Last updated on November 1st, 2020.
Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg is a hidden gem. Many agree it’s one of the best things to do in Tampa Bay. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy Florida’s nature without having to spend any money, or drive very far.
The park spans 400 acres in the heart of Pinellas County. There’s an extensive network of boardwalks and some dirt trails which meander throughout the park.
This is a priceless spot because it offers locals, wildlife and visitors access to nature, and a healthy escape from Tampa Bay’s relentless urban sprawl. The conservation area also protects a large swatch of Pinellas Country from flooding. The fragile wetlands act as a giant sponge to absorb flood waters, and other benefits that only natural wetlands can provide.
The dense foliage and wetlands all feel very natural and secluded, but it’s actually extremely convenient, and easily reachable no matter where you’re coming from because it’s very close to highway 275.
Even though the park’s eastern perimeter borders Highway 275, the park’s entrance is inside a residential neighborhood. This park attracts many visitors, so be sure to drive slowly and respectfully through the neighborhood.
The park is managed in partnership by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Pinellas County. Some people may mistakenly refer to the park as “Sawgrass Lake State Park” but it’s not part of Florida’s State Park system.
Overall this is a fantastic park, and definitely worth a visit! The building and facilities are a little dated, and deserve a refresh. Sadly, these important environmental resources are perpetually underfunded. But, the Anderson Environmental Education Center has really great and informative natural exhibits.
What is it?
The park is built around native Maple Swamp, Oak hammock and native wetlands.
This PDF from Pinellas County shows the site layout and ameninities.
There are also interesting nature exhibits which show examples of Florida’s natural wildlife, and things you might find in the park. I always like to imagine what Florida’s environment was like before human intervention and development, so I was super happy to find aerial photography showing the site through different time periods.
The park has more than a mile of beautiful, raised boardwalk. There’s also a fun observation tower which overlooks Sawgrass Lake.
Families love it because it’s easy, accessible and free. It’s also a great learning opportunity, and a chance to get kids excited about learning and protecting Florida’s natural environment! Kids (and adults) love the “overlook” observation tower because it feels like a fort, or a tree-house.
Great Date Idea!
Everyone has different tastes, but I think a gentle hike around Sawgrass Lake would be a great, creative date idea! On an adventure like this, you’ll have a chance to talk and actually get to know each other, instead of attending a loud concert, bar or hockey game. It’s also an exceptionally easy hike in Florida which probably won’t leave you muddy, sweaty or stinky. If you’re both happy with a date idea like this, it’s a good sign that your values and interests might be well aligned, and you might’ve found a new partner for camping in Florida!
There are picnic tables nicely situated in shade, under giant Oak trees.
As one would imagine, there are many, many spiders and insects in this area. If you plan a picnic, be sure to bring a table cloth and supplies to clean the space, if that’s important to you.
There is one covered picnic shelter with a grill, which is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are not possible.
How Long To Plan For?
If you’re strolling at a leisurely, but normal pace, you can see the entire boardwalk system in about an hours. If you’re lingering because of curious minds, young or old, budget extra time. If you’re visiting during warm or hot periods, be sure to bring enough water because the heat and humidity will make you thirsty.
Are Dogs Allowed?
Dogs are allowed, but only in certain areas, and only if on a leash. Dogs are allowed on the boardwalk. They are allowed in the picnic area before entering the boardwalk. There are signs which remind owners to be responsible and clean up after their pets.
This is for your pet’s safety to prevent dangerous wildlife encounters, and also to protect the native species. It’s also for the benefit of other visitors, who might not feel comfortable sharing the confined boardwalk space with unknown dogs.
Sawgrass Lake Park is located in St. Petersburg, just west of Highway 275. The entrance is located within a neighborhood, so be sure to drive slowly and respectfully as you approach the site.
Sawgrass Lake Park is totally free! There is no admission fee, and parking is free.
There is no restaurant on-site. If you’d like to pack a picnic, there are picnic tables and one covered pavilion with a grill.
Hours of Operation
The park is open from 7 a.m. until dusk, or sunset. As you drive into the park there’s a large clock display, which park rangers use to show sunset, and the closing time for that day. There’s another of these clocks at the beginning of the boardwalk trail.
There are clean, family-friendly restrooms with full water service.
When to Go
The best time to go is definitely during the week, when it’s less crowded.
Part of the magic of Sawgrass Lake is that it’ll feel natural, serene and peaceful even though you’re in the bustling metropolitan area of Tampa Bay. This effect is most pronounced when you have the entire place to yourself! One of my favorite aspects of visiting the park is the beautiful birdsong which permeates the forest’s canopy. This is also less pronounced when there are busting crowds, because it disturbs and obscures the bird song.
That said, I have visited on weekend mornings and afternoons, which are probably the most popular times to visit, and I always had a great time regardless of the crowd. Even if it is crowded, there are little nooks and crannies you can find to escape the crowds and enjoy yourself.
The other most important factor to consider is the weather and season.
The best time to go is during the winter, or maybe the shoulder seasons of fall and spring.
During the summer, Florida’s oppressive heat and humidity will surely detract from the experience. However, one redeeming factor is that most of the boardwalk areas are shaded by a lovely canopy of overhead trees. So, even if you wind up arriving under full sun, you can still hide out in the shade. If you want to go in the summer, be sure to check the weather because there will almost certainly be an afternoon thunderstorm.
Mosquitos are likely to be worse during and after the summer rainy period. The entire park is situated around wetlands and beautiful, natural bodies of fresh water. All of this undisturbed, natural water is fantastic for the environment, and it’s a priceless treasure. But, it also harbors an immense insect population, including mosquitos and other biting insects. So, make sure you bring an effective, Florida-strength bug spray.
In my opinion, the best part of Sawgrass Lake Park is the wildlife you’re likely to see!
You’re almost guaranteed to see alligators. If you’re lucky, you may also see baby alligators, rare bird species and more! When we were there we saw several large gators and many beautiful, exotic birds.
Among other things, be on the lookout for:
- Wood storks
- Turtles and Gopher Tortoises
- Great Horned Owl
- Ospreys and other birds of prey
The entire boardwalk and path system is flat and well maintained. It would be easy to visit with a stroller. We saw many families with young children while we were there. Be especially careful to keep a close eye on children, and always keep them within arm’s reach to ensure they don’t climb or fall off the boardwalk, touch plants and animals, get splinters from wood, etc.
Bikes are not allowed on the boardwalk because it would not be safe at all. The boardwalks are small and narrow in spaces, and it wouldn’t be safe to share with pedestrians. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has other options for biking on the Water Management lands.
Fishing is not allowed because this is a nature preserve, dedicated to wildlife education and protection.
There are large parking lots with ample, and easy parking inside the park. Some parking spaces are shaded from overhead trees.