By Lauren Tjaden

With more than 1,260 miles of coastline, 1,700 rivers and creeks, 7,700 lakes and over 700 springs, kayaking adventures are plentiful in the Sunshine State.

And Florida’s paddling offerings are as diverse as they are generous. You can discover breathtaking tannic rivers that wind through quiet forests; kick back on idyllic white-sand beaches on remote islands; go on an expedition to spot gentle, gargantuan manatees; or treat yourself to an after-dark, mind-blowing, natural underwater light show.

Paddling trips range from a few hours to epic multi-day treks, and some are ideal for beginners while others are only recommended for experts.

But whatever your interests, skill level and time frame, Florida promises to deliver a paddling excursion that’s just right for you.

Check out these favorite kayaking spots and experiences.

 With white-sand beaches contrasting with dark, tannic water, the swiftly moving and visually stunning Blackwater River attracts paddlers of all kinds as well tubers in the summer months.

 

NORTH FLORIDA
 

Coastal dune lakes, South Walton

Walton County is one of the few places in the world where you can paddle in a placid, tea-colored tannic lake fringed by sand dunes and look over to see the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The county boasts 15 named coastal dune lakes, rare freshwater bodies that exist alongside the ocean, where paddlers can see wildlife that includes white-tailed deer, Bald Eagles and the occasional Black Bear. Kayak rentals for Lake Powell, the largest of the dune lakes, are available through Camp Helen State Park.

The beaches of Destin

Paddle a kayak off the beaches of Destin and you’ll understand where the Emerald Coast gets its name. The clear, green-hued waters are great for wildlife-watching and spotting dolphins, sea turtles and manatees. One popular kayaking and boating trip runs from Destin Harbor, bustling with restaurants, shops, and boat rental outfitters, to nearby Crab Island. Be prepared to see lots of other boats and people and be mindful of the tides. Head to Destin Kayak Rentals to get started. 

Blackwater River

With white-sand beaches contrasting with dark, tannic water, the swiftly moving and visually stunning Blackwater River attracts paddlers of all kinds as well tubers in the summer months. Of the river’s 56 miles, 31 make up the Blackwater River Paddling Trail, a route that begins five miles from the Alabama border in Okaloosa County and ends in the Blackwater River State Forest.

Options here are many, with multiple launch points along the river (depending on the length and type of trip you’re planning).

Blackwater Joe’s in Holt offers rentals for everything from overnight kayaking trips to jaunts as short as two hours, and Adventures Unlimited in Milton offers day trips and overnight trips as well as four or seven-mile trips on Blackwater River or Coldwater Creek Juniper Creek. Shuttles back to the start of the trip are included.

Wakulla River

Kayakers on the 10-mile Wakulla River Paddling Trail can expect an easy, gentle trip down a clear, spring-fed waterway brimming with wildlife, including manatees, wading birds, alligators, turtles, and an abundance of fish. TnT Hideaway has kayaks for rent and everything you need for a Wakulla River adventure, and guided tours as well as a shuttle are available.

Suwannee River Paddling Trail

Probably the most iconic Florida river adventure lies along the 171-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, which starts in White Springs and ends at the Gulf of Mexico. Even those unfamiliar with the river itself might recognize the name from the beginning lyrics of Florida’s state song: “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away …”

And the river is far away—from noise, from cities, and from the bustling attractions and amusements Florida is known for—but river camps and small towns provide overnight shelter and amenities along the way. The tannic water and quiet riverbanks are teeming with wildlife. Paddling difficulty on the Suwannee ranges from easy to very difficult, depending on what part of the river you paddle and the current water conditions. Rentals for day and overnight trips are available through a number of outfitters, including Suwannee Canoe Outpost.

Little Talbot Island State Park

The tidal creeks and salt marshes of Little Talbot Island State Park are perfect for a serene morning or afternoon on the water, with route options for everyone from experienced kayakers to beginners. Rich with natural beauty, this untouched barrier island is home to diverse wildlife and promises excellent birding. Rentals and guided eco-tours are available through Kayak Amelia, located on Simpson Creek, including birding paddles, tai-chi paddles, stand up paddleboard yoga, sunset and full-moon paddles, and special focus paddles.

Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail

The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, a series of designated, primitive campsites that stretches for 105 glorious, wild miles from the Aucilla River Lighthouse in the north to the Suwannee River, is the first segment of a trail that circumnavigates the state.  The campsites, spaced 10 to 14 miles apart, are exclusively for trail users and require permits.
This stretch of coastline southeast of Tallahassee has few towns or inhabitants, and The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows a limited number of campers on the trail at any given time, so the route is pristine and natural.

In many areas the water is less than a foot deep, so paddlers should pay attention to the tides. As you skim across the grass flats, look for scallops hiding in the turtle grass and boils of red drum as they scurry for cover.

The Apalachicola River Paddling Trail System

The award-winning Apalachicola River Paddling Trail System holds bragging rights as a designated a National Recreation Trail, one of only 24 in the country. The route starts at the Georgia state line and meanders to the Gulf of Mexico, following the same path pirates, soldiers and Native Americans traveled for hundreds of years.

The river – once used by traders traveling from the south to countries beyond via the open ocean – was as busy as a modern interstate, but today the Apalachicola is remote and peaceful. Rich with multi-day expedition possibilities, the trail spans the longest and wildest publicly-owned coastal wetlands in the United States. 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.

Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine

Rent a kayak from Anastasia Watersports, the concessionaire at Anastasia State Park, to explore Salt Run, a tidal salt marsh beloved by birds of all sorts, including laughing gulls, least terns and the great blue heron as well as ospreys and bald eagles. That’s not all: keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, fish and crabs too.

In winter, the Crystal River becomes home to more than 300 manatees – the largest gathering of West Indian manatees in North America.

 

CENTRAL FLORIDA

Weeki Wachee, Hernando County

The 7.4-mile spring-fed Weeki Wachee River has blue water, lots of wildlife and a good current to do most of the paddling work for you, making it one of the top destinations for family-friendly paddling trips. The best way to kayak Weeki Wachee is to launch near the headsprings from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park’s resident outfitter, Boating in Florida, which offers rentals and shuttle services. It takes about three hours to paddle the roughly six miles from the launch to the takeout point at Rogers Park.

Bioluminescent Kayaking, Cocoa Beach and Titusville areas

While kayaking trips typically happen in the daytime, there are some wonders that can be seen only in the dark. Naturally occurring, glowing algae bioluminescent organisms that bed in the lagoon waters of places like the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge look like flying embers from an undersea fire, but they are cool to the touch. These flicks of blue-green light scatter in all directions at the slightest disturbance in the water, creating a unique, natural underwater light show. They’re so thick in some spots that the water is aglow and everything underwater – seagrass, fish and even your hand – takes on a Harry Potter dimension.

Kayaking is the preferred way to experience this wizardry. Outfitters that include BK Adventure, A Day Away Kayaking Tours and Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach explain the natural bioluminescent phenomenon as well as the area’s history as they lead the way to the glowing waters. Peak season is June through October, although besides glowing algae, the area is home to glowing comb jellies (similar to jellyfish, but they don’t sting), which can be seen November through March.

See Manatees on Crystal River

In winter, the Crystal River becomes home to more than 300 manatees – the largest gathering of West Indian manatees in North America. These gentle, gigantic sea cows flock to the warm waters north of Tampa and west of Ocala from October to March. There are plenty of captains who will take you to them, but with Crystal River Kayak Company and Get Up And Go Kayaking you’ll get a very different perspective.

These relaxed paddling trips provide a quiet view of numerous springs, overgrown Native American villages and temple mounds along the coast of Kings Bay and the headwaters of the Crystal River. But the trip’s once-in-a-lifetime thrill is having a 1,200-pound herbivore elephant-cousin surface beside your kayak. If that’s still not close enough for you, Crystal River is the only place in Florida where you can legally swim with manatees (and only with a proper guide).

