I have run some great trail races in Hillsborough River State Park. Each time I have been there, I have thoroughly enjoyed the park. I’ve thought it would be a fun adventure to camp overnight there and tie it into trail running. Despite loving outdoor adventures, I haven’t actually done a lot of camping. Okay, I haven’t actually done ANY camping, except for a church camping trip I went on in high school. So this was a new experience for me! Hillsborough River State Park was a good place to start for a beginner camper.
Setting Up Camp
Hillsborough River State Park is located close to Tampa, and only about an hour from my house. The camping sites support both tent and RV camping, and you can reserve your site online. It does book up, so I recommend reserving your campsite as early as possible (they take reservations up to 11 months in advance). We chose a site that was not far from one of the canoe launches near the river. Once we got to our site, we started setting up our campground. Since we were only camping for one night, our camp supplies were pretty minimal. We had a 2 person tent, sleeping bags, a cooler (water, food, and beverages), change of clothes, running clothes, toiletries, firewood (and charcoal), bug spray and some flashlights. We quickly set up the tent and got our sleeping bags arranged inside. Once we had our tent set up, we left our site to go to the canoe rental area.
Alligator Spotting on the Hillsborough River
Hillsborough River State Park offers rentals for canoes, bikes, surrey bikes, and golf carts. We rented a canoe for 2 hours, then walked to the canoe launch to start on our adventure. After slipping the canoe into the water, we settled in for a gentle trip and some gator spotting. There were some other canoes and kayaks on the river, but it was not crowded on this warm afternoon. A few minutes into our paddle, we saw a huge (8 foot!) alligator sleeping on a log. His back was wide, he was definitely the biggest alligator I have seen that was not in captivity. We did not paddle close enough to get a good photo. We made our way past him (with PLENTY of room), and continued down the river. Just as we came around a sharp bend, another alligator was staring at me! It caught me off guard at first! This alligator was relaxing on the rocks, and was 4 to 5 feet long. I snapped a few photos of him, then we quietly continued on our way. Just across the river was another alligator sunning on the rocks! He was again, about 4 to 5 feet long, and as I took a few photos, he got shy and slipped into the cool water to swim away. We kept paddling down the river, and a passing canoe mentioned that a 10 foot gator was up ahead. Sean and I started feeling uncomfortable with encountering a gator that size. After a few more minutes paddling downstream, we changed directions and returned upstream.
We returned to our launch spot, but still had some time left on our two hour rental, so we paddled upstream to view the rapids. Hillsborough River has some class two rapids in some sections of the river. We were not able to paddle far enough to reach those, as the rocks were getting too frequent to navigate our canoe around. We went as far as the suspension bridge, then paddled back to the launch to return our canoe.
Campfires and Campfood
After our alligator canoe trip, we returned to our campsite and started our campfire. Our campsite had a rudimentary fire ring with a cooking grate over it. Unfortunately, the cooking grate was too high to cook over charcoal. Instead, we built our wood fire up high enough to cook over the open flame. Once we got a good fire going, we placed our sausages and vegetable hobo packets on the grate. We sat back and relaxed while the delicious smells started wafting our way. About 20 minutes later, our dinner was ready and served on our campsite’s picnic table. The sausages and veggies were perfect with the addition of Sean’s homemade Bloody Mary’s. Lots of other campers were cooking their dinners at the same time. The campgrounds had an air of festivity, and everyone was enjoying the outdoors.
Once we had finished eating, we headed out for an evening hike. Hillsborough River State Park has a lot of great trails for hiking or running. We chose to hike on the Florida Trail section that works its way along the river before looping back to the start. It is roughly a 3.5 mile loop. The temperature was perfect for a hike, and we enjoyed the hilly trail with glimpses of the river. At one spot, we were able to peer down towards the water and we saw the two alligators that we had seen from our canoe! They were back on their rocks, resting in the setting sun. Our loop continued on, with roots, rocks, hills, and wooden bridges to cross. We kept a brisk pace, and enjoyed the challenge of the trail.
Once back to camp, we restoked the fire. It was great to relax and listen to the nearby campers hanging out. Some of them were playing guitar, and many were chatting away the evening. When it was finally time for bed, we crawled into our cozy tent and settled in to sleep. So here was our only rookie camping mistake. We forgot pillows and we also did not have any kind of sleeping pad. Maybe the lack of sleeping pad may not have been noticed had we remembered pillows, or vice versa. But the ground seemed hard and uncomfortable. I struggled most of the night trying to get comfortable. Any time I thought I found a comfortable position, I would wake up 20 minutes later with my back or shoulders screaming to switch positions. This went on for the night, so unfortunately, the morning came and we still felt quite tired.
Morning Trail Run
With the sun starting to rise, I quietly crept out of my tent and gathered my coffee supplies. Fresh grounds pressed through my aeropress were calling my name! Once the hot brew was ready, the steamy coffee woke us up, we sipped and planned out our trail run for the morning. After lingering a few minutes we were ready to hit the trails. The route we chose was the Wetlands trail, an out and back trail run. The paths were double track, nice and wide. The morning was perfect for an easy trail run. At the end of the trail, there was a gate with a sign nearby. The sign announced we were leaving Hillsborough River State Park and entering Dead River. We did not have a map of the trails for Dead River, but we explored them a bit, before turning around to head back to camp. We found out later that it is possible to take the Dead River trail and loop back into Hillsborough River State Park. I will include those trails in a follow up post about trail running in Hillsborough River State Park.
One of the nice benefits to Hillsborough River State Park is the pool and the pool side cafe. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Once we finished our trail run, we headed over to the cafe for some breakfast and (more) coffee. We both ordered the breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage, and cheese, and it hit the spot after our run! We enjoyed our morning meal, then walked back to camp to start packing up.
Our camping trip to Hillsborough River State Park was fun! I would definitely plan on camping there again. There are still some trails for me to discover, and the swimming pool would be great to take the kids to for the day. If you are interested in camping at Hillsborough River State Park, reserve your campsite or find more information on their website. Don’t forget your pillows!