With more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 1,711 miles of rivers and creeks, Florida is a certifiable paddlers’ paradise. From the sheltered waters of St. Joseph Bay to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys, you’ll find no shortage of inviting day trips and overnight adventures.
Some are ideal for beginners; others are recommended for experts. But whatever your taste, style or level of experience, the only limits will be those imposed by your own imagination.
Hillsborough River: Quiet Near Tampa
As golden rays of sunlight filter through the Spanish moss that dangles from the ancient cypress tree towering above me, I sit in silence hoping a mother otter and her pups will swim by without noticing me in my bright yellow kayak snuggled against the shoreline.
It’s dawn on the Hillsborough River and the otters are looking for breakfast only a few miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tampa. Nearby, trucks barrel down a two-lane county road. But here, in the shadows of one of Florida’s oldest state parks, Hillsborough River State Park, life hasn’t changed much since the primary method of transportation was the dugout canoe.
When it comes to otter watching, I depend upon the Hillsborough River. I started here 25 years ago in a beat-up aluminum canoe. Since then, I’ve graduated to a Kevlar sea kayak. But I always come back to this same spot, which has the only set of rapids south of the Suwannee.
Here, just a half-hour’s drive from one of Florida’s largest cities, I sit and watch ibis walking along the shallows, gators sunning themselves on the banks, and finally, that hoped-for family of otters looking for breakfast. The momma and two pups swim right by, not noticing me as I watch them so quietly. Or, then again, perhaps they did, but knew I belonged here too.
The Apalachicola River Paddling Trail System
The American Canoe Association and Paddler magazine named the Apalachicola River Paddling Trail System one of their top destinations in the United States in 2006. In 2008, it was designated a National Recreation Trail, one of only 24 in the country.
It’s no wonder. Last winter, I started with four friends at the Georgia state line, and we paddled to the Gulf of Mexico, the same route traveled by pirates, soldiers and Native Americans for hundreds of years.
For two days, we didn’t see another soul, our only companions the occasional white-tailed deer that would wander down to the river to drink. Today, the Apalachicola is one of those rare rivers that is wilder now than it was 100 years ago. The river – once used by traders traveling from the South to countries beyond via the open ocean – was as busy as a modern interstate. Today, paddlers can explore mysterious tupelo swamps or sprawling grasslands on any of the 100 miles or so of marked paddling trails on the lower estuary of the river.
North Florida: Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail
Paddling down the Aucilla River at sunset, headed to an island a few miles off the coast, my friend spotted a large black animal moving through the salt marsh.
“It’s a cow.”
“No. Looks like a wild hog.”
“You’re both wrong,” I said. “That’s a Florida black bear.”
These secretive animals seldom get close to humans, but this one probably never heard or saw us as we slid silently by in our sea kayaks. The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, a 105-mile series of designated campsites stretching from the Aucilla River Lighthouse in the north to the Suwannee River, the first segment of a trail that circumnavigates the state.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows only a limited number of campers on the trail at any given time – permits are required (and available for paddlers only) – assuring that the area remains pristine and that travelers enjoy a unique wilderness experience. This stretch of coastline southeast of Tallahassee has few towns or inhabitants. During the Civil War, rebels boiled salt in iron kettles in camps along the shore to make Confederate salt. The area was also known for bootleggers, who counted on raccoons and wild pigs as their only witnesses.
In many areas, the water is less than a foot deep, so paddlers must pay attention to the tides. As you skim across the grass flats, look for scallops hiding in the turtle grass and the boils of red drum as they scurry for cover. To look at other paddling opportunities in the area, visit myfwc.com/viewing/paddling-trails.
Southwest Florida: The Great Calusa Blueway
Standing on top of Mound Key, a 35-foot-high shell midden at the mouth of the Estero River, you get a view that is normally reserved for seagulls and pelicans. Once the capital city of the Calusa, the natives who ruled South Florida, this ancient island south of Fort Myers had an intricate system of canals. It was a sort of rusticated Venice that allowed its residents to pull their dugout canoes right up to their thatched huts.
Today, the dugouts are long gone and the canals are filled with sand, but sea kayakers can still get a taste of what life for the “Fierce People” must have been like by paddling The Great Calusa Blueway. The 190-mile canoe/kayak trail winds through the pristine waters of Estero Bay and Pine Island Sound and up the Caloosahatchee River. You can also download a free application to your smart phone to help you navigate to Mound Key.
With more than 300 species of birds – including brown and white pelican, bald eagle, great heron, snowy egret, osprey, ibis and roseate spoonbill – birders come from all over the country to add to their life lists.
The beauty of this waterway is that it is well-marked and user-friendly. A novice can find adventure in a one-hour paddle, or the seasoned veteran can tie several segments together for an all-day excursion.
Outfitters offer a variety of guided and self-guided trips. Geo-cache enthusiasts, who search for prizes hidden by global positioning system coordinates, will also find hidden “treasures” at several points along the trail.
Central Florida: Rivers of the Green Swamp
Hidden away in the heart of Florida, the Green Swamp covers some 870 square miles in Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Lake and Sumter counties, and serves as the headwaters for four major rivers: the Hillsborough, the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha and the Peace.
Natives lived here long before the Egyptians built their first pyramid. The swamp’s inhospitable terrain set the tone for Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s ill-fated attempt to conquer the Florida peninsula.
Later, during the Seminole Wars, U.S. troops discovered that the Green Swamp provided the ideal backdrop for a protracted guerrilla war. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homesteaders eked out a living here through timber, cattle and turpentine.
The Withlacoochee, one of the few rivers in the Western Hemisphere that flows north, is an easy paddle, making it a favorite for scout and school groups. It is possible to paddle the entire 76 miles, but the upper reaches are for more experienced paddlers.
The Ocklawaha also flows north along the edge of Ocala National Forest an eventually empties into the
St. Johns River (another excellent Central Florida paddling destination) near Palatka. The river is joined by many spring-fed streams, offering a variety of good side trips.
The Peace River is another wild waterway that slowly meanders through pastures and swamps. The official Peace River Canoe Trail runs along 70 miles of the river from Bartow to Arcadia; the river empties into Charlotte Harbor.
For a list of paddling trails, go to www.floridagreenwaysandtrails.com or visit the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s site on its part of the Green Swamp at www.swfwmd.state.fl.us
This article was originally published in the 2008 edition of Outdoors Getaways. Click here to order or view other VISIT FLORIDA tourism publications.