Hillsborough River State Park covers nearly 3383 acres, 1040 of which are upland, with the remaining acreage being submerged or mostly wet. The park is located off of Highway 301 about 15 minutes North of Tampa. Hillsborough River State Park is composed of Pine Flat-woods, mature hardwood hammocks, and low floodplain swamp. The park was opened in 1938 and was one of the earliest Florida “New Deal” projects according to the Florida State Parks website.
All types of camping are available at Hillsborough River, from primitive camping to RV sites with full hook-ups. You have to hike in to reach the primitive camp, but maybe that’s the idea if you really want to get the full experience of primitive camping. We didn’t personally walk to the camp so can’t offer any specific details as to what it’s like. The main campground looks to have taken some damage from Mathew and Irma the last couple of years, but nothing that would interfere with camping now. Many of the sites had large sections of oak or pine trees bordering their edges. I’m guessing it was easier to use them than move them after they came down. A few buildings had tarps on their rooftops.
The camp sites were for the most part pretty level. One fairly significant issue you’re likely to encounter at this campground in the summer rainy season is minor flooding. Being from Florida ourselves, we know to expect summer storms in the afternoon, but the layout of this particular area seems to exacerbate the situation a little. The sites that sit to the inside of the camp site loops probably held the least water while it was raining, but they also have the fewest trees, shade, etc.
If privacy is an important aspect of your personal camping experience, the outer sites may be your best bet. You may have to make a concession one way or the other. Either deal with the water buildup on the outside when it rains hard, or deal with the lack of privacy on the spots with better drainage on the inside.
Our site had water up to about 4 inches deep thanks to rafts of leaves creating dams. We cleared the dams and created a small trench to drain the fire pond… I mean pit… that looked like a pond… The site drained fairly quickly thanks to our efforts. We kept our wood covered and elevated so we had a fire going strong before the rain had even completely subsided.
Approximately seven miles of trails meander through the old growth woods and along the river’s edge. We didn’t have the opportunity to explore the trails, but these particular trails along the river appeared from the canoe to be more suitable for hiking than biking. The wetlands trail is said to be appropriate for mountain biking, but as a result of our short stay there wasn’t time to check it out. A bike lane runs the entire look of the paved road in the park. The area around the campground has some fairly open woods that looked ripe for exploration on foot, but if you do so I advise taking precautions against ticks, chiggers and as always watch for snakes. There are fitness stations at some of the viewing platforms around the park, so as you make your way around to check out the natural sights, you can enhance your workout at the same time.
As you can see, Florida always offers a large supply of crawly critters, but Hillsborough River State Park offers opportunities to view a wide range of wildlife. Bird watchers might see large read-headed woodpeckers, wading birds, hawks, and many other species of birds. Feral hogs abound on the property, to include the campground areas. Sows with babies can be very aggressive, so steer clear if you see them. There were clear signs of fresh hog rooting a few camp sites down from our own, so no doubt they are there in the evenings. Alligators are a possibility in any of the bodies of water on the property, so keep an eye out and never feed them.
If you walk, bike, or drive around the park loop in the early morning or late afternoon, you may find a rabbit, deer, or feral hog feeding just around the next corner. We caught a pretty little doe feeding in the median around the parking area near the pool, and had a quick sighting of a rabbit as it darted back into the brush.
Don’t think I don’t hear you back there…
Fishing – Canoeing – Kayaking
The park has canoe and kayak rentals at the park store, or a small launch area for those who bring their own.
The supply is limited if you do want to rent canoes or kayaks, so earlier is better to be sure to get a ride. There seemed to be more kayaks available than canoes. They actually ran out of canoes while we were on the water, and when we returned with ours someone else was in line waiting to take it. The canoe’s are just a little “tippy” at first, but we got used to it and stayed upright the entire ride with only one close call. I have seen many couples canoeing or kayaking together over the years, and for some it seems to truly test the relationship. Luckily, Michelle and I are great boat companions and seem to stay pretty well in sync when on the water. So far we have come out of our aqua adventures largely unscathed mentally and physically!
The ride down was calm and slow. We mostly drifted with the current for the two miles you can travel with park equipment. We threw a couple of lures around along the way but didn’t have any luck. Obviously the trip back against the current is more challenging, but it wasn’t that bad. The store employees told us that we couldn’t paddle north from the launch because it gets too shallow, and the rapids, which are said to be Florida’s only Class 2 rapids, are protected.
The river offers a number of freshwater fish species for those who enjoy fishing. Large-mouth bass, catfish, pan fish, gars, and the ever aggressive Shoepick, a.k.a. Bowfin, a.k.a. Mudfish. We caught a Shoepick of about 3 or 4 lbs in a small shallow stretch of backwater right behind our camper. If you aren’t looking to eat everything you catch, they’re a great fight. If you’re a Cajun you just might have a family recipe for them! Michelle and I saw a fish chasing bait along the opposite bank from us at the public kayak launch in the late afternoon. I threw a floating frog lure about six inches off of that bank, and in the blink of an eye a fish absolutely crushed the lure! The fish was so large that when I attempted to set the hook, I cracked my rod in half and the plastic frog came flying back at me! I’m guessing it was a fairly large gar.
No hunting allowed.
Hillsborough State Park is not open to foraging. You are free to explore and identify, but items can’t be removed from the park. There were numerous mushrooms and other forage foods to look for and identify around the area. I found several types of mushrooms in the campground alone, some of which are edible or medicinal, but as stated couldn’t take them. Below are some the the more visually appealing mushrooms we came across.
The campground has a large pool that serves 261 guests. The pool increases gradually in depth from the outside toward the center from about six inches deep to five feet deep in the center. The pool does require a separate fee of $4 per person per day. There are additional fees for lawn chairs, and no outside food or drink is allowed in. There is a small dining area and kitchen in the store at the pool that serves basic sandwiches and sides. Lunch would probably average about $10 or $12 per person. Park admission is $6 per vehicle.
Many of the original facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group who built this and other state parks as part of the “New Deal” works in Florida, remain on the property today. I love the idea that since the day the park opened, everyone who has gone through the gates at Hillsborough River State Park has seen largely the same sights, just as the designers intended them to be seen. There is a replica of Fort Foster on park grounds that is open to the public. The fort was used during the second Seminole war and is said to have protected an area of the river frequently used for crossings. Paid tours are available on weekends or by reservation.
Location and Links:
Hillsborough River State Park – 15402 U.S. 301 North Thonosassa, Florida 33592
Information on pool operations and closures is available at the National State Park Concession office: 813-986-6772. Park entrance fees are not refunded for patrons unable to enter pool once capacity has been reached.
Trail Map Link – FloridaHikes.com