David and I love being out in nature. Recently, we have made it a point to spend some time getting to know a few of the parks in Hillsborough County, Florida. The county has over 61,000 acres of land that is set aside as conservation areas to protect the ecosystem in and around Tampa Bay. We visited two Conservation Parks and one Aquatic Preserve and discovered a wonderland of pristine freshwater wetlands, old wood forests, and bird and wildlife sanctuaries.
Lettuce Lake Conservation Park is a gem of a park! Located north of Tampa on the Hillsborough River, this park seeks to protect a part of the natural floodplain of the river and the surrounding swamp forest. Opened in 1982, Lettuce Lake Park is one of the most visited in the county.
David and I found a quiet spot among the lush green landscape full of palms and hardwood oaks at one of the picnic shelters and enjoyed our picnic lunch. We were joined by a couple of curious squirrels who were hoping to get a snack. After lunch, we took a stroll on the 3,500 ft. boardwalk. From the high walkway, we could look down on and out over the freshwater wetlands and floodplain which is covered in vegetation. We came upon a number of birds. We observed White Ibis, with their red curved bills and legs, foraging for food in the shallow pools. We also saw a bird that was new to us, the Limpkin. Often found in Florida wetlands, this wading bird appears to limp as it walks so that is how it got its name. Among the larger birds that we spotted over the lake-like areas were Anhingas, the Great Egrets, Roseated Spoonbills, and Heron.
Another fascinating bird that we got to watch for a long time was the Wood Stork. There were a pair of them “feeling” their way through the water as they searched for food. Since the boardwalk was elevated, the birds did not seem to mind our presence.
Much of the floodplain is covered with an invasive plant called Water Lettuce. The origins of this plant are unclear. It is either from the Nile River region or South America. This plant forms dense mats which choke up waterways, rivers, and canals. Due to its presence in the Hillsborough River, fishermen named this part of the river Lettuce Lake.
Nestled among the vegetation were snapping turtles and lots of alligators of all sizes. They were sleeping on logs and on the banks in the warm sunshine.
Off of the boardwalk is an Observation Tower that provides a panoramic view of the Hillsborough River. You can rent canoes or kayaks and paddle out onto the river to get a closer look. The Park also has a 1.2 mile jogging and hiking trail with workout stations and they offer educational tours on weekends.
Lettuce Lake Park is one of our favorite parks near Tampa. We are so glad that we got to experience this unique ecosystem with its oak hardwood forest, cypress domes, and lots of wildlife.
E. G. Simmons Conservation Park is a small, quiet, secluded haven! Located about 18 miles south of Tampa, the park was developed on 258 acres of mangroves. It is a bird and wildlife sanctuary and it protects 200 acres of mangrove swamp. Among the unique features of the Park is a canoe trail that takes you through the preserved mangrove islands and into Manatee Bay.
The park also has two campgrounds with 103 sites, 18 picnic shelters, a boat launch, fishing piers, canoe and kayak rentals, and a small, but beautiful, white sand beach area that overlooks Tampa Bay. There were folks who had placed their lounge chairs among the mangroves along the shoreline. From that vantage point, you can see St. Petersburg.
We enjoyed a picnic lunch at one of the nice shelters and then walked one of the two trails in the park. An osprey looked down at us as we passed by. A group of White Ibis also scurried around some of the grassy areas. Near the boat launch were a flock of pelicans and we also spotted a manatee in the shallow water. As we were leaving, a raccoon perched on some trash cans bade us farewell.
Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve is a great place to kayak and canoe! This preserve protects a series of secluded mangrove islands where the Little Manatee River enters Tampa Bay. Located about 31 miles south of Tampa, this 4,800 acres of unique habitat can only be accessed via water. After a 21 year restoration of the area, it was dedicated in 2012.
It is thought that it unique name dates back to the time when the Spaniards arrived in Florida. When they saw horseshoe crabs in this region for the first time, they thought that they looked like aquatic cockroaches. It is believed that the name of Cockroach Bay came from the Spaniards. We did not see any cockroaches while we were there but we did encounter a lot of other wildlife as we kayaked the preserve.
We took our kayak to the boat launch at the end of Cockroach Bay Road and put in there. We were hardly alone given that both sides of the road leading to the boat launch were lined with trucks and boat trailers. There were other boaters and kayakers near us while we were on the water but it did not feel busy at all. Kayaking through the mangroves was very peaceful and serene. The only interruptions were the fish that would occasionally jump out of the water. I told David that we did not need to go fishing since the fish might just land in our kayak.
There are two canoe and kayak trails through the preserve: Horseshoe Crab and Snook Canoe Trails. We did not go on the trails per se but rather we spent several hours among the mangroves where we saw pelicans, herons, and other birds. There are over 300 species of birds that flock to this area so it is very popular with birders.
Before we left the preserve, we paddled out of the Little Manatee River into Tampa Bay itself. We could see St. Petersburg and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across the Bay. The most exciting thing that we witnessed were some dolphins that were feeding nearby. We stayed there for quite a while watching as the dolphins followed a school of fish into a small cove off of the Bay. From our kayak, we had a ringside seat and it was a fascinating experience.
All of our trips to Hillsborough County parks have been delightful and each location has a lot to offer. It is wonderful to see that the County is protecting and preserving these unique habitats for all to enjoy.