CAMP BAYOU OUTDOOR LEARNING CENTER
4140 24th St SE
Ruskin, Fl 33570
NOTE: The launch area is at the end of 24th Street SE. No fee but parking is very limited and turnarounds can be hard to do. There are also no bathrooms or potable water sources. Hours of operation are sunrise to sunset (officially, I think it's 6p).
Established in 1906, Ruskin is the southernmost community of South Shore and a rare gem, as it still maintains its "old Florida" charm. Ruskin entices new residents with the promise of a slower paced life full of boating, kayaking, fishing, and gardening.
While there are other more popular places to put in on the Little Manatee River, we chose the primitive launch at the end of 24th Street SE. On the grounds of Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center, this location is currently part of the Stream Waterwatch program (station #251). Volunteers help to keep this stream/river well-maintained for Hillsborough County and its citizens.
The mission of Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center is to preserve a sample of Florida's original habitats in the Little Manatee River Watershed, and to use this Center for the purpose of promoting appreciation and understanding of our natural resources and of the local culture and history.
Originally an RV campground back in the 1970s, Camp Bayou is now publicly owned through Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquistion and Protection Program (ELAPP), and managed for public use by the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF).
From the sandy launch, we paddled the portion of the Little Manatee River known as the "Canoe Loop" (aka "Manatee Loop"). The river widens here substantially.
The Little Manatee River spans almost 40 miles, has 18 major tributaries, and discharges into Tampa Bay. South Fork, located almost entirely in northeast Manatee County, is the largest tributary, followed by North Fork. Both of these join the river about 22 miles above its mouth.
Designated an Outstanding Florida Water, this dark, tannin-stained (called "rum clear" by the locals) trail has a sandy bottom and steep, sandy banks. The river is the third largest in Hillsborough County and has a dominating influence on the surrounding area, including the intertidal wetlands of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve.
The floodplain forest and swamp are marked by ash, sand pine scrub, saw palmetto, cypress, cabbage palm, southern red cedar, and live oaks. Wildlife includes otters, songbirds, water birds, butterflies, alligators, turtles, bass, bream, catfish, and manatees.
It is not uncommon for paddlers to get disoriented here. Paddlers are especially advised to carry a good map, compass, and a GPS.
© April L. Gustetter