Discovering the Wilds of Tampa Bay Florida

Myakka River Park 05

When the opportunity came up at work to travel to a conference, my hand shot up before I even heard where it was. Once I found out the location I immediately started researching what the area had to offer. Initially my goal was to see an alligator or a manatee, but after further exploration I settled on an alligator. With my goal selected, I set out to explore the Tampa Bay area and to keep a keen eye out for Mr. Alligator.

Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park

Looking for an area to do some hiking, this could be your spot, with 27 miles of marked trails it’s a perfect getaway from the city. Cyclists don’t feel left out; Starkey will accommodate you as well. There is a 6.7 mile paved trail that carves through the park and connects to the much larger 42 mile Suncoast Trail. If neither of those options sparks your fancy, the park also has facilities for and allows horse use on a 10 mile marked trail. Bird watchers should also take note, as a site on the Great Florida Birding Trail, Starkey Wilderness Park has had over 140 bird species spotted there. My only complaint of the park was that some of the trails were not labeled very well.

Location: 10500 Wilderness Park Blvd, New Port Richey, FL 34655

Hours: 6:30 am to Sunset, Daily

More Info:  Park Website

The sun setting in the swamp at Starkey Wilderness Park.

The sun setting in the swamp at Starkey Wilderness Park.

Spanish moss hanging from the trees in Starkey Wilderness Park.

Spanish moss hanging from the trees in Starkey Wilderness Park.

The trail I took to the swamp.

The trail I took to the swamp.

Golden light filtering into the swamp at sunset.

Golden light filtering into the swamp at sunset.

Looking out into the Wilderness at Starkey Park.

Looking out into the Wilderness at Starkey Park.

Fort de Soto Park

This park has a little bit of everything. Located on a grouping of keys in southwest St Petersburg you can find an old fort, kayaks & bikes to rent, two fishing piers, waterfowls galore and white sandy beaches. The remnants of the fort are semi misleading, from the parking lot it looks as though there is more to explore than there actually is. The canons and various chambers in the back of the fort are pretty much your only points of exploration, save for a walkway over the top of it which yields almost nothing. Be mindful in the cool dark chambers, I found a three foot snake in one. The soft white sand beaches were nice and perfect for a long stroll. Don’t be surprised by the gaggle of paparazzi, they are there for the birds. Honestly I hadn’t seen that many large telephoto lenses outside of a nature special on Discovery Channel. The park also offers a nice view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Location: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, St Petersburg, FL 33715

More Info: Park Website

The canons from Fort de Soto.

The canons from Fort de Soto.

Looking out at the fishing pier from Fort de Soto Park.

Looking out at the fishing pier from Fort de Soto Park.

Looking down one of the many beaches at the park.

Looking down one of the many beaches at the park.

Crazy sun rays near sunset.

Crazy sun rays near sunset.

Dive bombing pelican with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the back.

Dive bombing pelican with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the back.

Myakka River State Park

This was my heaven; I spotted a gator before I even parked the car. My goal was to head straight for the lake and then explore from there, but the park road takes you over the river and I could see three alligators just from the car window. After I got over that excitement, I preceded to the lake to checkout my options. They had large airboats that you could go out on, the biggest ones I have ever seen, they probably could hold 30 people. Next to that though were kayaks and canoes, instantly I knew this was the way I wanted to see the lake. The agent at the counter was very helpful with pointing out areas I could go to and times it would take to get there. His information held true and I encountered 40-50 alligators in my roughly 70 mins on the lake. The park comprises some 58 square miles of land, so if heading out on the lake is not what you had in mind there are lots of other options. There is a nature walk that includes a trip up into the treetops on a canopy bridge that is topped off with a fabulous view from a lookout tower. Another option is a wooden boardwalk that takes you out over the lake in search of wildlife; this one is especially good if you are a birdwatcher. Hikers can also explore trails that cross large expanses of rare Florida dry prairie. There is even a tram tour that takes you out on a safari in the backcountry. The park even offers cabins, for those that want to spend a little more time out with nature.

Location: 13208 State Rd 72, Sarasota, FL 34241

Hours: 8 am – Sunset

More Info: Park Website

This guy was ready to be on the move in a second.

This guy was ready to be on the move in a second.

Reportedly one of the 2 largest airboats in existence.

Reportedly one of the 2 largest airboats in existence.

The stack of available kayaks to take out on the lake.

The stack of available kayaks to take out on the lake.

Paddling in for a closer look.

Paddling in for a closer look.

This guy was keeping his eye on me.

This guy was keeping his eye on me.

How many gators do you see?

How many gators do you see?

Now that is a staring contest, Myakka River Park.

Now that is a staring contest, Myakka River Park.

The stairs up to the canopy bridge.

The stairs up to the canopy bridge.

Eye level with the trees at Myakka River Park.

Eye level with the trees at Myakka River Park.

The view from the top of the tower on the canopy walk, Myakka River Park.

The view from the top of the tower on the canopy walk, Myakka River Park.

For obvious reasons my favorite park was Myakka, but each park provided things that were interesting to photograph and unique experiences. I wouldn’t hesitate about recommending either of the parks I visited on my trip. To read about my hunt for street art while in the Tampa Bay area check out my article here.

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