Located west of Tampa, this 2,144-acre park protects a large swath of the sensitive mangrove-lined northern shores of Upper Tampa Bay, a massive estuary. The popular park is centered on a large Environmental Study Center and is a prime spot for family and group picnics, and for paddlers to explore the mangrove-lined channels.
Three short nature trails – the Eagle, the Otter, and the Bobcat – explore different aspects of the park’s ecosystems.
Length: Up to 1.8 milespLat-Long: 28.012588,-82.633502 (Bobcat Trail / nature center)
Fees / Permits: $2 per car entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to difficult
Bug factor: annoying mosquitoes – use repellent!
Restroom: At the nature center and picnic areas
Open 8 AM – 6 PM. Canoe rentals available, or you can bring your own canoe or kayak for paddling. Fishing is welcome along the shoreline. Leashed dogs permitted. Reserve picnic shelters in advance. Call 813-855-1765 for details.
Watch for poison ivy on the trails.
Website: Upper Tampa Bay County Park (Hillsborough County)
From I-275 north of downtown Tampa, follow Hillsborough Avenue west for 11.8 miles. Turn left onto Double Branch Rd, which slips through a residential community for half a mile. Turn right to enter the park.
As you drive along the park’s road, you’ll first reach the trailhead and kiosk for the Eagle Trail (28.015354,-82.636557), off to the right. Nicely shaded for much of its length, the trail is a 0.6-mile round trip to an observation platform on Mobbly Bay. The shellrock path is broad and well-maintained.
As you begin hiking, you’ll see an oak hammock of gnarled sand live oaks to your left, and a sweep of wet flatwoods with scattered longleaf pines to your right. You’ll soon see a picturesque freshwater marsh to the right, with a side trail to its edge, where the marsh ferns grow.
The trail arcs to the left, affording a view of the marsh to through the sand live oaks. The understory includes bracken ferns and saw palmetto. When you pass a bench, note that there are mud puddles in the trail as the marshes creep closer. Depending on recent rains, water may be flowing across your path. Small asters grow along the trail as it curves beneath the canopy of oaks.
You’ll likely notice that you’re on a peninsula, a spit of land with a wet prairie to your right and the mangrove marsh to your left. At the next bench, the trail transitions to a broad boardwalk across the mangrove marsh. Notice the root systems of young mangroves reflecting in the water off to the right. The boardwalk leads over patches of needlerush and islands of red mangroves. Look for mud crabs scuttling through the shallows.
The trail ends at an observation deck on Mobbly Bay Enjoy the water’s clarity and the sounds of wildlife before retracing your steps to complete your hike.
Back on the park road, pass the Environmental Study Center and park in the nearby lot. The 0.5-mile Bobcat Trail (28.012588,-82.633502) starts in front of the center.
Begin this loop by turning left at the first T-intersection. The plant life here is similar to that of the coastal prairies of the Everglades; glasswort, saltwort, and salt hay grow in profusion, and sea myrtle sports white blossoms in the fall. The barrens are fringed by slash pines, red mangrove, and sand live oaks.
This short trail dances along the ecotone between pines, oaks, and salt barren. The water flowing from the pine woods root-beer colored, with heavy tannins leached from oak leaves in the hammock. The footpath is moist and sticky, and common mud crabs crawl between the pnuematophores of black mangroves.
As you cross over a small bridge, look right to view a sweep of coastal forest. An unmarked trail takes off just before you reach a bench at 0.25 mile. The hammock provides some protection for the mangroves, and enough shade to grow a huge crop of mosquitoes – they are fierce along this section. The wetlands creep up into the hammock to the right.
Emerge into an open marl prairie that stretches out to the bay: soft grasses, open water, and not-so-solid ground are a sample of the Everglades along Old Tampa Bay. There are many unmarked side trails. The Bobcat Trail soon transitions to a boardwalk that leads to the left along the edge of a cove in the estuary. This beauty spot is popular for fishing.
The trail continues back around to the intersection where the loop began. Turn right to exit.
The Otter Trail (28.014543,-82.633801) is well-hidden at the end of the large parking area, at the opposite end from the Environmental Study Center. As you get to Family Pavilions 3 & 4 (Maple and Oak) and the restroom, the 0.7-mile loop starts behind them as a sidewalk, and segues into a boardwalk.
Crossing Double Branch Creek, the trail circles around a series of marsh ponds in the pine flatwoods. Look for mud crabs in the salt marsh. Mangroves to the right hide your view of the bay, but the marsh to the left is open. A tower has been placed here for osprey nesting.
The boardwalk gives way to a footpath of shellrock and grass, slightly higher than the surrounding marshes. Look for raccoon tracks in the soft mud puddles that the high water brings.
The trail passes beneath a massive slash pine. Other vegetation you’ll see here include cabbage palms and ball moss growing in lumps along the oak branches. You’ll also see more views of the water and oyster bars.
The trail turns away from the water at 0.25 mile and becomes a broad, grassy path with bracken fern along the edges. You’ll soon arrive at the edge of a willow marsh – permanent standing fresh water so close to the salty shores. Look for purple aster and other delicate wildflowers rising through the grasses. At 0.5 mile, you pass under a large birdhouse.
When the trail emerges into the picnic area and through an open area used for sports, stay on the left side of this open area. When you get to a sidewalk, turn left past a large picnic pavilion and water fountain. Walk through the playground and take the first left, the zigzagging path, back into the woods to return to the trailhead.