Exploring the Hillsborough River by Canoe

Red Belly Turtle

There’s more to Tampa, Florida, than Busch Gardens, beaches and shopping. Researching things to do during our days off in the area, we discovered that the Hillsborough River is a popular destination for canoeing and kayaking. The River flows from the Green Swamp near the origin of the Withlacoochee River (near Lakeland Florida) over 50 miles to Hillsborough Bay (in Tampa). Paddling the river offers a look at natural Florida, a peek into what it must have used to look and feel like long ago.

Donny on the Hillsborough River

Hillsborough River History

Native Americans originally used the Hillsborough River for food and transportation. Later, Spanish and British explorers and colonists did the same. In the 1800s, the area was key during the Second Seminole War, when American military forces sought to remove and relocate Native Americans from Florida. Historically, the land was covered with old-growth forest. Logging changed the ecosystem drastically, as faster-growing species took over when bald cypress, longleaf pine and live oak were removed. Most of the trees in the Hillsborough River Basin today are less than 100 years old. Hardwoods line the river’s edge, and all sorts of animals and birds make their homes along the swampy banks.

Tamara and alligator

Getting out on the Hillsborough River

We tried first to go to Hillsborough State Park, but the ranger informed us the concession that rents canoes there is only open until 2 pm on weekdays (open til 5 pm on weekends).  She did tell us that there was a family-owned business just a few miles down the road that would be able to help get us out on the river. Canoe Escape is located in John B. Sargeant Park (12702 US 301, Thonotosassa, FL), a 16,000 acre nature preserve, just south of the State Park, a the confluence of Flint Creek and the Hillsborough River. The friendly young guys on duty set us up with a canoe and paddles, and we were off. For birds, we saw many white ibis, great blue heron, some egrets and an anhinga (American darter turkey) drying his wings in the sun. The area is also a great place to see alligators in the wild. The river didn’t disappoint. Four or five Florida red-bellied turtles were sunning themselves on a log. The largest one had a fuzzy green algae layer on his shell. In the winter, sightings of deer, wild hogs and turkeys are common. Just downstream from where we put the canoe in, there was supposed to be a geocache. The clues said that more than likely you’d have to get out of the boat to retrieve it. We did look around the spot pretty well, but no luck, and neither of us was about to get out into the swamp with the number of alligators we’d already seen. No way!  We did find a cache not far from the boardwalk/viewing spot back at the park. Good enough for us!

Hillsborough River

Hourly rentals are available, and a canoe for two-hours is $25. Parking is $2. They open at 9 am daily, and the last hourly-rental goes out at 3:30 pm. There are also guided, interpretive trips, and special events. Check the website for details. One thing we really liked from their website: “Because this river is of such great ecological importance to the Tampa Bay area, we believe that these trips are best suited to wildlife watchers, families, and those seeking the serenity of the outdoors. If you are looking for a social outing that revolves around a lot of alcohol, this is not the place for you.”

Lovely View, Hillsborough River

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.