Hillsborough River State Park

photo of downtown Tampa / Tanwater.com
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Tampa is a modern city of about 350,000 people on the west coast of the Florida peninsula. Who would think that only about 20 miles away one could find a crystal clear sub-tropical river flowing through a quiet jungle filled with birds and wildlife? Hillsborough River State Park is one of the oldest and most beautiful parks in Florida!

photo of the Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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The Hillsborough River originates in a cold clear spring and runs through the Hillsborough River State Park. Depending on the water level, the upper part of the river in the park has small, gurgling rapids where it flows over the limestone outcroppings in the river bed. Lush growth on the banks hangs out over the running water. Trails in the park allow easy access to the river where hikers may explore the river and surrounding area. The trails are well kept and easily traveled on foot or by bike, and are handicap accessible. Some of the trails follow the course of the river closely while other trails wind through the heavily wooded area adjacent to the river banks. Several bridges cross the river to allow access to trails on the other side. Most of the trails are less than two miles long. Benches placed at intervals give hikers a place to rest and observe the plants, birds, and trees at leisure. Trails are well marked and maps are posted at the entrances to the trails. Maps are also available from the Ranger Station at the park entrance.

photo of palm hanging over calm water of Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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Canoe rentals are available inside the park. There are also canoe launch sites where visitors may put their own canoes or kayaks in the river. Exploring the river by water is easy and very scenic. Palm trees hang over the water which is so clear that fish can be seen several feet below the surface. Alligators may be seen sunning on logs or on the small sandbars along the sides of the river. Large wading birds feed in the shallows. The foliage is bright green through-out the year. Winters are very mild in central Florida. Aquatic plants grow along the banks and in large rocks which stick above water. Visitors paddling along the river in a canoe must be careful not to hit some of the rocks which are just below the surface, but the water is moving at a leisurely pace so there is little danger of flipping over.

photo of ibis feeding on the Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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Ibis and herons feed in clear water along the river and are used to seeing canoes pass. They will not fly away unless they are approached too closely. Woodpeckers, jays, hawks, and many other birds make their home in the park. Squirrels are abundant in the trees along the river. Fishing is allowed and it is easy for an experienced fisherman to catch the many types of fish living in the cool, clear water. Fishermen must have a valid Florida fishing license, but children under 16 years of age are exempt from license requirements. A non-resident fishing license can be purchased at county tax collectors offices or any authorized licensing agency in the state.

photo of Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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The character of the Hillsborough River changes several times as it moves through the park. Along some stretches of the river are rocks just below the surface and the current moves at a fast pace due to the shallow depth of the water. In other stretches of the river the water is much deeper and the current is sluggish. Swampy side channels open into the forest on the sides of the river which flood when the river level is high and leave standing pools of water when the river level drops. The wetland hammocks on both sides of the river are ideal locations for cypress, palms, and other tress that grow in wet areas. Shallow flooded areas become breeding grounds for fish and amphibians, but are also good breeding grounds for mosquitoes. In addition to sun block, visitors to the park should keep some insect repellent handy.

photo Hillsborough River canoe lanch / Tanwater.com
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The main canoe and kayak launch is in a calm water section of the river. Canoes, life vests, paddles, fishing supplies, and other equipment that might be needed can be rented at the park gift shop near the canoe launch. No swimming is allowed in the river, as it is the home of some very large alligators. A nice, big swimming pool is located behind the gift shop for those who want to get wet. The gift shop includes a snack bar, and also souvenirs and art featuring local landscapes.

photo aquatic plants Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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Hiking trails in the park wind through the forests along the river banks and are very scenic, but only by canoe or kayak can visitors get a close up view of the aquatic plants and wildlife of the river. Quietly paddling down the waterway is a wonderful, calming experience. Those who feel confident enough in a canoe or have a water-proof camera should have it with them on the canoe trip. Moving slowly and quietly down the river might present a chance for a picture of large wading birds or an alligator sunning on the bank. The river current is slow enough so the return trip up-river is almost as effortless as drifting downstream.

photo nature walk Hillsborough River State Park  / Tanwater.com
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Hiking trails on both sides of the river are wide and relatively level. Bicycles can easily negotiate the main trails. Where the trails cross side channels and low areas there are wooden walkways to cross over the depressions. Trails are interconnected so that hikers may choose to travel the shorter trails only or plan a longer hike covering several trails at once. Placards along the trails give information about some of the trees, plants, birds, and animals of the area. At several points along the trails the sound of water rushing over rocks can be heard. Farther from the river, insect and bird calls are the only sounds which break the silence of the forest. A swinging suspension bridge connects the trail to the other bank of the river and other trails at one point. Hikers who take the longest trails should carry drinking water with them. Comfortable footwear is also recommended for the trails.

photo Hillsborough State Park picnic / Tanwater.com
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A large area of the park consists of a well laid out picnic and recreation area. Several tables with benches are scattered throughout, some right out in the open where you can sit in the sun, others under shady trees, yet others secluded in corners, sitting under palm trees. These tables and benches are made of large rocks cemented together, topped with slabs of concrete, looking like they belong in a fairy tale book. A playground is nearby, with swings, slides and monkey bars. Restrooms and running water are near the picnic area. Grills are available at some sites. The picnic area is centrally located at a point where most of the nature trails converge. There is a large paved parking lot nearby with plenty of parking space. Large oak trees draped with spanish moss, hickory, and palm trees provide plenty of shade. Just down the road from the picnic area a shady campground is located on the river bank. Campsites have power, water, and a fire ring with grill. The campground is layed out in three loops with a canoe launch and fishing deck on one of the loops just for campers. Bath houses are in area each not far from any of the campsites.

photo upper Hillsborough River / Tanwater.com
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The nature trails follow the course of the upper part of the Hillsborough River and loop around the forests on both sides of the river. At the most scenic points are walkways which extend out from the river banks for an excellent view of the small rapids. The sound of the rushing water can be heard from quite a long distance away as hikers approach the rapids. Near the rapids the air is cool and damp. Hikers can rest a while to enjoy the beautiful scenery and relax to the sound of clear water rushing over the rocks. Hillsborough River State Park is one of the most beautiful parks in Florida and should be on the list of places to visit for anyone vacationing in the Sunshine State!

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Graywolf / 2007 / Edited by Riki