Our plan to spend a weekend at Hillsborough River State Park for an off-the-grid R & R was quickly crushed after finding out the park's primitive campsite was flooded. We ended up pitching our tent on a very crowded campground among enormous trailers and expensive RVs, feeling quite out of place in our tiny pop-up shelter. We weren't exactly used to what we both jokingly dubbed as 1st world camping, but we were a couple of happy campers eager for a different kind of adventure.

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The whole park felt more like it was in the middle of the suburbs than in the middle of a forest. It was busy with kids running around and riding bikes on the concrete paths, couples enjoying an afternoon stroll, people walking their dogs, and retirees lounging in beach chairs under retractable awnings. The park features a swimming pool, restaurant, and a gift shop where you can find anything from souvenirs and fishing rods, to canoe and bicycle rentals. For convenience, every campsite also has a big restroom facility complete with shower rooms, laundromat, and a vending machine that dispenses cold soda bottles for just $1.25 (a definite luxury for campers).

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After eating dinner we cooked on our camping stove, we went to a “Campfire Program” behind campsite 41 overlooking the Hillsborough River. Held on Saturday evenings in a campfire setting, the program aims to teach visitors different topics about nature and showcase some of the flora and fauna found in the park.

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We sat on one of the log bleachers in front of a dying campfire, squinting in the dark as a park ranger presented a slide show about wildfires--as well as the animals typically affected by natural disasters like turtles, birds, snakes, and deer. After the program, a curious visitor asked the ranger whether panthers roamed the campgrounds, and the ranger simply responded: “Maybe, maybe not.”

We spent the night in our tent slightly worried about panthers (that may or may not be roaming around the campsite) sniffing outside our tent and biting our toes, but we didn't anticipate that it was actually mosquitoes that were the real threat to campers. The next day, we woke up with giant welts all over our body despite putting on copious amounts of pungent mosquito repellent the previous night.

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After a quick breakfast, we packed our bags and headed to the hiking trails. Due to the park's close proximity to Tampa, it remains one of the busiest parks in Florida. Yet, despite all the human traffic, the area is still teeming with wildlife. As we passed by a picnic area, we saw several squirrels stealing food from unattended coolers, and turkey vultures (a.k.a. buzzards) lurking on the rooftops of surrounding trees and buildings.

Of course, those weren't the only animals we encountered during our weekend there. Before crossing a stationary bridge that led to the hiking area, there was a sign warning us that alligators were present in the park, and it surely didn't take very long before we spotted one floating downriver. Alligators are vital to the Florida ecosystem, and it was quite special to see them in the wild instead of seeing them caged in farm corrals. We tried our best to keep in mind that alligators have a natural fear of man, but that didn't stop us from being extra cautious especially while we traversed the exposed river bank.

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^^Did you see the alligator?^^

Although Hillsborough River is actually off-limits to swimmers, there were definitely times the mesmerizing orange and red hues of the river made us want to take a quick dip. Considered a blackwater river, Hillsborough's water looks dark due to the tannins produced by decaying vegetation. Canoeing and fishing are just a few other ways to enjoy the river, but since we were both petrified by river predators, we never got to try any of those activities.

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Established in 1938, Hillsborough State Park is one of the first state parks created in Florida. It has a total of 7.3 miles of hiking trails with difficulty levels ranging from easy to challenging. In our experience, the trails were effortless to navigate. Apart from being provided a map upon entrance to the park, there were markers ( with emergency numbers included) that showed us where we were and where we needed to go. There were also boardwalks in marshy areas that not only made hiking easier but also provided a good vantage point for viewing the lush trees that towered above us.

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Walking along the nature trail felt a lot like exploring an outdoor museum. Every once in a while, we would find signs that provided information about the interesting plants and animals found along the trail like large saw palmettos, barred owls and corn snakes. Apart from a few squirrels climbing the giant trees and a lone grasshopper we found hiding behind a trail marker, we didn't really see any other animals during our hike. Nonetheless, it was quite fascinating to learn about the park's impressive biodiversity.

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It took us about an hour to finish one of the park's shorter trails. As we made our way back to our camp, we saw children in swimsuits walking along the path using branches as trekking poles, all thrilled to embark on a midday hike. We'd never seen children get so hyped about the outdoors and we understood why. With a lot of kid-friendly activities and easy access to playgrounds and other facilities, the park is the perfect introduction to nature for children.

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Hillsborough River State Park may not have fulfilled our romantic Thoreauvian fantasies, but we were happy to return home with more knowledge about Florida's ecosystem, America's RV culture-- and the vicious Florida mosquitos. With excellent campground amenities, the park is definitely the great place to experience the great outdoors without sacrificing comfort.

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