Hillsborough River State Park: An Oasis Near Tampa, FloridaJanuary 18, 2011 No Comments
Just minutes from crowded downtown Tampa, Hillsborough River State Park is a world away. The park won numerous awards in 2010 from ReserveAmerica, the national online campground reservation system. Hillsborough River was ranked #30 of the Top 50 Scenic Views, #15 of the Top 100 Family Campgrounds, #5 in the Top 25 Tours and Events, and #1 in both the Top 25 Canoeing Spots and the Top 25 Water Recreation Parks. Due to its location, Hillsborough River State Park is open year-round.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Hillsborough River State Park opened to the public in 1938. It was one of the eight original state parks in Florida. The Hillsborough River runs through the park, creating a small set of rapids. The park has been updated numerous times over the years, but many of the original buildings remain. The original concession stand is now a pavilion, while the old park entrance houses a small museum. The original suspension bridge is readily accessible via a short walk from one of the parking lots.
The land on which Hillsborough River State Park now sits formerly belonged to the Seminole tribe. Conflicts between the Seminoles and the settlers erupted after Florida became a United States territory, and when the US government decided to move the Seminoles west, the Second Seminole War began. A fort was constructed along the river between Fort Brooke (modern day Tampa) and Fort King (modern day Ocala) to protect the bridge from Seminole attacks. That fort was abandoned and soon replaced by Fort Foster. Today the park offers guided tours of the reconstructed Fort Foster.
Canoeing and kayaking are among the park’s biggest draws. The river boasts one of the few Class II rapids in Florida. Canoes are not permitted through that section of the river. More than seven miles of hiking trails lead to picturesque hideaways. However, approximately a quarter of the park is in a flood zone, so it is important to check with the ranger station for updated weather information, particularly during spring and summer.
An ADA-accessible half-acre swimming pool, a playground complete with swings, an interpretive museum and numerous picnic spots are among the park’s offerings. Campfire programs are offered most weekends. Bicycles and canoes are available for rent at the well-stocked camp store. A quick-service restaurant is open year-round.
Whether you prefer to travel with a tent or a large motor home, the Hillsborough River State Park can accommodate you. Unlike many state parks, the park has sites for RVs up to 50 feet in length. The campground consists of two heavily wooded loops, offering a real back to nature experience. All sites offer electric and water hookups, and a dump station is located between the two loops. Some sites are a fairly long walk from the restroom facilities, so choose your campsite carefully if this is a concern.
The restrooms provide flush toilets and hot showers. All campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. Pets are permitted, but must be physically under your control at all times. You are expected to clean up after your pet.
Tips for Parents
Hillsborough River State Park is just minutes from downtown Tampa, making it an ideal location for those who want to combine city sightseeing and old-fashioned fun into a single trip. The park is extremely popular, so book as far ahead of your stay as possible. Campsites are $26.88 per night with tax as of 2011. Senior citizens and those with proof of disability who are Florida residents qualify for half-price camping. Each site can accommodate two tents or an RV and one tent.
Whether you are camping at the park or simply visiting for the day, keep in mind that the park is home to a wide variety of native plants and animals. Poison ivy, spiders, snakes and other hazards are always a possibility. Teach your kids to respect the natural world, but be careful not to induce fear.
Set age-appropriate ground rules before your trip. Are your kids permitted to leave the campsite without you? How far can they roam? Are they allowed to try building a campfire? What about cooking over the fire? Talking through your expectations at the outset can prevent arguments during the trip.
Even if you have an RV outfitted with all the latest gadgets, don’t let your kids stay cooped up inside. Take the Fort Foster tour. Participate in the campfire programs. Rent a canoe or go swimming in the pool. Kids are great at finding ways to entertain themselves outside, so set up some camp chairs and keep an eye on them.
Be sure to pack plenty of lighting if you will be spending the night. The park gets extremely dark at night, so everyone needs a flashlight for restroom trips. You will also need lanterns for campsite illumination, and battery-operated lighting if you are sleeping in tents. Even in Florida, the ground can get cold, so pack camping pads and spare blankets.
Hillsborough River State Park is a true throwback to a different era. Bring your camera and plenty of spare batteries, since you never know when a photo opportunity will arise.