The Hillsborough River-A Capsule of Time

10 Oct

It’s a steamy summer morning in Florida. The morning easterlies distribute moisture from the tropical Atlantic across the peninsula. The land begins to heat with the dawning light. Hot air rises high into the atmosphere. An afternoon breeze moves cooler air in from the Gulf of Mexico to replace the vanquished heat. The air masses collide setting the stage for a thunderous battle while the evening sun smiles admiring the mayhem.

In a thick marsh, a drop of water lands on a fern. Then another and another. Within minutes the rain falls faster and harder. A lightning bolt streaks across the sky followed by a rumble. The ground shakes as the storm grows stronger. The already saturated marsh can’t contain the onslaught. Our drop of water trickles into a pool. The pool becomes a swamp and the swamp gives birth to a river. The river winds its way to a bay, the bay to an ocean. Finally, in a salty current the drop of water rests. But not for long. The cycle that has been going on for 27,000 years is about to begin again. Such is the price of eternity.


The Hillsborough River begins its journey to Tampa Bay in extreme northwestern Polk county on a 560,000-acre plateau called The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. The headwaters are narrow, mainly small streams that merge from heavy Florida rains, growing wider and wider until it they become the river. Cypress swamps, oak hammocks and flatwoods allow a 50,000-acre area known as The Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area to be a haven for nesting birds and many native species of plants and animals. The Florida National Scenic Trail also runs through the preserve. Visitors can get there fill of hiking, biking, camping, fishing, kayaking and horseback riding. Water levels vary so it’s best to check ahead before visiting anywhere in the Green Swamp.

From The Green Swamp, the river runs 54 miles south into Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties before spilling into Tampa Bay near Davis Island. It’s divided into three sections, the upper river, middle river, and lower river. A 34-mile Kayak and canoe trail begins in the upper river at Hillsborough River State Park. Each section of the river has a uniqueness to it that can transport you back in time and show you the future all in one trip.

About 12,000 years ago humans settled the area now known as the Hillsborough River watershed. The river provided the resources they needed for survival. It remained in a pristine state until the turn of the 20th century when logging took a toll on the old growth. Some of the ancient oaks can still be seen along the river banks, but for the most part the tree lined banks and forests surrounding the river today are less than a century old. The river, however, remains vital to lives of millions of plants, animals and especially people living along its banks. If not for the river, Tampa, may not even exist.

The Upper River

The upper river can best be defined by the wildlife that call it home. Deer, bobcat, hogs, and alligators thrive here. By far the most pristine part of the river, it begins in the narrow streams of The Green Swamp and ends just north of Tampa. It’s best explored from the water where herons, ibis, spoonbills, hawks, eagles, and owls are common. Mighty alligators glide across the gentle currents searching for their favorite snack, turtles, who in turn take refuge from the insensitive beasts by sunning themselves on fallen logs and muddy banks.


River Trail Bridge

If an encounter with a gator is too much to stomach, there are other options for those that choose to explore the river or surrounding forests by foot. The most popular is Hillsborough River State Park. This 3,900-acre preserve is home to one of the only stretches of the river containing rapids. Though nothing a novice couldn’t handle they do offer a soothing sound not common to most Florida rivers. Rent a kayak, cycle, Segway or hike the park’s seven miles of nature trails. There are two picturesque foot bridges that cross the river, one of which is a suspension bridge. Both primitive and modern camp grounds make the park ideal for camping. In the summertime, cool off in the park’s ½- acre swimming pool. History lovers can explore a replica from the Seminole War, Fort Foster, or check out centuries-old artifacts from the people who once inhabited the upper river.

U.S. 301 and Morris Bridge Road are the best ways to reach the upper river. Other than Hillsborough River State Park, many small parks and preserves can be accessed right off of the highway. Sergeant Park off of U.S. 301 south of the state park is home to Canoe Escape where you can rent kayaks or canoes for self-guided trips down the river. They have different packages to choose from depending on your preferred level of adventure.


Canoe Escape Trip Packages


Following the river’s course either by land or water, other parks provide great escapes for an afternoon stroll, picnic or a just a break. The Oak Ridge Equestrian Area off Morris Bridge Road contains 18 miles of horse and hiking trails that run through pockets of historic orchards reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Morris Bridge Park has a boardwalk that winds through a cypress swamp along with picnic shelters, a boat launch, and access to the river for fishing. Morrioak-ridge-equestrian-wilderness-area-037s Bridge Park is part of the Wilderness Park Off Road Trail which also includes Trout Creek Park, located a little further down river. Trout Creek Park plays an interesting role in what happens to the river as it nears the Tampa City Limits.

