It's hot and humid, hardly a day for a hike. But don't be fooled by appearances. There's another world waiting to be discovered out there under the trees. Step off the blacktop and on to the trail. You'll find the temperature cooler, the air a little fresher, in the shade. No need to travel far.
Hillsborough River State Park, one of nine original Florida state parks, lies about a half-hour north of downtown Tampa. The park is so close and convenient you can pack a pair of comfortable shoes in your trunk and head out for a quick hike after work.
The Florida Trail Association oversees more than 1,500 miles of well-maintained trails that stretch from the Everglades to the Panhandle. The park has four trails ranging in length from 1.1 miles to 3.4 miles (including one segment that is part of the FT) that can easily be linked together for an all-day adventure.
One of the most popular is the River Rapids Nature Trail that leads hikers down to the Hillsborough's Class II rapids, a rare sight in Florida. Get there early in the morning and you stand a good chance of seeing a pair of river otters that love to play among the rocks.
To start your hike, park in lot number two and follow the signs to the River Rapids Nature Trail. Before you head into the forest, take a moment to read the "Prayer of the Woods" sign posted at the trail head. It will put you in the right frame of mind. Follow the trail to the water, then along the river. Keep an eye on the trees overhead for everything from pileated woodpeckers to red-shouldered hawks. Deep under the canopy, you may spot barred owls and wild turkey as well.
Don't worry about the suspension bridge, it is sturdier than it looks and it will take you to the Baynard Trail, named after Oscar E. Baynard, the park's first superintendent who served from 1938-1945.
Halfway through the Baynard Trail, you'll see the blue blazes of a link trail, which will lead you to a 3.4 mile segment of the orange-blazed Florida Trail. About a mile into this segment, you will find a primitive campsite, perfect for beginning backpackers. The remaining two miles of trail meanders about 20 feet above the river, providing a perfect opportunity for gator spotting.
The Wetlands Restoration Nature Trail, a 1.6-mile segment that links Dead River County Park with the parking lot west of the ranger station, is really a dirt road available to bikers and hikers.
The upper reaches of the Hillsborough River may look inviting, but swimming is prohibited. Agricultural lands upstream have affected the river's water quality. The river is also known for its large gators, some of which have been removed over the years due to aggressive behavior.
Hillsborough River State Park is located 9 miles north of Tampa and 6 miles south of Zephyrhills on U.S. 301. From Interstate 75, northbound from Tampa take the Fowler Avenue exit (Exit 265) east to U.S. 301, travel north for 9 miles, and the park will be on the left side.
Hillsborough River State Park, 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassa, FL 33592, (813) 987-6771