Get Lost in Nature at these 12 Tampa Bay Parks and Preserves
While you may not find any monumental hiking trails in Tampa, you will find an abundance of quaint nature preserves which are great for bird watching, alligator sightings, and light exercise. Scattered throughout the Bay area are over a dozen beautiful preserves which highlight the natural flora and fauna of the state.
Visiting any of the parks featured below give will you the opportunity to bypass the crazy beach crowds in favor of a relaxing walk in nature. Be on the lookout for exotic birds, gators, armadillos, gopher tortoises, wild turkey, & more!
1. Lettuce Lake Park
Highlight: Best place to see a gator
There are plenty of places throughout the Tampa metro area to see gators. Pretty much any preserve or park in the area is home to a sizeable gator population. Increase your odds by visiting Lettuce Lake, the top gator sighting destination in the Tampa metro.
Take a slow stroll along the boardwalk trail and you are bound to see at least one, and likely many during the winter season. At this time, gators tend to bask out in the sun in an attempt to warm their cold-blooded bodies.
2. Boca Ciega Millennium Park
Highlight: Amazing views of the bay
Boca Ciega is a wonderful Pinellas County park to kayak, picnic, and bird watch. The standout here is a 35 foot observation tower which overlooks Boca Ciega Bay. This park is located on the Great Florida Birding trail so odds are high that you will see many unique birds during your visit.
Other features include a boardwalk trail, a dog park, and picnicking facilities. Although the trails are pretty short, they do cover 7 different ecosystems. Along the way you will get to enjoy the natural beauty of coastal oak hammock, salt marsh, bay head, mangrove swamp, and wetlands.
3. Flatwoods Park
Highlight: The best paved bike trail in Tampa
This North Tampa park is home to a large concentration of native pine flatwoods. A 7 mile paved path curves around this increasingly rare habitat. If you are seeking a great place for a long, leisurely bike ride, Flatwoods is definitely a great choice as the trail is paved and well-maintained, never too congested, and the scenery is gorgeous. This trail is multi-purpose, so if you prefer to lace up your gym shoes or walk the dog, there’s plenty of room!
4. John Chesnut
Highlight: Lush greenery & plenty of shade
This quiet park is located in the Northern Pinellas county suburb of Palm Harbor. Abundant gator sightings, a beautiful boardwalk path that crosses cypress swamps, volleyball courts, shady picnic tables, a great running loop, and fantastic lake views are the highlights of Pinellas County’s top park.
Another bonus here is the high deer population. If you time your visit near dusk, you will see so many deer! They are so accustomed to humans so they do not hide or run as you stroll past them!
5. Brooker Creek Preserve
Highlight: Ample wildlife sightings
Brooker Creek is a laid-back preserve located in Tarpon Springs. At 8300 acres, this is the largest natural land area in Pinellas County. Despite the ample hiking terrain (5 miles of trails), this park remains quiet throughout the year. Diverse ecosystems include pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and forested woodlands.
Asides from enjoying some much needed time out in pretty natural surroundings, you are bound to see some wildlife along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for armadillos and gopher tortoises, which frequently make their way out onto the trails. Other highlights here include a nature center, as well as ongoing interpretative programs, and guided tours.
6. Weedon Island Preserve
Highlight: Lots of wildlife!
If you find yourself seeking a quiet day away from the St.Pete/Clearwater beach crowds, you may want to head over to Weedon Island Preserve to enjoy the tranquil natural setting. This oasis of St. Petersburg is the best place to enjoy a workout, picnic, birdwatch, and simply get back to nature. Weedon is an excellent place to enjoy the diversity of native Florida flora and fauna. A popular birding site, you will see all kinds of exotic birds during your visit.
A combination of boardwalk and paved trails take you through a variety of habitats including maritime hammocks, pine/scrub flatwoods, and mangrove forests. At the end of the boardwalk trail, you will arrive at a 45 foot observation deck which overlooks the bay. If you prefer to travel by boat, grab your canoe or kayak and enjoy a quiet afternoon on the Paddling trail.
7. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
Highlight: Guided tram tours
Boyd Hill offers one advantage over similar Pinellas County Parks – they offer guided tram tours (just $5) daily at 1:00 (also at 11:00 on Saturdays). Note that this preserve is closed on Mondays. This tour is a great way to learn more about the unique ecosystem found at Boyd. Also your tour guide is more familiar with gators and will be able to point them out whereas you might walk right by!
If you feel like working up a sweat, you will find several miles of trails. The landscapes here are really unique, ranging from pine flatwoods, to marshes, to swamp. Overall, Boyd is one of the best places in Southern Pinellas for any nature lovers.
8. Hillsborough River State Park
Highlight: Home to class II rapids which you can canoe/kayak
This park is pretty unique in that it is home to Class II rapids, a true rarity in Florida. If you want to hike, this is a great place to do so as you will find a variety of woodsy trails (60+ miles!). Canoeing and fishing are also popular pastimes here, particularly during the milder season.
Although it’s a scary thought considering the high gator population, canoers love making their way down the river as they take in the unique sights of cypress swamps, occasional gators, and all sorts of exotic bird life. For everyone else who is squeamish over the thought of seeing an alligator upclose, opt to watch from afar via the River Rapids nature trail, a short trail which features great views of the river.
9. Morris Bridge Park
Highlight: Super quiet
Morris Bridge is another great Tampa area park to add to your bucket list. This park is never overly busy, making it the perfect choice for anyone looking to avoid noisy crowds. Although it’s most popular amongst fishermen, hiking amongst the bald cypress trees is quite an enjoyable experience for the nature lover.
The boardwalk is short and shady, so perfect even on the sunniest of days. Alligators, turtles, and water snakes are frequently sighted. Also, this preserve is located on the Great Florida Birding trail, and thus, birdwatchers will want to take note. As for hiking, the Bald Cypress trail is a quick easy walk which is mostly shady, and thus, can be enjoyed almost anytime of the year.
10. Sawgrass Lake Park
Highlight: Bird watching oasis
At Sawgrass, you will have the unique opportunity to walk through one of the largest maple swamps on the Gulf Coast. The boardwalk here is 1 mile in length (much longer than the others on this list), and thus, a good choice for anyone seeking to spend more time in nature. Like Lettuce Lake, this park is also a prime choice for alligator watching.
Birdwatching is super popular here during the spring and fall months as thousands of birds migrate through this area this time of year. Also be on the lookout for small forms of wildlife, especially the gopher tortoise. If you find yourself seeking a serene nature escape in the Largo area, this preserve is one of your best bets!
11. Wall Springs Park
Highlight: Site of a historic mineral springs
This 210 acre Palm Harbor park has a unique historical backstory as it was once the site of a healing mineral springs. Tourists used to come from all over to enjoy the healing benefits of the mineral enriched waters. Unfortunately, the springs shut down back in the 60’s.
Today, you can still enjoy the health benefits of hiking, as well as immersing yourself in the natural beauty. With all the commercialization today, it is nice to take a break and enjoy the simple sights and sounds of nature. The highlight here is a 35 foot tower which overlooks the Gulf. For anyone interested in cycling, the wonderful Pinellas Trail (rated as one of the best rail trails in the US), connects to this park.
12. Eureka Springs Park
Highlight: Started as a botanical garden in the 1930’s
Eureka Springs Park is a particularly gorgeous place to explore especially if you love lush tropical plants. Once a botanical garden, this park is the most beautiful in the Tampa park system. Although it’s quite small at just 21 acres, there is a nice long boardwalk trail which will take you through a lovely forest of cypress, tupelo, and maples.
Also on-site is a rose garden, an orchid room, and a greenhouse. This is a lovely spot for a picnic so pack a lunch to enjoy after your walk