Thursday, April 16, 2009

Florida State Parks: Hillsborough River

Writing about Hillsborough River State Park is not exactly like directing you to an undiscovered gem of which few people are aware.

One of Florida’s most visited state parks, it sits about a half-hour from downtown Tampa, within the shadow of a metropolitan area that has more than three million people. But its popularity is driven by much more than its closeness to a population center, for it is one of the most complete parks you will ever see.

One thing that is very impressive given its location is how much of a wilderness the park is. In some places it features riverine forests and cypress swamps, while in others it features spacious oak hammocks that look beautiful when dappled by the morning sun. It also has dry areas where longleaf pines rise above fields of palmetto. And running through the center of it all is the Hillsborough River itself, at one point coursing over limestone outcrops to create something rarely seen in Florida: rapids.

The Hillsborough is an excellent canoeing river downstream from the rapids. It flows steadily, yet seems laconic, perhaps because many of the things you see along it lend a tropical feel – things like wading ibis, basking turtles, or the occasional palm tree.

And then there are the alligators, which live along the Hillsborough in great numbers as if to emphasize its wildness. I have never paddled it without seeing at least one gator, nor has anyone else I know, and you can tell from this picture that I’m not talking about little ones.

Four hiking trails lace through the park, including a six-mile backpacking loop on which wild coffee can be seen growing at trailside. The 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Trail is recommended for bicycling.

The main day use area” has pavilions, picnic tables, and a playground. It also has a recreation hall that can be rented. Meanwhile, it has a suspension bridge for walking across the river and steps for walking down to it.

Plus, there’s an enormous swimming pool that covers a half-acre next to a cafe and store, with a fee of just $2 per day. This is very good if you bring the kids, especially if you’re bringing them to camp for a few days.

And speaking of camping, Hillsborough River’s two-loop campground has a very good reputation. I must admit I think it’s only average, because we have stayed in places where the individual campsites have much better foliage buffers between them, but don’t get me wrong – we’ve enjoyed camping here in the past and have plans to camp here again in November, so it’s definitely worth it. The park as a whole is so outstanding you won’t even care if your campsite is average.

Canoes and bikes can be rented while you’re here. Although rental rates are not posted on the park’s web site, I can tell you that when we were here last fall, canoes were $10 for one hour and $25 for four hours.

Meanwhile, history buffs will like to know that the park is home to Fort Foster, a replica of a fort that stood here during the Second Seminole War in the 1800’s. However, it is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Guided tours of it are $2 for people 13 and over, and $1 for children ages 5 to 12.

This is a place where you get a lot of bang for a little buck. And if you want to read about our trip here last fall, this is where I wrote about it.

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