How to Paddle Florida's Big Bend
By Kevin Mims
Everyone knows that Florida does paddling right. We have the ability to launch a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard just about anywhere, from gin-clear springs, wild and scenic rivers and in waterways located in Florida’s largest cities. The state truly is a paddler’s paradise.
Most consider Florida’s Everglades to be the standard for far-flung adventuring in the state.
Here’s a secret: The Big Bend section of the state offers just as much – maybe more – in the way of wild coastal kayaking and paddling. Make sure to add this one to your bucket list, friends.
Like any good adventure, this one’s pretty tough. It involves a considerable amount of skill and lots of planning to do safely. Open water paddling skills and coastal navigation abilities are needed to safely pull this one off, so make sure you’ve spent enough time in the cockpit of a sea kayak before heading out.
Ready to go? Here’s what you need to make this trip a success.
Planning and preparation:
You’ll spend a large portion of your time paddling the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve in this section of Florida’s Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, or CT as it’s commonly referred to in the coastal kayaking and paddling community.
This preserve spans almost a million acres of the state's coastline along the Big Bend of Florida, so don’t count on many services or support stops here. Remember, the whole section is around 153 miles in length, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
One thing you’ll really need to watch here: the tides. The coastline here is shallow, so make sure you pay attention to levels and have a tide chart on hand. During extreme low tides, expect to paddle a couple of miles offshore.
Plan this trip in the cooler times of the year. During the summer months, you’ll encounter plenty of bugs and hot temperatures, plus lots of boat traffic during scallop season. Some sections of the trail are open only from September through June 30.
In this section, you’ll need to pack plenty of water, sometimes enough for several days. Keep good tabs on your supply and always remember to grab more wherever you can.
Permits? You’ll need them. See the guide for more information on obtaining free permits for using campsites.
The route, summarized
Your adventure begins at the Lower Aucilla River launch, about 20 miles from the town of Lamont. From here, it’s 10 miles to the primitive site at Econfina River State Park. During this first day, you’ll get a decent feel for how the trip will go. While there are primitive islands directly on the route, you’ll discover that there are plenty of times when you’ll need to travel up coastal rivers and inlets to locate camping sites.
The upper stretch (95 miles) of this section is managed by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and is part of the Big Bend Florida Saltwater Paddling Trail.
Farther down, you’ll pass through the Lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge and the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife-watching opportunities abound here, so keep an eye out for dolphins and wading birds along coastal islands. The sunsets here are stellar, too.
The 153-mile route ends at the mouth of the Withlacoochee River near Yankeetown. At this point, you can choose to press on further along the 1,515-mile Circumnavigational Paddling Trail route, which many do. Florida’s coastal beauty has a way of pulling you in – you’ll see what I mean once you get out there.
For the full scoop on Florida’s Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, see dep.state.fl.us/gwt/paddling/saltwater.
Segment Six is the Big Bend section, and you can find mileage, maps, camping and resupply information in a handy guide. Also, make sure to study the recommended gear and safety equipment sections as well.
A video, shorter trip options and permit information can be found on FWC’s Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail page.
Another great FWC resource is the 40-page guide to the Big Bend Florida Saltwater Paddling Trail, with GPS coordinates, side trips, town information and everything else needed to explore this region. myfwc.com/viewing/recreation