Even though it’s just 30 minutes from urban, bustling Tampa, Little Manatee River State Park can make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to a day when these lands were just trees, water, wildlife, and blue sky. Rent a canoe or kayak and cruise the Little Manatee River, or lace up your boots for a 6-mile (9.7-km) hike that loops through the heart of the park. You’ll likely see deer as they trot through the bush or turtles sunning on a log, and keep an eye out for alligators that come up to rest and lie on the banks. There are also 12 miles of equestrian trails for exploring the park on horseback, as well as picnic pavilions set right on the forested riverbank. There’s a decent chance you could spot a manatee coming up to the bank for a feed, or herons silently stalking fish in the shade of the sand pine and oak. Bobcats, nine-banded armadillos, and river otters also call the park home.
All the animals in the state park are wild and in their natural environment, so it’s important to keep a safe distance and enjoy their beauty from afar.
Insider Tip: Winter is the best time for spotting manatees since they’re drawn to the river’s warm waters.
Little Manatee River State Park is located off US 301 on Lightfoot Road, five miles (eight kilometers) south of Sun City. It is about a 30-minute drive south from Tampa, and a 90-minute drive southwest from Orlando (take exit 246 off Interstate 75). The park is open year-round, from 8am to dark every day. There is an entry fee of $5 per vehicle for two to eight people, and $4 for single-occupant vehicles.
The park is nearly 40 miles (63 km) long and covers 2,600 acres (1052 hectares). It is a popular spot for canoe rentals, pavilion rentals, as well as back country camping. Picnic pavilions can be reserved with a fee, and unreserved ones are first come, first serve. There are restrooms located by the picnic pavilions, but none available on the loop trail.