The Hillsborough River
flows 54 miles from its head waters in the Green Swamp to its mouth in
Hillsborough Bay, a portion of Tampa Bay, Florida's largest open-water estuary.
The Hillsborough has an estimated drainage area of 675 square miles. The
watershed extends over parts of three counties, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk.
From nearly pristine conditions, the river winds its way to Tampa Bay through
rural, suburban, and urban settings. For the most part the Hillsborough is what
is known as a dark or black water river. The water is stained reddish-brown by
the tannic acid (the same thing that gives iced tea that reddish-brown color).
It comes from the decaying leaves and other vegetation in the swamp.
The Green Swamp, approximately 850 square miles of swampy flatlands and sand
ridges, was designated as an Area of Critical State Concern by Florida in 1979.
Not only the Hillsborough River, but also the Withlacoochee, the Peace, and the
Ocklawaha Rivers have their origins there.
The Hillsborough actually
starts as an overflow of the Withlacoochee River. It begins as a slow-moving
sheet flow that percolates through a heavily vegetated riverine forest that has
no real channel. For most of the year, at least for paddling purposes, the
Hillsborough River begins where Crystal Springs empties 40 million gallons a
day into the river keeping it runnable even in times of severe drought.
The Hillsborough River is rich in history dating back thousands of years.
Early indigenous populations had encampments along the river and in the
surrounding area 10,000 years ago. Native Americans, Paleo-Indians, the
Timucua, the Calusa, the Seminoles, and others are known to have inhabited
sites along the river.
The first of the European expeditions to
arrive that discovered the Hillsborough River was the famous Spanish explorer,
Navarez in the 1500s. Hernando de Soto passed through here and in his wake just
about wiped out the Native American population. This area was also the site of
several Second Seminole Indian War battles.
The Timucua, who lived in
the area now known as Tampa, called their town, Mocoso, and the river, the
Mocoso River. The Spanish christened it the River of San Julian de Arriaga. The
English were the ones who named it the Hillsborough River after the Earl of
Hillsborough who was Britain's colonial secretary. The Seminoles called the
river, Lockcha-Popka-Chiska, the river one crosses to eat acorns.
of the Golden Ibis by Gloria Jahoda, (Holt, Rinehart and
Winston, 1973 out of print),
thankfully now available again in paperback (University Press
of Florida, 2000), is a fascinating history of the Hillsborough
River and indeed the whole Tampa Bay area. It's a history that
reads like a novel. The first paragraph of the prologue sets
the tone and draws the reader into the world of the Hillsborough
Hillsborough begins in the Green Swamp, nine hundred square miles of central
Florida wilderness where white ibises drift in the shadows over willow-bordered
pools. From high water oaks grey Spanish moss trails softly. The stillness is
broken by the songs of Carolina wrens in the thickets, by the insistent voices
of leopard frogs, by the calling of rain crows on slow summer afternoons. The
smells are acrid: tannin-stained sloughs and the sourness of the hydrogen
sulfide and methane gases that rise when the mud is turned by the foot of some
wild creature, by a rare canoe, by a storm. Pileated woodpeckers rap high in
the pines in the drier places, where the ground rises a foot or two and bare
sand shows under pinestraw that glistens rusty in a fitful swampland sun. The
Green Swamp is a trackless place. Its milky clusters of crinum lilies spend
their beauty unseen by men, and bobcats prowl the tangles unafraid. The world
of the white ibises is, as yet, inviolate. When the light strikes their
feathers through the canopy above, they shimmer in a blaze of gold."
Henry Plant brought the railroad to Tampa in the late 1800s and built the Tampa
Bay Hotel along the river whose minarets, now part of the University of Tampa,
are a Tampa landmark. The Hillsborough River was the site of Florida's first
hydroelectric dam in 1897. It was blown up in 1898 by local ranchers who
claimed that their best grazing lands had become part of the new reservoir. It
was rebuilt in 1899. Again in 1916 the ranchers tried to destroy the dam. A
hurricane did rupture the dam in 1933 after which it was sold to Tampa for a
water supply reservoir and rebuilt in 1946. Portions of the 1899 structure
still remain as part of today's structure. Currently 75% of Tampa's drinking
water supply comes from the Hillsborough River. Native Americans, Spanish
explorers, pirates, soldiers, logging, ranching, railroads, and fish camps are
all part of the river's rich history.
