By Gareth Kelly 

Just north of Tampa Bay, at the tip of the Hillsborough River, lies Lettuce Lake where, for $2 per vehicle, visitors can enjoy all this 240-acre park has to offer.

A 350-foot wooden boardwalk meanders through a swamp filled with an assortment of more than 300 species of flora and fauna. Climb the steps up the viewing tower for a breathtaking view of the river, the swamp and, if you’re lucky, maybe spot the real treasures of this park, American Alligators.

Woman Paddling Canoe

- Gareth Kelly for VISIT FLORIDA

For an additional $25 visitors can rent a two-person canoe for up to four hours, allowing you to explore this wetland with these prehistoric inhabitants in a more intimate fashion.

After check-in at the gate, signing a waiver and listening intently to the instructions of the warden -- “Don’t get to close to the gators and just leave them be” he said -- we were given our paddles, life vests and headed to the dock.

Can you spot the prehistoric creature on the banks of Lettuce Lake?

- Gareth Kelly for VISIT FLORIDA

An eerie silence descended upon us, “Look,” I said to my wife, “Over there on the river bank.” Transfixed, we both realized we were looking at the rather large outline of an alligator.

According to the information in the visitor center located on the 1.25-mile biking and walking trail, a 14-foot foot alligator resides here. I think we found it.

We stared, charged with adrenaline and perhaps a little fear. It never moved, just lay still on the bank, no doubt aware of our presence but seemingly uninterested. Rather than get any closer we back paddled into the middle of the river before turning again upstream.

For the next hour or so we came across many other alligators of various sizes. We found ourselves as close as 10 feet from some as they lay peacefully on the riverbank, warming themselves in the sun. Most seemed juvenile, between three and five feet long -- but still big enough.

We were far upstream now, the river only 15 feet wide. Low branches hung above us, catfish swam below our canoe and birds waded through the shallows looking for food. Far enough, we turned around and floated gently with the current back to our launch point. We had spent about three hours out on the water and had seen it, all but no doubt our biggest find was the monster on the bank.

Along with canoes, the park has numerous nature trails, BBQ pits and shelters for rent, a visitor center, ample parking, playgrounds and grassy areas.

If getting up close and personal with alligators is not your thing, venture inland to Safari Wilderness in Lakeland. Along with camel and horseback safaris, this 260-acre ranch now offers a kayak safari that includes feeding of polite ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar. Surrounded by an 870-square mile watershed, The Green Swamp, this Florida agritourism project will bring you close enough to smell the sweet scent of a zebra’s breath.

When you go…

Lettuce Lake Park
6920 E. Fletcher Ave.
Tampa, Fla., 33637

Places to Remember