Tampa Bay's ultimate dog park

Finding it might not be easy, but the search is worth it.

By Jay Cridlin
Published June 29, 2007

West Park Dog Park is not the sort of place you stumble upon while cruising around town with your cocker spaniel in tow. To get there, you have to want to get there.

You have to drive through industrial-looking segments of Hillsborough Avenue or Sligh Avenue. You have to drive through a working-class West Park neighborhood. You have to watch out for the trains that run nearby and ignore the planes flying low overhead.

"If you don't know it's here, you won't find it, " said Sharon Saunders of Tampa, who bypasses Al Lopez Park, Rowlett Park and Lake Park in Lutz to bring Pepper, her black lab mix, to West Park every day. "It's about a 20-minute drive for us to come here, but it's the nicest park around."

Saunders isn't the only one who feels this way. Plenty of dog owners go out of their way to come to West Park Dog Park, Hillsborough County's first official dog park.

Located by a playground and some Little League fields near Leto High School, West Park looks like your basic dog park: some land, some trees, some water, some patios and a few pieces of equipment.

But to the salt-of-the-earth dog owners who come here, the park's simplicity is part of the appeal. "It's clean, they have shade, they have water buckets for the dogs to cool off in, " Saunders said. "It's just a nice area."

"I don't doubt that at least 500 dogs a day come through there on Saturdays and Sundays, " said Carolyn McGee, Hillsborough County's dog park supervisor, who often takes her own pups - miniature schnauzers Buttons and Hally and cockapoo Millie - to West Park. "The place is packed on the weekends, from morning, during the day, and on into evening."

There's a genuine sense of community at West Park. The park has its own Yahoo Group and semi-regular newsletter. At the gate, bulletin-board photos memorialize canine regulars who've passed away. A roster of dedicated volunteers make sure visitors follow the rules. (And when we say dedicated, we mean it - they'll pick up stray doggie doo they find lying around the park.)

The park holds a costume contest at Halloween, a popular dog biscuit hunt on Easter, and a gift drive during the holidays called "Presents for Pups, " during which dog owners donate food, blankets and toys for shelters and rescue organizations.

Saturday morning is generally the most popular time to show up. "It's like the beach - you have people coming from all over, " said Bill Swartz as he washed his three rescued golden retrievers, Lord Stanley, Jackson H., and El Pucino.

Like Saunders, Swartz bypasses other dog parks in favor of West Park. As a result, he's gotten to know all the dog-friendly restaurants within a short drive - like the Front Porch Grill & Bar on North Florida Ave, where he once took six dogs after a day in the sun.

In case you're wondering, they sat outside.

West Park Dog Park, 6402 Occident St., Tampa, (813) 975-2160. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.


How you voted

West Park Dog Park, Tampa: 53%

Fort De Soto Paw Playground, Tierra Verde: 21%

Walter Fuller Park, St. Petersburg: 10%

Other: 6%

Davis Islands Dog Park, Tampa: 5%

Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin: 5%