As we head north through Florida this spring there are many places we want to visit. Places where we can paddle around crystal clear springs and swim with manatees. Places where the bike trails are rumored to be fantastic and wild horses roam the prairie. We also wanted to check out more of that free Florida camping that we enjoyed way back in December. But there’s just not enough time to do it all. Becuase while we’ve discovered this year that Florida is more diverse than it appears at first glance, the truth is that after nearly five months in this state we’re more than ready to move on. We’re craving mountains (or at least hills), wide open vistas and some cool, crisp air that isn’t full of stinging insects.
So with the urge to head north in full force, we choose two more state parks to visit and decide that will be it for our time in Florida this year. First up is Hillsborough River State Park.
To be honest, it wasn’t our first choice. I really, really wanted to stay at Rainbow Springs SP, but as our visit coincided with Easter and yet another school spring break there was not a site to had at the popular park. So we settled on our second choice where we snagged the very last site that was open for the week. I use the word settled very lightly as Hillsborough turned out to be a gorgeous park full of towering, moss-draped trees that provided us a welcome respite from the mid-April heat.
We ended up with site 84 in the Hammock Circle loop. It was one of those sites that had everything against it — situated at the beginning of the loop where everyone had to drive past, inside the loop with no privacy, and within sight of the bathroom. But somehow it turned out to be a great home for the week. Our location at the start of the loop meant that we had no neighbors on the side that our door opened to, and the wide expanse behind us made it feel like we had a giant backyard.
Aside from the camping area, Hillsborough River is a big park with lots to keep the campers busy. There are trails for hiking and biking, a river for kayaking and fishing, and even a massive in-ground swimming pool. Unfortunately, it was not yet open for the season. We heard that it doesn’t open until the unheated water temperature maintains at 70 degrees. Which is too bad because it was near 90 every day making a swim sound very appealing. But I guess with it dipping into the low 60s at night that’s not enough to keep it warm. I am not usually a fan of public pools — especially ones at campgrounds — but this pool looked really inviting.
During our stay we hiked and biked all the trails, even making our way over to nearby Dead River Park on our bikes one day. My bike got a flat tire about halfway through the ride, and while we had a patch kit with us neither of us felt like dealing with it so we simply walked back. Biking is fun and a good way to get some exercise when all the hiking trails are as flat as a pancake, but sometimes I’m so focused watching the ground that I miss the scenery.
By far the most surprising thing about the Hillsborough River State Park was the river itself. One afternoon we took a two-hour paddle through the crystal clear water. Along the way, we saw lots of marine life including tons of fish — a few that were really big — a handful of turtles, and at least half a dozen gators.
While the Hillsborough River flows all the way to Tampa Bay, from the state park you can only go about 2.5 miles downstream to Dead River Park. Here is where the Seventeen Runs section of the river begins. It is only recommended that you paddle this part with a guide due to the numerous and confusing branches where people have been known to get lost. I thought that limitation would lead to a disappointingly short paddle, but by the time we leisurely paddled to the turn abound point we were both ready to go back.
Up next: We spend a day in the city before heading about as far north as we can get without leaving Florida.