Rivers of the Green Swamp

Nestled 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, which all offer an abundance of kayaking experiences.

WITHLACOOCHEE SOUTH PADDLING TRAIL~

The Withlacoochee River (South), one of the few rivers in the Western Hemisphere that flows north, is designated an "Outstanding Florida Waterway." From its starting point in the Green Swamp, this blackwater river flows 141 miles northwest to the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown, with a mostly-easy 76-mile Designated Paddling Trail mapped from Lacoochee to Dunnellon. On the southern reaches of the river, below Nobleton, much of the river meanders through peaceful, gorgeous State Forest and Conservation Areas, sheltered from the wind and sun. Numerous access points allow for shorter or longer trips. Further north, as the river widens, you’ll find more motorboats. For launch points, a detailed map, access points and kayak rental information, check out The Withlacoochee River Paddling Guide. Note: There are two Withlacoochee Rivers in Florida. The Withlacoochee River (North) begins in Georgia and runs into the Suwannee, close to Suwannee River State Park.

OCKLAWAHA RIVER~

Rated as an easy to moderate paddle, the serene, stunning Ocklawaha River is another rule-breaking river that flows south to north along the edge of Ocala National Forest, eventually emptying into the St. Johns River near Palatka. You can paddle out and back from launch, from point to point using the outfitter's shuttle service, or get away from it all on a longer trip with overnight camping.
The 8.9 mile-long Ocklawaha Paddling Trail, sited on the lower part of the river, is a celebration of natural beauty made of pristine landscapes of hammocks, scrub pine ridges and made-to-go-barefoot sugar sand banks.
The Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort offers rentals as well as overnight trips. For launch points, detailed maps and more information, check out Paddle Florida.

PEACE RIVER~

The aptly named Peace River is 106-mile waterway that gently meanders through tranquil hardwood forests and cypress swamps on its way to Charlotte Harbor. The Peace River Canoe Trail charts 70 miles of the river from Bartow to Arcadia. For a relaxed afternoon, launch a canoe or kayak at one of its 11 public boat ramps, then paddle upstream for a bit and then and drift back to your starting point. If you want something more adventurous, try an overnight expedition, for instance, the trip from Zolfo Springs to Gardner. You can find rentals or a tour at the Peace River Canoe Outpost.

HILLSBOROUGH RIVER~

From where it originates in the Green Swamp as a skinny trickle, the Hillsborough River tracks southwest 54 miles to upper Hillsborough Bay, where it finishes as a tidal estuary in a busy city. The designated Hillsborough River Paddling Trail covers 30 miles from Hillsborough River State Park to the City of Tampa’s Rowlett Park—and whether you’re looking for an easy-peasy, short trip for beginners or an expert-only white-water expedition, it promises to please.
Because of the route’s length and the enormous differences in the skill required to negotiate different parts of it, the paddling trips have been separated into four sections, each with its own level of difficulty: North, Seventeen Runs, Middle and South.
The North is a scenic, sweet three-mile outing a first-timer can tackle; Seventeen Runs is a legendary, rugged beast with warnings that include the suggestion that paddlers bring food, water and supplies with them ‘should they be forced to travel past nightfall’; the 7.5-mile Middle section from Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park and Trout Creek Park is appropriate for beginner to intermediate paddlers; and the South section, 5.5 miles from Trout Creek Park to Rowlett Park, is rated for intermediate paddlers because of the length and possible winds and motorboat traffic.

Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon

This popular park invites you to enjoy a simple paddle along the crystal-clear river under cypress trees draped with moss. Keep on the lookout for river otters, wading birds and soaring osprey.

Chassahowitzka River, Citrus County

Kayak this designated Outstanding Florida Water, known as the "River of Hanging Pumpkins" in Seminole language, to discover an expansive wild paradise made of salt marsh, hardwood swamps, crystal-clear springs and river. Camping, a boat launch, boat rental and a camp store round out the amenities at the Chassahowitzka River Campground and Recreation Area .

