Go with the Flow

If you're looking for some of the best paddling opportunities in Florida, read on.

There’s no doubt about it: Florida is a paradise for both novice and experienced paddlers. 

More than 1,000 miles of coastline call out to sea and surf kayakers, while countless inland rivers, creeks and streams beckon to those seeking a watery adventure through some of the most remote and scenic locations in the Sunshine State. Saltwater bays and protected estuaries teeming with wildlife are a favorite destination for photographers and birding enthusiasts. 

Sopchoppy River

A true wilderness experience awaits you on the Sopchoppy, a 47-mile tea-colored river with steep limestone banks and outcroppings situated almost completely within the Apalachicola National Forest. The waterway twists and turns, with a current that will push canoes and kayaks along at a moderate rate. 

The forest surrounding the Sopchoppy is home to many wildlife, especially along the section passing through the Bradwell Bay Wilderness.  Keep a lookout for red-cockaded woodpeckers and black bears.  The banks are lined with stands of cypress, titi, tupelo trees (which produce world famous Tupelo Honey) and numerous species of rare plants. 

The 15-mile Sopchoppy River Paddling Trail is part of Florida’s statewide system of Greenways and Trails, passing through remote wilderness areas in the uppermost portion and ending near the town of Sopchoppy, known for its annual Worm Gruntin’ Festival.  Three access points provide entrance along the trail, starting at Oak Park Cemetery Bridge on Forest Road 346, five miles south at Mt. Beasor Church Bridge on Forest Road 343 and 3.5 miles south of the town of Sopchoppy at the U.S. 319 Bridge.

The Sopchoppy depends on local rainfall to maintain high levels in the upper portions of the waterway, and it may be impassable – check with the U.S. Forest Service at 850-926-3561 before you go.

Withlacoochee River (South)

There are two Withlacoochee Rivers in Florida, and to avoid confusion they are referred to as North and South. The only similarities they share are part of their name and the black color of the water. 

The Withlacoochee is one of only a few rivers in the United States that flow in a northerly direction.  The river receives the majority its water input from springs, outlets from Lake Panasoffkee and the Tsala-Apopka chain of lakes, and a large surge from Rainbow Springs as the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers join and continue northwest.

The Withlacoochee South begins as a small stream in the heart of central Florida, the Green Swamp, which is an important recharge area for the Florida aquifer. The drainage from this area creates the headwaters for three other major waterways:  the Hillsborough River, the Ocklawaha River and the Peace River.

With more than 75 miles of the officially designated paddling trails to enjoy, the Withlacoochee twists and winds its way through both protected a state forest and small communities before finally spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown in southern Levy County.  Fishing and birding are outstanding along all parts of the Withlacoochee. 

Fishermen will appreciate the abundance of largemouth bass in the Lake Rousseau area, and the world record 18.88-pound white catfish was caught on the Withlacoochee in 1991. 

For birders, several species of heron, ibis, and double-crested cormorant are a common sight.  Turkey and deer frequent the shoreline, emerging from both pine hardwood hammocks and cypress swamps.

Access the most scenic and remote section of the Withlacoochee west of Bushnell on the Sumter and Citrus County border. Launch your craft at the SR-48 bridge, heading north through Bonnet Lake.  The paddling is easy, with no noticeable current.  One mile past Bonnet Lake, a primitive camping area is available at Board Island; this is the last public camping area for many miles, so be prepared to paddle another 13 miles past this point to the SR-44 bridge.

Peace River

Another outstanding central Florida paddling opportunity can be found on the Peace River.  Like the Withlacoochee, the headwaters of the Peace River are located in the Green Swamp.  The officially designated paddling trail starts at Fort Meade, where the river flows south to Arcadia in DeSoto County.  Eleven public access points are located along the way, so finding a launch point is easy, and paddler can create trips of different lengths.  With a slow to moderate current, high banks and varied widths, the Peace River is an excellent choice for paddlers who want to experience a classic Florida river. 

Wildlife is abundant all along the river – deer are frequently spotted in the early mornings.  Herons, cranes, and a multitude of other bird species are plentiful, making the Peace River an excellent choice for photography. 

Since there are a number of access points along the Peace River, paddlers can easily plan a day or weekend trip.  The section between Zolfo Springs and the Gardner boat ramp is especially scenic. Launch at the FL 64 bridge in Zolfo Springs in Hardee County, and paddle up to 23 miles to the Gardener boat ramp.

Loxahatchee River

The Loxahatchee is one of two waterways in Florida that received designation as a Wild and Scenic River (the other being the Wekiva River).  Although it passes through some heavily populated areas, the Loxahatchee has very beautiful undeveloped sections that make it a wonderful paddle. 

The river has a sand bottom, with dark colored water and its banks along the upper portion are lined with ancient cypresses.  The official 10.3-mile paddling trail runs from Riverbend Park to Jonathan Dickinson State Park and is abundant with wildlife along the entire route. Peninsula turtles and several species of heron can be seen frequently. 

For a classic Florida canoe or kayak day trip, paddle the 10.3-mile official paddling trail, starting at Riverbend Park on State Road 706 in Jupiter and concluding at Jonathan Dickinson State Park 12 miles south of Stuart on U.S. 1.  

For more details on these four outstanding Florida paddling trips, or to find out more information on other Florida rivers, visit the Florida Greenways and Trails online guide.

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