“You don’t have a canoe,” my friend said.
I had told him I booked a campsite in Alderman’s Ford Conservation Park on the Alafia River, a popular destination for paddlers. But I didn’t plan to tackle the river on this trip.
I like do like primitive camping, and Alderman’s Ford offers four primitive sites back in the woods.
Alderman’s Ford Conversation Park is an 1,140-acre park in Hillsborough County, about an hour east of Tampa on South County Road 39.
The park has a paved multi-use trail for hikers, bicycles, strollers and wheelchairs with restrooms and a picnic area at the path entrance. The trail is a 1.8-mile loop that passes under County Road 39, then swings back under CR 39 to main section of the park. The Alafia River meanders along with you, and every so often you come across an exercise station to burn off excess energy.
The campground trail is a dirt/grass road that is easy to hike but could be challenging for elderly or those with disabilities. It is smooth enough, however, to allow you to pull a gear cart rather than backpacking everything in.
The four campsites are about 15 minutes down the trail and relatively close together. The sites are marked, though I did go straight when I should have gone left and found myself in a field. But that mistake only cost a few minutes off my trip.
The sites do not have potable water, but they do have fire pits and picnic tables. My site had hammock stands and a pole to lift my backpack away from critters.
Restrooms are back at the junction with the main trail, about 15 minutes away, and there is a water fountain at the restroom for drinking water.
There is plenty of room for tents. I’m a hammock camper, and after hanging my hammock, I proceeded to getting the camp settled and started to collect firewood.
This was a little more difficult than other sites I’ve visited because the park and trails are kept clear of fallen wood. In general, you are not supposed to pick up wood for campfires, but rangers generally accept a little clearing of the path when there’s fallen wood that blocks access.
Still, the rangers at Alderman’s Ford do a pretty good job of keeping paths clear, so firewood could be scarce.
After I barbecued a pork loin and grilled brussels sprouts, I went for a short walk and passed a Boy Scout Troop at another site. They seemed to be involved in some sort of merit badge activity.
Along the path, I heard a few armadillos hunting dinner in the brush and a couple of owls trading hoots as nightfall neared. Back at camp, I built up the fire again and pulled out a book to read, taking breaks for a little stargazing.
As I was sitting quietly in the woods, I heard a motor approaching, then a blaze of headlights, and a man appeared on an ATV. He was using his flashlight to glance around my campsite and identified himself as park security. I asked him what he was looking for, and he replied “just making sure all the park rules were being followed.”
As quickly as he came, he left.
I have to say that 10 o’clock at night was not the most welcome camp visitor I have had. If I was in a tent sleeping when he arrived, I would have been quite uneasy.
There was a heavy downpour during the night, so I laid garbage bags over the firewood and my backpack, cocooning in my hammock. I didn’t feel a drop.
In the morning, I made breakfast sausage in the the fire pit while my alcohol stove was busy making coffee. It was almost 8 am and I didn’t hear a peep from the Boy Scouts. I guess only older guys like me get up early. Where did I put my book again?
By noon, I had the camp packed and doing my final inspection to check for garbage or anything I may have left behind, and I was back at the car by 1.
Campsites are $12 per night for up to 6 people, reservations are required. Call the ranger station at Alderman’s Ford Conservation Park, 9625 Canoe Launch Rd, Lithia, FL at (813) 757-3801
Paddling the Alafia River
Alderson’s Ford Conservation Park is the official launch point for the state-designated Alafia River Paddle Trail, which ends 10.5 miles downstream at Lithia Springs Park. It is rated beginner to intermediate, moderately swift with a half-dozen whitewater riffles along the way.
This section of the river is quite scenic dominated by live oak and cypress, and much of the woodlands on high banks.
Although portions of the river’s shoreline is private property, much of it is publicly owned and managed by Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The boat launch is a 5 minute-walk/portage from the main parking lot, and is positioned on a finger inlet off the river with a dock.
Canoe and kayak rentals are not available at the park, but the park is served by a private concession called Alafia Canoe Rentals at 4419 River Road, Valrico, about 5 miles west on Lithia Pinecrest Road, just south of Alderman’s Ford.
For an excellent description of kayaking opportunities along the Alafia River (and elsewhere in Florida), it might be worth your while to purchase a popular and detailed guide, “Canoeing and Kayaking in Florida” by Elizabeth Carter, Lou Glaros, John Pence, Doug Spahr and Johnny Milloy. $17.95 on Amazon.
Hiking and biking
As mentioned earlier, the multi-use trail at Alderman’s Ford is a 1.8-mile loop with a boardwalk span in the middle.
Although the boardwalk will temporarily close this summer on weekdays, it will be reopened for weekend hikers through September 2018.
On days the boardwalk is closed, you will still be able to hike or bike along the trail up on either side of the boardwalk but will have to turn back.
The campsite trail not affected by the construction. For more details, call the park at (813) 757-3801.
The trail meanders along the Alafia River for much of the way, and there are several benches that provide an opportunity to pause for bird watching or quietly observing wildlife in the woods.
There is a $2.00 parking fee for day visitors.
Alderman’s Ford Conservation Park, 9625 Canoe Launch Rd, Lithia, FL 33547. Phone: (813) 757-3801
Bob Rountree contributed to this article.