Located west of Tampa off Hillsborough Avenue, this 2,144 acre park protects a large swath of the sensitive mangrove-lined northern shores of Upper Tampa Bay, a massive estuary. Centered on a large Environmental Study Center, the park is very popular for family and group picnics, and for paddlers to launch into the shallows of the bay and explore the mangrove-lined channels. Three short nature trails – the Eagle Trail, the Otter Trail, and the Bobcat Trail – explore different aspects of the park’s ecosystems, all touching on some portion, or a view, of the waterways.
Length: Up to 1.8 miles
Lat-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 are available, or you can bring your own canoe or kayak for paddling. Fishing is welcome along the shoreline. Leashed dogs permitted. Picnic shelters can be reserved in advance. Call 813-855-1765 for details.
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 sllips through a residental community for half a mile. Turn right to enter the park.
As you drive in along the winding park road through the pine flatwoods, the first trailhead you encounter is for the Eagle Trail (28.015354,-82.636557). Pull off to the right and park at the trailhead. Nicely shaded for much of its length, the Eagle Trail is a 0.6 mile round-trip out to an observation platform on Mobbly Bay. Walking past the kiosk with its map, start your hike. The footpath is a shellrock path, broad and well-maintained; an off-trail stroller would work well on it.
To your left is an oak hammock of gnarled sand live oaks covered with blotches of red blanket lichen and shield lichen. Poison ivy peeps from the understory, so stay on the path. To your right is a broad sweep of wet flatwoods with scattered longleaf pines and echoing birdsong. There are many snags along this side of the trail, perhaps defining an old waterway. The trail comes up quickly to a view across a picturesque freshwater marsh on the right, with a side trail to its edge, where the marsh ferns grow.
The trail makes an arc to the left, affording a nice sweeping view of the marsh to the right through the sand live oaks. The understory is a mass of green, with bracken ferns knit against saw palmetto. The path is just slightly elevated above the landscape around it – a good thing, since that landscape tends to be soggy. You spot interpretive signs along the way, including one about the saw palmetto, which lift off the ground on long, spindly trunks a good four and five feet tall. Passing a bench, you see an area on the left with no tree canopy, but scattered saw palmetto and a few cabbage palms. Mud puddles are in the trail as the lowlying marshes creep closer to the trail; depending on recent rains, there may be a flow of water across the footpath. Small asters grow along the trail’s edge as it curves beneath the canopy of large oaks.
It slowly becomes obvious that you’re walking out on a peninsula, a spit of land with a wet prairie to your right and the mangrove marsh to your left. Land’s end is at the mangroves and another bench, as the trail transitions to a broad boardwalk across the mangrove marsh. You can see the root systems of young mangroves reflecting in the open water off to the right. The boardwalk is over patches of needlerush and islands of red mangroves. Plinks and plunks and splashes punctuate the enrobing of the senses in the salt tang of the mangroves, which to me always evokes being in the Everglades. Thousands of mud crabs scuttle through the shallows.
Trail’s end is at an observation deck on Mobbly Bay, a flat, blue-sheen surface that is crystal clear in the shallows. You see a few homes in the distance, but the view is mostly of an unbroken, unsullied mangrove-lined shore, something not as common along other arms of Tampa Bay. Enjoy the clarity of the water and the sounds of wildlife before retracing your steps back to the trailhead to complete this 0.6 mile nature trail.
Driving farther along the park road, you reach the Environmental Study Center. Pass by it and park in the nearby lot. Backtrack past the kayak launch to the center, and take the time to stroll through it if you haven’t visited before. Focused on the ecosystems of Tampa Bay, the center provides a backstory to what you’ve seen and will see on the trails. The Bobcat Trail (28.012588,-82.633502) starts right in front of the center, passing by it to work its way out to the salt barrens. Begin this half mile loop by turning left at the first T intersection to loop around this unique habitat, which reminds me of the coastal prairies of the Everglades. The plant life is similar. There is glasswort and saltwort and salt hay growing in profusion, stands of needlerush, and sea myrtle sporting beautiful white blossoms in the fall. The barrens are fringed by slash pines and hammocks of gnarled sand live oaks. While the mangroves here had taken a bad hit from our cold winter, young ones were sprouting, assuring there would still be a fringe of red mangrove around the barrens.
