Hillsborough River State Park officially opened in 1938, and is one of Florida's oldest state parks. Its original suspension bridge spanning the Hillsborough River and some of its structures were first built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program operated as part of the New Deal. Though the park has been updated to include more trails, camping, picnic areas and a half-acre swimming pool, the sense of history still pervades. Turns out, it’s also an amazing place to see reptiles, even in the winter!
My husband and I visited Hillsborough River State Park before, and we knew we wanted to try the 3.4-mile portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which follows the river before curving in a wide circle in the woods. The park is near Tampa in a subtropical zone and houses rich flora such as sabal palmetto, live oaks and more bordered along the trail. In the warmer months, large tree limbs are covered in ferns and other epiphytes - plants that grow on other plants, absorbing water and nutrients from the air and rain. The vegetation felt lush.
The first wildlife I spotted on the walk were two large turtles, sunning on a submerged tree limb. Their shells looked dark gray, and they sported yellow bellies and striped faces. Who doesn't love turtles? The river hosted many, strategically situated in patches of light in the warmth of the early afternoon.
The trails themselves were perfect places to look for lizards. Lightning fast, the tiny creatures leaped out of our way and darted across the space ahead of us, only occasionally pausing just long enough for me to snap a few photos before moving on.
As we continued along the water, we ran into two hikers walking in the opposite direction. Normally other visitors simply nodded and smiled before walking on, but this couple stopped us. "There's an alligator up ahead!" they exclaimed excitedly, showing a photo they had taken with their digital camera.
An alligator! They may be common in this part of Florida, but I am originally from the northeast and any encounter with an alligator is absolutely incredible. When I see their ancient forms, I feel like I am in the presence of a dinosaur, for of course alligators are basically living dinosaurs.
We hurried on, hoping the large creature was still sunning in the open and hadn't sneakily slipped back into the water. The hikers had said to look near a specific mile marker, and as we approached we slowed, peering carefully into the shadows along the shore.
There was no way we could have missed him. The alligator was stretched across a raised rock, 5-6 feet long and motionless. As we watched he barely seemed to breath, lying on his cream-colored belly. Because he was across the river, it was easy to both watch and photograph his long form. Alligators are so impressive! The sighting was the highlight of my visit.
The park protects habitat not only for alligators and other reptiles, but also a variety of bird and mammal species. With 7.3 miles of trail, as well as the reconstructed Fort Foster State Historic Site, the park truly has something for everyone.
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About Erika: Erika Z. is a writer, birder and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. Her love of the outdoors and sense of adventure leads her to explore Florida’s state parks, state trails and historic sites in her free time.