Hillsborough River State Park

By Dr. Rob Norman

A couple years ago, my outdoors buddy Ed and I decided we wanted to kayak the entire Hillsborough River, from the origins in the Green Swamp down to Tampa Bay. Whenever we could get on the river, over many days and weekends, we accomplished the task. We are paddling again or exploring for the first time now many portions of the river and tributary creeks.

The Hillsborough River flows 56 miles from its head waters in the Green Swamp to its mouth in Tampa Bay, and its watershed extends over parts of three counties, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk. The history of human activity in Hillsborough River State Park dates to prehistoric times when native peoples hunted, fished and foraged along the river’s flood plain. In the late 1700’s, Wills Hills, the British Colonial Secretary, and Lord Earl of Hillsborough, were given jurisdiction over the area; after they sent surveyors to report on the new colony, the river needed a name—they titled it the Hillsborough. Many events occurred over the years, including the building of forts and bridges during the Seminole wars. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the area surrounding the river was established as a public park.

As we have explored this magical river, the offerings of nature have been both varied and eye-opening, including a series of rapids created by the river as it flows over outcroppings of Suwannee limestone. We have paddled over the challenging waters of the 17 Runs, which took many hours of hard work, pulling our kayaks over logs, and portaging to get down the river.

Cypress trees with glistening knees, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks fill the woods on any trip down the river. Animals include turtles, woodpeckers, owls, turkeys, deer, and occasional alligators. Limpkins, herons, egrets, anhingas, and many other varieties of Florida bird life fill the air with flight and sound.

One of the roughest portions for me was closer to downtown, along the University of Tampa and along the urban buildings and cement borders that line the shores; when the big boats come by, they provide a white-water experience that requires extra caution and no inviting shores for respite. Unless you like this kind of adventure, I would advise you to paddle in the more scenic and natural domains of the river!

The Hillsborough River was chosen by Canoe & Kayak Magazine as one of “North America’s Best Close to Home Paddling Adventures,” and once you experience its beauty you may be forever hooked.  Get out and paddle, hike, fish, take pictures, or picnic and enjoy the great outdoors of Florida!