Little Manatee River State Park is a hidden gem featuring paddling, wildlife viewing, hiking and camping. The beautiful Little Manatee River is the star of this state park.
Little Manatee River State Park is located in Hillsborough County south of Tampa and east of Bradenton. It’s pretty easy to access from I-75.
There are two entrances to the park. The main entrance off Lightfoot Rd. has a staffed ranger station, boat launch, picnic tables and pavilions, campsite, restrooms, and equestrian and multi-use trails. The North entrance on U.S. 301 has a 6.5-mile trail and primitive campsite.
Please note: Many facilities at the park are temporarily closed due to construction and/or Covid. Closed at the time of our visit in August 2020: bike rentals and boat rentals, the campground and all its facilities, the trailhead and restrooms at parking lot 1, and the playground. Visit the State Park Website for the most up-to-date information.
Things to Do at Little Manatee River State Park
We started at the main entrance with hiking the 2-mile Sandhill Trail. It’s a stacked loop that goes around the campground and connects to the main paved road. You can start the trail from many points around the park, but we started at the picnic area, which is the second parking lot. Right away you’ll notice that unfortunately the trail is not very well-marked. There are many cross roads and not many signs or blazes to keep you on track. We actually ended up going in a circle around the campground.
Do make sure to grab a map from the entrance station on your way in, as we didn’t see any park maps posted on the trails! However, navigation was still challenging even with the map.
The other hiking trail is the Oxbow Nature Trail which is 0.8 miles and takes you close to the river. You can also take this trail from parking lot 2. The other trails are multi-use and equestrian trails.
See below for hiking info at the North entrance!
The Sandpine Trail is available for biking as well as the main paved road. You can bring your own bike or rent one from the park. Bike rentals are done from the ranger station at the park entrance.
There are over 15 miles of equestrian trails around the park. Horseback riders can also enjoy the several multi-use trails. There’s also equestrian camping available including stables. Ask at the ranger station for an equestrian trail map.
The Little Manatee River is “one of the most pristine blackwater rivers in Southwest Florida and designated as an outstanding Florida water.” Bring your own vessels or rent from the park. The river is one of Florida’s designated paddling trails. And at just $15 per boat for up to 4 hours, we found this to be one of the cheapest paddling rentals we’ve ever seen!
The main boat launch is currently under construction, so there is an alternative launch set up near pavilion 1. It’s basically just a small cleared bank where you can get into the water. Head to pavilion 1 for the launch area (park at the second parking lot). If you’re bringing your own vessels, be aware the launch is a little bit of a walk from the parking lot.
The Park has about 30 campsites. They seem to be pretty spacious, but pretty close together. They are working on renovating a nice bathhouse with laundry facilities. Currently the campsite is closed due to the construction.
The Park has some nice shelters available for use. This is the only state park I’ve been to with a completely screened shelter! Shelter 1 is screened with 8 picnic tables. Shelters 2 and 3 are open-air with 4 picnic tables each. Grills and other picnic tables are located in the picnic area at parking lot 2.
The park is a great place to see birds, gopher tortoises, snakes, fish, alligators, and the river’s namesake manatees. Although we didn’t see much wildlife on our hike here, we did see a redheaded woodpecker and lots of insects like bumblebees and grasshoppers.
North Entrance at Little Manatee River State Park
The North entrance is about 8 minutes up U.S. 301 from the main entrance. Don’t forget to grab a car tag from your payment envelope if you plan to go to the north side, although there is a separate pay station here. You’ll only need to pay once if you go to both entrances.
There is not much at the North entrance besides a dirt parking lot off the side of the road. There’s no signs on the road and so I recommend using a GPS to find it.
The one trail here is the stacked loop Florida Hiking Trail totaling about 6.5 miles. The smaller loop ends up being roughly 3 miles. The left side of the trail takes you near the Little Manatee River. There are several points where tall bluffs of the river bank offer beautiful views overlooking the water.
The most notable thing about this trail is that is can get very wet! There were several parts of the trail that were muddy or even completely underwater. Some wet spots can be walked around, but there were several places we had to get our feet wet. The second photo shows a part of the trail that was about 8-10 inches deep with no choice but to cross through the water.
It is also very, very overgrown in parts. The weeds at times were over waist high, and sometimes you could hardly see the trail. However this trail is well-marked with yellow blazes so it’s not too hard to find your way.
There are some areas with boardwalks over wet spots. We noticed the boardwalks were a little dilapidated, so watch your step.
There’s also a cool bridge on the left side of the loop just past marker 2.
There’s also a primitive campsite available here at the top of the loop. We didn’t hike the whole trail so can’t speak to the conditions, but one entire boardwalk path leading this way was completely underwater.
This trail is definitely not for faint-hearted hikers. At least during the rainy summer season, you’ll be hiking through tall grass, getting muddy and dirty, and there are lots of bugs. Specifically grasshoppers. They were jumping around everywhere out of the tall grass.
Surprisingly, the mosquito situation wasn’t bad with bug spray.
The right side of the trail takes you through hammock and sand hills. It’s not as wet on this side, but there are definitely still some puddles. This section of the trail was also not overgrown like the left side. Stick to the right side of the trail if you’re looking for an easier hike.
Hours: 8am – sundown daily
Fees: $5 per vehicle (applicable at both park entrances)
Main: 215 Lightfoot Rd, Wimauma, FL 33598
North: 17837 US-301, Wimauma, FL 33598
Pets: Allowed and must remain on a 6-ft leash, like most Florida State Parks