Visiting Busch Gardens, Adventure Island and other local tourist destinations, enjoying the Gulf Coast beaches from Sarasota County to Citrus County, and taking in outdoor sporting events, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, are popular ways to spend cooler weekends in October and November.
However, there are many smaller outdoor venues and parks in the Tampa Bay area that surprisingly few locals (and even fewer tourists) know about. From beautiful botanical gardens to picturesque state parks and scenic walking trails to unique manatee viewing opportunities, here is a rundown of just some of the many delightful (and inexpensive) outdoor activities that you can enjoy in the Tampa Bay region during the fall and year-round.
Hillsborough River State Park
Hillsborough River State Park
opened in 1938 as one of Florida’s first state parks. Offering a 5.8-mile hiking trail, picnic areas and the only Class II river rapids in Florida, Hillsborough River State Park is a great place to spend a beautiful fall day outdoors.
Ranger Carolyn Stoakes shares details of the family-friendly Annual Haunted Woods Halloween event happening at the park from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on October 23 and 24.
“We will turn one trail into a ‘spooky’ trail. We will also have games, a costume contest and a place to enjoy viewings of ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’.” The admission fee for the Haunted Woods event is $10 for those ages 13 and up. Children 12 and under are admitted free.
Like most other parks along the northern fringes of Tampa, Hillsborough River State Park affords leaf peepers some of the best opportunities in the area to see natural fall color. The bald cypress trees in the park showcase vibrant rusty hues in October and November, providing an autumnal backdrop for the serene Hillsborough River.
Stoakes says a great way to enjoy the park during the fall or anytime of the year is by taking guided tours, which are provided during the first and third weekends of every month.
One of the newest outdoor attractions in the Bay area winds along the waterfront in downtown Tampa.
On the urban east bank of the Hillsborough River is the Tampa Riverwalk
, which stretches some 2.4 miles from the Channelside District west past the Tampa Convention Center and north to Water Works Park and Ulele Restaurant. Along the way, walkers stroll past Curtis Hixon Park, MacDill Park, USF Park, the Convention Center Park and Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park.
Hikers and cyclists can access the Tampa Riverwalk from many points in downtown Tampa, and parking is available at convenient places such as the William F. Poe Parking Garage, Fort Brooke Parking Garage, the Tampa Convention Center and under the Selmon Expressway.
One of the advantages of parking near the Selmon Expressway is accessing the Tampa Riverwalk via the new Selmon Greenway
trail, which follows the path of the expressway above.
University of South Florida Botanical Gardens
Tucked away on the southwest corner of the bustling University of South Florida campus in north Tampa is a little slice of serenity better known as the USF Botanical Gardens
. The botanical garden, consisting of about 16 acres, is home to 3,000 plants and animals thriving in their natural habitats. The botanical garden hosts festivals and plant sales, which occur throughout the year and draw many gardening enthusiasts.
“We have a fall plant festival on October 10 and 11,” says USF Botanical Gardens Program Coordinator Kim Hutton, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Biology at USF. “We will also have a scarecrow contest and fall vegetable planting workshops. 60 vendors will be there.” The admission fee for the fall plant festival is $5.
Admission for the USF Botanical Gardens is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors ages 65 and up, $3 for children ages 6 through 13, $1 for USF students, and free for members of the USF Botanical Gardens and children under the age of 6.
Tampa Bay corn mazes
You won’t find many mentions of corn mazes or agri-tourism in the tropical-themed Bay area travel brochures, but there are at least a few annual corn maze events that are quite popular.
Harvest Moon Farm
owners Christina and Demetri Falakos, who run an annual corn maze at their Masaryktown farm in Pasco County, are charged with enthusiasm about this year’s fall festival, which starts October 3 and runs through November, weather and crop permitting.
“We will have the Tampa Bay Lightning Girls and team mascot ThunderBug here during our opening weekend,” Christina Falakos says. “Anyone who comes to Harvest Moon Farms during our Tampa Bay Lightning event on opening weekend wearing Lightning garb will receive $2 off admission,” which normally runs $11.95 for anyone ages 3 and up.
Falakos says other highlights of this year’s fall festival include a costume contest for children from the age of newborn through 12. During the weekend of Halloween, there will also be trick-or-treating in the corn maze. “We will even have a barrel train ride and a hill slide,” she adds.
The Tampa Bay area also offers the Sweetfield Farms
corn maze in Masaryktown and the Fox Squirrel Corn Maze
in Plant City in Hillsborough County. Fox Squirrel Corn Maze operates from October 3 through October 25, with admission prices at $11 for adults and $10 for children ages 17 and under. The Sweetfield Farms corn maze admission is $9.50 for those ages 12 and over and $5 for children 3 through 11.
Brooker Creek Preserve
Tucked away in a rare, relatively undeveloped pocket of Pinellas County near the northern side of East Lake, natural woodlands meet open skies and cattle still roam on picturesque meadows. That’s also where nature lovers will find Brooker Creek Preserve
, 8,700 acres of forest, wetlands and trails that is known as the largest natural area in Pinellas County.
“In the fall we have our annual wildflower festival,” says Julia Myers, an Education Support Specialist at Brooker Creek Preserve’s Education Center. “We’ll have a butterfly tent, a wildflower scavenger hunt, and presentations. It’s really family friendly.”
The event will take place at Brooker Creek Preserve on October 17. Myers says fall is when the preserve offers guided tours on Fridays, in addition to the tours that they usually offer only on Saturdays.
Along with the natural fauna that hikers will find at the Preserve, there is also a colorful array of flora. Peeking through the stands of evergreen pine are splashes of natural fall color in October and November, including vibrant red maples, golden- and crimson-hued sweetgum, and rust-colored bald cypress.
The Preserve also offers guided, reservation-only ecological tours that can help visitors understand more about the natural wonders at this unique Tampa Bay treasure. Admission to Brooker Creek Preserve is free, though donations are appreciated.
Manatee Viewing Center
While Tampa Electric’s Big Bend power plant hums day and night providing electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, gentle giants known as manatees quietly coast the waters of a nearby estuary. As water temperatures in the Bay sink into the 60s or colder, manatees start converging upon the warmer waters of TECO’s Big Bend discharge canal.
Every year, from early November into March, dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of manatees will take refuge in the warm waters around the power plant. The best time to catch a glimpse of the manatees from the rustic boardwalks of the TECO Manatee Viewing Center
is on chilly days.
Guests can also enjoy strolling through the nearby mangrove habitat, getting a lay of the land from a 50-foot-tall lookout tower, brushing up on some Manatee 101 at the facility’s education center or enjoying a picnic.
The Manatee Viewing Center is open from November 1 through April 15, and admission and parking are free. However, visitors should remember to bring mosquito repellant when the flying pests are still active. And guests should also keep in mind that there are no restrooms near the boardwalk, lookout tower or the mangrove habitat trail.