Hillsborough River is enjoyed by paddlers, birders, fisherman, photographers,
hikers, and others at the wealth of parks that are located along its banks. The
Hillsborough River has been favorably compared to the Amazon and the Florida
Everglades as one of the great places to view wildlife.
Hillsborough River State Park
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1938,
the Hillsborough River State Park is one of Florida's oldest
parks. Fort Foster, a re-creation of Fort Alabama (an outpost
on the Fort King Military Trail that connected Fort Brooke in
Tampa to Ocala) is located along the river within the park's
The Hillsborough River
State Park contains the state's southernmost outcropping of Suwannee limestone.
This outcropping creates a small set of rapids that are a rarity in Florida.
Park activities include picnicking, nature trails, camping, hiking, and
The Wilderness Park
Originally purchased by the
Southwest Florida Water Management District's Hillsborough River Basin Board
for flood control and water quality protection, the Wilderness Park has become
a wonderful asset to Hillsborough County. The Wilderness Park has four parks
along the river that provide picnic areas, restrooms, and access for paddling
as well as three additional sites for either on or off-road bicycling and
Also located within the Wilderness Park is Nature's Classroom,
an award winning outdoor educational facility for sixth graders
in Hillsborough County. Nearly 10,000 students and faculty have
experienced the Hillsborough River first hand by viewing animals
and plants in their natural habitats.
Lettuce Lake Park
One of Hillsborough County's regional parks, Lettuce Lake Park
is very popular. The "lake" is actually a shallow, fingerlike
portion of the Hillsborough River. It has a 3,500' boardwalk
through the swamp that ends at a tall observation tower that
overlooks the river and "lake". Lettuce Lake Park is home to
in the Park, a Tampa Audubon Resource
Center that fosters a culture of conservation and an
environmental ethic. Lettuce Lake Park also has a great playground
area for younger children.
A number of small
parks are located along the river in the suburban and urban areas.
Hillsborough River Designations
- Florida Recreational Canoe Trail
- Outstanding Florida Water
- Florida Ecosystem Management Model
- Florida Sesquicentennial Greenway
- Florida Wildlife Viewing Area
- Florida Birding
& Wildlife Trail
River was chosen by Canoe & Kayak Magazine as one
of "North America's Best Close to Home Paddling Adventures"
in its May 1995 issue.
The Hillsborough River has been fortunate over the years to
have inspired many people to protect its beauty and wildlife.
It has been studied, monitored, and planned for. At least
25 various plans exist that address a variety of issues.
Canoe Escape was very actively involved with the Hillsborough
River Greenways Task Force (HRGTF). The Task Force was a coalition
of public, private, regulatory, environmental, and corporate
organizations and bodies. It was founded in 1992 by a group
of concerned citizens (both in the public and private sectors)
to seek to investigate, plan, and implement programs for the
permanent protection of the natural resources of the upper
Hillsborough River Basin.
Some of the Task Force's accomplishments were: The "Green
Book" a discussion of some 20 imminent issues within the watershed;
the delineation of core and buffer areas of the Hillsborough
River Greenway; the extension of the Outstanding Florida Water
designation; designation of a portion of the river as a Florida
Recreational Canoe Trail; formulation of a coordinated linear
infrastructure plan (CLIP) to determine where linear corridors
should cross greenways; and the development of the Frog Listening
Some of work
of the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force (HRGTF) continues
today as the Hillsborough
River Watershed Alliance.
Self-Guided, Downstream River
Trips Hourly Rentals Canoe/Kayak Owners
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Interpretive Nature Reveals
God (coming soon)
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Might I See?
Information and Reservations (strongly