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Hillsborough River State Park adds ‘glam’ to its camping options

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.

The park’s signature swimming pool is closed until the summer of 2023. The pool cafe and tours of Fort Foster are also closed. Day use admission is $6 per vehicle. Exact change may be required.


‘Glamping’ at Hillsborough River State Park

Interior of luxury safari tent at Hillsborough River State Park with a queen bed and bunks. (Photo courtesy Timberline Glamping)

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 Reservations

Book online at tampa.tlglamping.com or call 866-854-5267. Prices range from $150 to $175 per night, depending on tent setup and date, plus a one-time $60 cleaning fee per site per visit.

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.

campground map hillsborough river state park
Campground Map. Sites 19-25 are designated Glamping sites. (Park service map.)

Read more: Glamping in Florida: Luxury meets nature in these 5 parks


Traditional RV and tent Camping

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

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.

Wide view of the Hammock Campground Loop at Hillsborough River State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)
Wide view of the Hammock Campground Loop at Hillsborough River State Park. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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.

Campground reservations

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 kayak paddle
Kathy paddles upstream on the beautiful Hillsborough River. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

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

Turn back!

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.

Bridge to hiking trails over the river. (Park photo)

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.

Photo by Bob Rountree

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.

hillsborough river state park map

Historic Fort Foster bring area’s history to life

Fort Foster
Fort Foster

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

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

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.

Directions:

Things to do near Hillsborough River State Park

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip by following the applicable links in this article.

This page may include affiliate links, such as Amazon and Hotels.com, from which we may earn a modest commission. We also include free links to local small businesses, such as kayak outfitters and restaurants, for the convenience of readers. 

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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Court A

Monday 19th of July 2021

We’ve really enjoyed the pool but it’s closed for replacement until 2023.

Charlie E Allen

Thursday 16th of May 2019

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

Thursday 16th of May 2019

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

Geoffrey Sherwood

Wednesday 15th of May 2019

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.

Bob Rountree

Wednesday 15th of May 2019

Geoffrey, Thank you so much for this additional information about the Hillsborough River! Good stuff! -- Bob Rountree

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