Little Manatee River State Park is an excellent place to stop on an RV trip to Florida's gulf coast. Located just south of Tampa and north of Bradenton, this over 2,400-acre nature preserve offers RV camping, paddling, hiking, and many chances to see wildlife up close.
Four different campgrounds can accommodate RVs, equestrian campers, or primitive backpackers. The many hiking trails that cross through the park provide ample opportunities to view deer, tortoises, and foxes in their natural habitat. The oxbow wetland habitat and Little Manatee River offer visitors a chance to spot river otters, alligators, and even manatees in the right season. Many visitors rent a boat so they can paddle along this section of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve and see these exciting animals or throw in a line to catch both fresh and brackish water fish.
Little Manatee River State Park features many different ecosystems. Scrubby flatwood and sand pine trees are home to a multitude of bird species. The park protects all of the wildlife that lives within its borders, so there is plenty to see. There are trails for horses, bicycles, and foot traffic so that visitors can explore this beautiful state park in a variety of ways.
RVers will have an easy time navigating into this park located a half-mile off of Highway 301 by driving 40 minutes south of Tampa or a half-hour north of Bradenton on I-75. Visitors can follow signage on the highway to find the park. Once within the park, main roads are paved, making it easy to travel through to the campground with your RV or horse trailer. Keep an eye out as you drive for wildlife that may cross the road. Parking is available at campsites and certain trailheads or equestrian stage areas. Guests may enter the park already on horseback as well as on foot or on bicycle.
Horseback enthusiasts can use one of the four equestrian campsites at Little Manatee State Park. Each site has water hookups and 20- or 30-amp electric connections. There are two stalls in the stables designated for each campsite to use. There is a composting toilet at the equestrian sites, but the full-facility bathhouse is in the main campground, one-third of a mile away. Once visitors have set up camp at their equestrian site, they can explore the 15 miles of bridle trails available at the park. Reservations can be made from one day to 11 months ahead of time, but visitors are advised to make reservations sooner rather than later during peak months.
The pet-friendly Little Manatee River State Park Campground offers 30 campsites for tents or RVs. Every site comes equipped with water and electric hookups. There is a dump station near the main entrance to the campground. Generators can be used except during quiet hours. Each campsite also has a picnic table and a fire ring, and there are hot showers available in the center of the camping loop. There is also a coin-operated laundry facility beside the bathhouse.
There are three ADA-accessible campsites that provide a sidewalk to the main bathhouse. The campsites provide good privacy with plenty of shade. All are back-in sites with dirt, sand, or grass surfaces. For rigs with high clearance, low-hanging branches may pose a problem, so visitors should be careful when backing their rigs in. Reservations can be made from one day to 11 months ahead of time. RVs up to 75 feet long are permitted.
The park ranger will assign any unreserved campsites to visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. However, reservations are recommended as campsites tend to fill up fairly quickly.
There is one primitive group campsite located less than a mile away from the main campground. Campers may use the facilities in the main campground loop as there are no bathrooms, electricity, or water at the group site. There is vehicle access and parking at the group site. The campsite can accommodate up to 20 campers.
For backpackers who are looking for a more primitive experience, there is a campsite accessible after a 2.5-mile hike on the Florida Hiking Trail. There is no electricity and no drinking water. Visitors are strongly encouraged to practice Leave No Trace in order to maintain the condition of the area. Pets are not permitted in the primitive campsite. Visitors may reserve for up to eight people by calling the ranger station up to two months in advance.
Sand Pine Trail is a three-mile loop that can be enjoyed by hikers or mountain bikers. In addition, the main road to the ranger station is three miles long and paved for bikers to enjoy. Many of the park's biking trails are very easy. Elevation changes are minimal, and the trails are well maintained. So, this park can be enjoyed by inexperienced and experienced bikers alike. The ranger station offers bicycle rentals during the day. Florida law requires all cyclists under age 17 to wear helmets.
Bird enthusiasts should be sure to bring along their binoculars in order to get a closer look at the many species of birds and butterflies that make this nature reserve their home. Osprey and Red-shouldered Hawk can be seen, as well as wild turkey, red-headed woodpecker, and sandhill crane. Some rare Florida Scrub-Jays are also found on the north side of the park. Butterflies varieties native to the park include viceroy, monarch, and queen. A complete bird list and guide is available at the ranger station.
There are several ecosystems that converge in Little Manatee River State Park, giving visitors the opportunity to see many different fish and animals. In the freshwater areas, freshwater turtles and alligators are frequently seen. Many fish including bluegill, catfish, snook, and mullet make this area their home. Hikers at the park are sure to meet up with land animals as well. Among other wildlife, white-tailed deer frequent the forest, along with rabbits, foxes, and raccoons.
During the summer, manatees are frequently spotted in the river. During the hot months, they like to stay in the shallow part of the river and then swim to the Gulf of Mexico during the colder, winter months. Because they are always on the move, the best way to see one is to rent a boat and paddle along the banks of the river. All wildlife is protected in this state park and should be enjoyed from a distance.
Little Manatee River, the namesake of the park, flows for about six miles through the park's boundaries. The river is part of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve and is a Florida Designated Paddling Trail due to its unique natural features. The river conditions are subject to the tides, so visitors should contact a park ranger ahead of time to properly plan their trip. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent from the ranger station.
Little Manatee River State Park has many hiking trails of various difficulties. The popular Florida Hiking Trail can be found in the northern section of the park and is a six and a half mile stacked loop. Visitors should remember to bring sunscreen, plenty of water, and bug spray on this moderately strenuous trail through bottomland forest, flatwoods, and sandhill ecosystems. There are many vista points along this trail overlooking the Little Manatee River. Primitive camping is located about two and a half miles from the trailhead.
Visitors should be watchful of other hikers, mountain bikers, and any equestrian riders on these shared-use trails. A park ranger can supply visitors with an extensive map of the trails and recommend which trails are most suited for their chosen activity.
Anglers can try their luck at catching many kinds of fish in the Little Manatee River. The river features both fresh and brackish water, and fishermen can catch Florida gar, bluegill, catfish, and many other warm-water species. Visitors can either fish from the banks of the river or rent canoes and kayaks to find other spots less accessible by land. Due to the unique conditions in the park, anglers must have both a fresh and saltwater fishing license since both exist and intermingle in the park.