King's Landing, Apopka

Billed as ‘Nature’s Theme Park’ and located near Orlando, King’s Landing is situated on the crystalline waters of Rocks Springs Run, one of three main tributaries that feed the Wekiva River Basin, a designated National Wild and Scenic River. You can enjoy self-guided rentals -- a shuttle picks you up at the Wekiva Marina and brings you back to King's Landing --adventure tours, and even nightly escapes.

SOUTH FLORIDA
 

Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail

Well-marked and user-friendly, the 190-mile Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail is a paddler’s paradise of secluded beaches and protected estuaries that are laced with mangrove islands and tunnels as well as tidal creeks. A novice can find adventure in a one-hour paddle or the seasoned veteran can tie several segments together for an all-day excursion.

The trail starts near Fort Myers and runs from Estero Bay (Mound Key, Bunche Beach and Hurricane Bay, Coconut Point) to Pine Island Sound (Tarpon Bay, Matlacha, Picnic Island) to the Caloosahatchee River (Hickey’s Creek, Orange River).

Outfitters offer a variety of guided and self-guided trips from various locations along the Blueway. Here are details of where you can launch, outfitters, and what to expect on the trail.

Geo-cache enthusiasts who search for prizes hidden by global positioning system coordinates will also find hidden “treasures” at several points along the trail.

Indian Key, Florida Keys

There are countless places to kayak in the Florida Keys, but Indian Key Historic State Park stands out for both its seclusion and relative ease of access. While the small island is accessible only by boat from Islamorada, it takes just approximately 20 minutes to kayak to the island, which was once was home to a shipwreck-salvaging business. Now paddlers go to sunbathe, hike, and explore the clear waters. Eagle rays, dolphins, and manatees are some of the marine animals you can find there. Rentals are available at Robbie’s of Islamorada.

Experience the Everglades, Everglades City

Nestled in Everglades City-- a rustic, wild place with a population of 400-- Everglades Adventures Kayak & Eco Tours invites you to experience the ‘river of grass’ on an easy paddle or epic expedition. You can rent a kayak and explore at your own pace or take a guided tour of several hours, traversing mangrove tunnels and cypress ponds that are home to American alligators, osprey, bald eagles, and other exotic birds.

Their most extreme outing is a blockbuster, a life-changing paddle where you’ll travel the 100-mile Wilderness Waterway on a week-long journey through the Ten Thousand Islands in Southwest Florida’s Everglades National Park.  You’ll navigate through uninhabited mangrove islets where Native Americans once thrived, places that are lush with tropical plants and animals, including crocodiles, flamingos, dolphins, sharks, rays, and countless migratory birds. After paddling and camping for five to 10 days, you’ll reach the opposite end of the Waterway.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Hobe Sound

Jonathan Dickinson State Park is a historical treasure where you can discover a secret World War II training camp; immerse yourself in the story of the park’s namesake, a shipwrecked Quaker merchant; and paddle down to the restored 1930s camp of Trapper Nelson, the legendary Wild Man of the Loxahatchee. The Loxahatchee River, Florida's first federally designated Wild and Scenic River, is celebrated for canoeing and kayaking; curving under the shade of graceful, centuries-old cypress trees on the upper river and flowing into a mangrove-lined estuary on the lower river.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo

Celebrated as the country’s first undersea park, one-of-a-kind John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park contains 70 nautical square miles. You can explore an astounding 50 miles of its mangrove wilderness trails atop a kayak; rentals are available at the park’s concessionaire.

Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key

Rent a kayak at the park to paddle in a breathtaking wonderland filled with classic Florida landscapes — palm-fringed beaches, gin-clear waters and blow-your-mind sunsets. You can bring your own kayak if you prefer and launch from Loggerhead parking lot on the ocean side or the boat ramp on the gulf side.  For more information about rentals, visit the Bahia Honda Park concession website.

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