The humidity in Florida has been less repressive for the last week. So, taking advantage of the slightly comfortable weather and needing to break in my new hiking boots, I set out to visit the Hillsborough River State Park.
The chaos of Tampa melts into the background as you turn off Highway 301, and towering pine trees act as guardians shielding you from the outside world. Palmetto bushes neatly hugged the edge of the grass on the way to the ranger station. A $4 entrance fee for a day full of hiking and outdoor activities feels like a steal. I gathered my bearings on where to park and ultimately decided on Parking Lot 3 (P3), the largest and most central to the Hillsborough River State Park amenities and with access to most trailheads.
Day Hiking Itinerary
There are five trails within the Hillsborough River State Park, ranging from easy to strenuous. If you are looking to spend the day hiking the park, I suggest sticking to the three closest to the Hillsborough River: Baynard Trail, Rapids Trail, & Seminole Trail. Currently, the only access to the Northside of the river is at the suspension bridge. This bridge is centrally located around the starting points for all three trails. The entrance to the suspension bridge is framed by thick, soaring poles creating an arch over the stairway leading upwards to the bridge.
Walking through the arch and over the bridge felt like I was entering into an enchanted forest. The only difference was instead of magic fairies flying around, there were giant, bird-sized, blood-thirsty mosquitoes. They didn’t seem to bother me as long as I kept moving. But, on the occasions I stopped to take in the view, these determined little bloodsuckers swarmed to make a meal out of me. I may have been prepared with my new hiking boots but did not consider applying bug spray. True to my brand, I always forget something. Don’t be like me; coat yourself in mosquito repellent before heading out on the trails.
Rapids Trail – Easy 1.2 Miles
The Rapids Trail is located to the south of the Hillsborough River. The banks of the Rapids Trail are elevated above the river, keeping the path mostly dry. This is where you’ll get your first glimpse of the river’s blackwater silently meandering below. Elevated walkways snake along the edge of the river as the path leads you to the rapids area.
The sound of the rapids was jarring. Florida rivers and streams are silent slow creatures, forcefully cutting through the limestone floor of the surrounding landscape. Staring at the rapids bubbling over the rocks and fallen branches, I looked back at the trail and thought, “I must have stepped through a wormhole leading me to a river in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.” The sight of palmetto bushes and a sign warning visitors not to get close to the alligators snapped me back into reality. This was definitely Florida.
Baynard Trail – Easy 1.1 Miles
Once I completed the Rapids Trail, I crossed over the suspension bridge to the north side of the river. The word suspension should have been a clue that this bridge would move under my feet. Yet, it wasn’t until a family with excited kids started bouncing across the bridge that it dawned on me, “this bridge moves slightly.” A dramatic scene of me hanging from the side of the bridge with one hand firmly grasping a frayed rope, desperately reaching for the hand of someone to pull me up, while hungry alligators gathered below, flashed before my eyes.
Moving bridges and squealing kids are my cue to keep it moving. The Baynard Trail is a notch higher in difficulty than Rapids Trail simply because there are areas of mud in the path that have been rooted in by wild hogs. Palm fronds were cut and placed over the path to make walking over these areas much more manageable. They’re like nature’s pavers for swamps.
Out of the three hikes, this was my favorite trail. It’s just over a mile long with minimal challenges in the mud. In some parts of the trial, there were wooden plank walkways hovering just above the water. Evergreen trees form a thick canopy of shade over the trail, allowing only small dots of blue sky to shine through. This trail has the least amount of time by the river but makes up for it in the beauty of the thick forest surrounding you at every turn.
Seminole Trail – Moderate 3.4 Miles
Once warmed up from hiking the Rapids and Baynard Trail, I felt prepared for the much longer Seminole Trail. What I was not prepared for was the amount of mud on the northern side of the hike. I picked the right trail to put my new boots to the test. Any other sneaker or hiking sandal would have left me with cinderblock shoes, heavy and wet, with mud-caked around the outside. A whole forest of palm frond leaves couldn’t save me from stepping in the mud in some spots.
While the north half was a mud pit, the majority of the Seminole Trail was dry and offered expansive, unobstructed views of the river. The Hillsborough River State Park is just a few miles from the constant swirling of cars on the interstate. Still, the squirrels jumping from tree to tree above my head was the only sound on this trail. The tall grass sizzled across the side of my pants as I wandered along the path. Although I forgot bug spray, I didn’t forget to wear long pants to prevent ticks from hitchhiking home with me.
In comparison to the other two trails, this trail had a few differences. At times there were small hills to climb, which is a nice change of pace after walking for miles on flat land. In some areas, the trail kisses the water’s edge. I was almost too scared to look directly into the darkness of the water, afraid I would see unwavering evil lurking from below the water. I may not have seen an alligator along my hike, but I’m sure they saw me as I scampered by.
There are two additional trails on the southern side of the Hillsborough River State Park: the Wetlands Trail (1.6 Miles, easy) and the Fort King Trail (6.7 Miles, strenuous). These would be great additional hikes if I decided to camp for the weekend.
Other Outdoor Activities within the Hillsborough River State Park
Campground Camping – Hillsborough River State Park offers 112 sites for either RV or tent camping. Each site comes with all the comforts of home: a fire ring, picnic table, and water. Electric hook-ups are available at most (but not all) sites. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance.
Primitive Camping – The primitive camping site is 1.5 miles into the Seminole trail. This campsite comes with none of the comforts of home: no restroom, electricity, or running water. Campers must call 24 hours before their scheduled reservation for an update on the site conditions. The primitive campsite is prone to flooding and will close if conditions are deemed unsafe by the Rangers (I wasn’t joking about the amount of mud on this trail). Campers must also check in with the ranger station before hiking to the primitive campsite location.
Biking – There are two areas to explore by bicycle. The central loop within the park is 2.2 miles. This loop has a wide bike lane to allow bicycles and cars to comfortably travel on the same road. Visitors can access all the playground, pavilions, and trailheads by following the central loop. Depending on your bicycle’s capabilities, Hillsborough River State Park has one off-roading trail for bikes. The only trail designated for biking is the Wetlands Trail (1.6 miles out and back).
Kayaking / Canoeing – Visitors can launch their kayak or canoe at one of two launches. Those camping in the campsite have access to the canoe launch located within the campground. Other visitors can park in parking area 4 and use the cameo launch by pavilion 26. Paddling down the Hillsborough River is a unique opportunity to see the best of Florida’s wildlife. I would guarantee an alligator sighting while spending an afternoon peacefully floating down the river.
Interested in reading more hiking related blog post? You don’t want to miss these past blog post: Sequoia National Park – One Day Hiking Itinerary and Hiking In Grand Canyon National Park – South Kaibab Trail and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve – A Pacific Coast Highway Stop.
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