While a river brings splendor and nourishment to ecosystems that depend on it, the river can also bring devastation. Following flooding from Hurricane Donna in the late 1960s, the City of Tampa constructed the Tampa Bypass Canal to deviate swollen flood waters from the upper river around the cities of Temple Terrace and Tampa. The canal runs south from Trout Creek along U.S. 301 until it reaches Palmetto where it bends west emptying into McKay Bay. While at first just a means of flood control, the canal’s importance has grown. Today, it’s a primary source of drinking water for Tampa along with a natural habitat for thousands of birds and wildlife.


Barred Owl

Past Trout Creek Park on the main river is Lettuce Lake Park. This 240-acre park is just on the north side of the Tampa city limits near the University of South Florida. It can be accessed off Fletcher Ave. Lettuce Lake is one of the a popular recreational park in Tampa. Here families picnic and play in many open spaces and shelters for rent. An extensive boardwalk follows the river for ideal wildlife viewing. There are playgrounds, nearby canoe or kayak rentals and a lookout tower. From the top of the tower the transformation of the river from the north to south could not be more apparent. On the north end of the park the river resembles something one might find in the Amazon.  It’s narrow and dark. Wildlife abounds. As it winds past the park, banks widen and the river looks something more like a scene from Huckleberry Finn where a river boat might feel right at home. Beyond is the middle river. Venturing there is taking a step forward in time.

The Middle River

The middle river is marked by affluence. The wide clear banks are home to the larger homes of some of the more wealthy Temple Terrace neighborhoods like Riverhills. As the rivers winds historic Florida and modern architecture mix with grandfather oaks nestled among golf courses, egrets and alligators. Rowlett Park is a popular destination with a playground and wide trails. It’s also the where the river levels are controlled. The dam near the University of South Florida regulates the amount of water allowed into the Tampa Bypass Canal from Trout Creek.


Passing the Rogers Park Golf Course along the river signals Tampa’s historic Sulphur Springs is just ahead. A giant white tower appears on the horizon. The Sulphur Spring’s water tower is all that remains of a community that thrived in the 1920s through the 1960s. A first of its kind indoor mall, hotel, swimming hole (fed by the spring), water slide, and a drive-in theater all drew tourists to the area.  Today, only ghosts inhabit the old gazebo next to the landmark tower off of Bird Street.

Just on the other side of Sulphur Springs sits another historic Tampa neighborhood, Seminole Heights. While middle class homes line the bank, Seminole Heights is home to another Tampa landmark, Lowry Park and the Lowry Park Zoo. Originally, homlowry-park-zoo-043e to carnival rides and caged animal enclosures that resembled something that might be found in the back lot of a circus, the zoo has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past 20 years just like the shores of the river around it. The zoo is now a leader in animal education and rehabilitation as well as a major Tampa tourist attraction.

The Lower River

The Hillsborough River straightens out from Lowry Park on its descent into downtown Tampa. Rivercrest Park lies along the path. Hundreds of homes, apartments, condominiums, restaurants and schools that have stood for decades guide the river on the last leg of its journey. One last sharp bend reveals the modern linear lines of Tampa’s downtown skyscrapers. It means that the river mouth is near. That’s not to say the river goes out with a whimper. Here the river has come full circle. The lower river is where history meets the future.

The popular Tampa Riverwalk007 follows the river through downtown to its ultimate destination. It passes under the historic Lafayette Street railroad bridge on its way home to the sea. The tall buildings look down on the river knowing it is the only reason they exist at all. The historic University of Tampa columns at sunset rival any beach sunset you will ever see. The river witnessed the replacement of Curtis Hixon Hall with the Straz Center for the Performing Arts as Tampa’s home for Broadway. To pay respects to the old theater, the city created an outdoor space for weekend events and music, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. 54 winding miles from the Green Swamp, the spectacular Tampa Convention Center sees the river spill its contents into Tampa Bay. The river has come home. Like our drop of water, it mixes with the currents of the bay waiting for the sunrise and the call to return to its place of origin where the journey will begin again and again and again.

The Hillsborough RIver flows southwest through three counties. It supplies the nourishment needed for the life of millions. It’s witness to the ever-changing state of our environment. It’s a sanctuary and a hazard. It’s pristine and yet it is modern. The Hillsborough River watershed in west-central Florida is truly a capsule of time.


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