Navigating the Hillsborough River

Most students plan on driving their car or taking a bus to get around Tampa. They might not know, however, that getting in a canoe and paddling is also a viable option.

To most, the Hillsborough River is just a narrow, dirty stream seen when driving down Fowler Avenue, but there is more to the Hillsborough River than meets the eye. Starting north of Lakeland at Green Swamp, the Hillsborough River meanders through the state and passes within a mile of USF ‘s campus before emptying into Hillsborough Bay in downtown Tampa.

The Oracle guides you through four segments of the river, starting at Crystal Springs Park and ending at USF Riverfront Park.

Crystal Springs Park to Hillsborough River State Park

Starting your journey here will require a small parking fee, but it is well worth it to experience the 40 million gallons of fresh spring water coming out every day. This segment of the river is where you can preserve some arm strength and take advantage of the quick current. Just be sure to steer clear of rocks. About 5.5 miles down this segment you will enter the State Park Rapids, which is one of the few places you can experience Class 2 rapids in Florida. The rapids span about 200 yards, providing a great challenge for beginners and experts alike.

If you happen to side-swipe a rock and tip on your first attempt like I did, don’t worry. The river stays shallow for a while, making it easy to reset your canoe. After passing this highlight, you will see Hillsborough River State Park a ways down on the left.

Hillsborough River State Park to Sargeant Park

While the steady current makes the beginning of this leg quite nice, it changes after three miles when you come upon the entrance to Seventeen Runs. The Hillsborough River soon branches off into several different quick-moving creeks.

These narrow creeks are riddled with downed trees and shallow bottoms. You will probably have to jump ship to pull your boat over the obstacles. Depending on how high the water is, this can quickly turn your nice relaxing day into an intense workout. However, after passing Seventeen Runs, you will find a nice, steady current to push you down to Sargeant Park, which will appear on your left.

Sargeant Park to Trout Creek Park

From here on out, the journey is very relaxing. The river gradually widens and the current slows, requiring paddling. Four miles into this segment, you will pass under Morris Bridge where you’ll see Morris Bridge Park on your left.

This small park also offers a place to start or end your journey, or to just simply get out and stretch your legs. After meandering down the river a few more miles, you’ll see boardwalks on the left, and the boat ramps to the park follow immediately.

Trout Creek Park to USF Riverfront Park

This leg of the journey is probably the easiest, but don’t let your guard down. You will see the most alligators in this segment. You start out immediately passing under the Hillsborough River flood prevention dam and I-75.

The river is wide for the first mile of this segment and eventually narrows, creating an unnoticeable, but still appreciated current to help out. The river makes many tight S-bends and eventually empties out into a wide, lake-like portion. Half a mile further, you’ll see USF Riverfront Park and the boat ramp on the right.

Non-canoe owners need not fret. USF Riverfront Park rents out canoes and kayaks for $5 for two hours out on the water. If you paddle fast, you can make it up to Trout Creek Park and back in that time.

USF even offers a class called Flatwater Canoeing, taught by Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Catherine Stedman, where students learn different canoeing techniques including the J, draw and pry strokes.

The class has two small trips throughout the year – one of them being Trout Creek Park to USF Riverfront. In addition to those, they take a big trip to another river around the state, such as the Suwannee River and Rainbow River in years past.