The trail dances along the ecotone between pines, oaks, and salt barren. The water flowing out of the pine woods and into the barrens is root beer colored, with heavy tannins leached from oak leaves in the hammock. The footpath is moist and sticky, much like walking on wet marl. Common mud crabs crawl between the pnuematophores of black mangroves. You cross over a small bridge. To the right is a sweep of coastal forest as you pass an interpretive sign about cottonmouths. An unmarked trail takes off to the right just before you pass a bench on the right at a quarter mile. The hammock provides some protection for the mangroves, and enough shade on the shallows to grow a huge crop of mosquitoes – they are fierce along this section of trail. The wetlands creep up into the hammock to the right.
You emerge into an open marl prairie that stretches out to the bay: soft grasses, open water, and not-so-solid ground. It’s a serious sample of the Everglades along Old Tampa Bay. There are many unmarked side trails, but none of them look appealing when wet. The trail slips across this open area and through the wall of mangroves onto a boardwalk, which leads you to the left along the edge of a cove in the estuary. It’s a beauty spot and popular for fishing. Leaving the waterfront, the trail continues back around to the intersection where the loop began, within sight of the Environmental Study Center. Turn right to exit.
The final nature trail in the park is the Otter Trail (28.014543,-82.633801), well-hidden at the end of the large parking area at the opposite end from the Environmental Study Center. As you get to Family Pavllions 3 & 4 (Maple and Oak) and the restroom, the trail starts behind them as a sidewalk, and segues into a boardwalk. An interpretive sign shows the trail map for this 0.7 mile loop. Crossing Double Branch Creek, it circles around a series of marsh ponds in the pine flatwoods. Mud crabs scatter in the salt marsh. Mangroves to the right hide your view of the bay, but the marsh to the left is open and obvious. You can see a tower placed for osprey nesting. The boardwalk ends, and you reach an interpretive sign about salt marshes, with large crab holes in the ground nearby. The footpath is shellrock and grass, slightly above the elevation of the surrounding marshes, and yes, there be insects – and the tracks of raccoons in the soft mud of puddles that high water brings.
Passing beneath a very large slash pine, you walk in the shade of oaks set above the understory of saw palmetto. As you hit a few slippery spots underfoot, you get a glimpse off to the right of the open water of Old Tampa Bay, but only for a moment. Cabbage palms rise from the soft grasses. A stiff breeze off the water rustles their fronds, making for a natural air conditioning feel – a giant swamp cooler at work. Ball moss grows in lumps along oak branches near the bay. Views of the water become a prominent feature of the hike, with the cool breeze increasing in velocity. Oyster bars are visible. To the left is an open flatwoods understory with scattered cabbage palms.
A creek is outlined by mangroves as you come up to a bench under a little oak tree at a quarter mile. The trail turns away from the water at this point, and the footpath is filled with tiny tufts of blooming grass. A freshwater marsh off to the left is defined by tall cattails. The trail is now a broad grassy path with bracken fern along its edges. As the trail jogs to the left at 0.3 miles, you can see houses off to the distance on the edge of the preserve – the understory is wide open now, and there is little to no shade along this part of the trail.
The chirp of crickets announces your arrival along the edge of a willow marsh – permanent standing fresh water so close to the salty shores. Purple aster peeks through the bracken fern as you walk through a small hammock along the wetland. Off in the distance, you can now see the metal roofs of the picnic shelters and a large birdhouse. The trail zigzags through this open wetland area, mushy here and there, with delicate wildflowers rising through the grasses. As the trail curves off to the right, you can see and hear traffic on Hillsborough Avenue for a moment. At a low mushy spot, water is draining out of the flatwoods and into the marsh. At 0.5 mile, you pass under the birdhouse.
Off to the left, you’re approaching the needlerush marsh that you first saw from the boardwalk when you started this loop. As you step into the shade of oaks and pines, the trail emerges into the picnic area and through an open area used for sports. Stay on the left side of this open area, where there’s a playground tucked away in the woods, and you come to a sidewalk. Turn left past a large picnic pavillion and water fountain. Walk through the playground and take the first left, the zigzagging path, back into the woods along the sidewalk to return to the trailhead.