Tampa Bay may be the hip, urban heart of Florida's Gulf coast, but it's also Florida's most diverse destination -- and that means, it's got plenty to do outside as well. Within a few minutes' drive of downtown's skyscrapers, you'll find a nearly prehistoric world with alligators dozing in the sun, migrating birds taking a break, and plenty of nature to recharge your batteries. This is the perfect time to get out and explore.
Lake Lettuce Park
6920 East Fletcher Avenue
Located near the University of South Florida, this 240-acre site gets well over one million visitors a year, but you wouldn't know it walking the boardwalk and trails or paddling on the river. More than half of the park’s property lies in the natural floodplain of the Hillsborough River, consisting of a hardwood swamp forest, which provides a natural storage reservoir for floodwater and improves water quality. The remainder of the park consists of native hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods plant communities. The park is a popular stopover spot for migrating birds, making it a bird-watchers paradise.
Flatwoods Wilderness Park
18205 Bruce B. Downs Boulevard
Don't let the name fool you, this sprawling park sits in the heart of the suburban northern reaches of the City of Tampa, where it provides acres of hiking and biking within a native oak/pine forest. Options include a paved loop trail and a gravel road atop the earthen levee that runs many miles south. Bring your bike, boots, or rollerblades. Just be warned: this is a popular spot on the weekends. The park also abuts the City of Tampa’s New Tampa Nature Park, which includes a playground and zipline. Pay $2 to park.
John B. Sargeant Park
12702 US 301, Thonotosassa
A short drive from downtown’s urban landscape, you can paddle the ancient black waters of the Hillsborough River (the same river that flows through the heart of downtown) through cypress swamps and past basking alligators. You’ll see a side of Florida few visitors get to explore. A guide will join you on your journey downstream and you’ll return by bus to the starting point. Canoe Escape can arrange guided or self-guided canoe or kayak tours of the river, complete with a pick-up at the end of the trip. Pay $2 to park.
Upper Tampa Bay Preserve
8001 Double Branch Road
Hillsborough County founded the Upper Tampa Bay Park in 1982 to provide a protected area for nature study and passive recreation. The 596-acre peninsular park also protects valuable coastal habitat and ecological communities that include mangrove forests, salt marshes, freshwater marshes, coastal hammocks, and pine flatwoods. Bring your own kayak or rent one to explore the mangroves. Pay $2 to park.