Camp Bayou Nature Preserve is an easy place to learn about Florida’s varied ecosystems and a perfect nature getaway for families.
Although the trails are accessible throughout the week, the nature center and fossil museum are only open on certain days.
The preserve can be explored on foot or by launching a paddle craft onto the Little Manatee River at the canoe dock.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2.8 mile loop
Trailhead: 27.667312, -82.402325
Address: 4140 24th Street SE, Ruskin
Restrooms: Adjacent to the nature center
Land manager: Hillsborough County
Open daily from 8-6.
From the Interstate 75 exit at Sun City Center, north of the Ruskin rest area, follow SR 674 (College Ave) west for 1.3 mile to 24th St SE. Drive south 3.2 miles to the entrance to Camp Bayou Nature Center on the right.
From the parking area, head east, following a dirt road towards the nature center. In less than a hundred feet, be sure to stop at the butterfly garden.
A vine-covered archway marks the entrance to a short pathway through an impressive array of native plants, each one labeled with common and scientific names.
After a tenth of a mile, turn left at a sign for the Tortoise trail. After passing an informative bird watching pavilion, look for a kiosk displaying a map of the property at the next intersection.
Stay to the left, following red blazes along a pathway lined with palmettos under a thick canopy of oaks.
Follow the well-worn path as the landscape transitions to scrubby flatwoods. Abundant signs indicate the direction of the trail as it winds through a shady hardwood forest.
At 0.7 mile, turn left onto the blue-blazed Palmetto Pass trail.
True to its name, Palmetto Pass weaves through seas of palmettos and along sandy service roads, an ideal landscape for the gopher tortoises that reside here.
At 1.6 miles, turn left at the yellow blazes, passing by the Paleo Preserve fossil museum.
In 0.2 mile, the trail crosses a paved road before beginning to follow the Little Manatee River.
Initially, the waterway is obscured by dense shrubs, though openings in the vegetation begin to reveal its dark tannic waters.
As the trail is squeezed between riverbends on a small stretch of land, it weaves through pilings from an abandoned construction project.
This half-built structure is a relic from a former fish camp at this location.
At one point, the county considered turning it into a viewing platform before floods eroded the riverbank along with some of the supports.
Continue following yellow blazes as the trail ventures out onto a peninsula created by an oxbow in the river.
The path narrows considerably as it ventures into a dense subtropical jungle for another 0.2 mile before making a little loop at the end.
Returning to the thin bridge of land sandwiched between the Little Manatee River, panoramic views are available on both banks.
It is easy to imagine the waterway will someday cut off this peninsula, creating an island in the process.
In another 0.2 mile, charred tree skeletons stand at an intersection of trails.
Stay to the left, following yellow painted posts along an access road for a tenth of a mile before returning to the parking area.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Directly across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg, two loop trails in Cockroach Bay Nature Preserve navigate restored wetlands and a lookout point known as Mount Cockroach.
Strongly influenced by nearby Tampa Bay, Terra Ceia Preserve State Park protects unique landscapes where marine and terrestrial ecosystems blend seamlessly.
In the Little Manatee River watershed, the 579 Trailhead offers access to a pair of loop trails across palmetto prairies and shady oak hammocks.