt with the occasional (and sometimes very frequent!) root. There are some small stretches of soft sand but you can either ride around the edge of it or walk the bike until you get to hardpack again. I’ve both walked and cycled the trails many times. Some of the other trails can be under water/mud for parts of the summer, but main is always fine. There is a good map of the trails on line — search “Morris Bridge park map” and you’ll get lots of info.

    All of these are $2 per car to park (except Lettuce; I think they had a per-person charge). If I recall there is a $5 extra fee if you have a trailered boat, but nothing extra if you cartop your ‘yak in. I think Rotary Riverfront was free. Been a long time!

    We moved out of the area or we’d still be visiting. We enjoyed it very much.

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