By Katherine O'Neal
Mist rises from the shimmer of Alexander Springs as we slip our canoe into the crystal waters and take a swift paddle around the bend.
On an overhanging branch, an anhinga spreads its wings to dry. The morning sun dapples across the river’s shallows. An alligator slips off the bank as we glide past. The air is filled with the clean scent of fresh water. Our adventure begins.
Heft that kayak and get a move on to Lake County, Florida, where adventures on the water are closer than you think. You’ll find more than 130 miles of Lake County paddling trails including eight signposted and mapped Blueways – spanning two major chains of lakes and the tributaries of the St. Johns River.
Between the Lakes
Waters flow north through Lake County through two major chains of lakes, Palatlakaha and Harris. At the bottom of the Palatlakaha chain, Lake Louisa State Park offers canoe rentals and a launch. Free, reserve-in-advance canoes are at Crooked River Preserve along the winding and slender Palatlakaha River connecting Lake Louisa with Lake Susan. Launch from Gilbert Park to tackle the Golden Triangle between Lake Dora, Lake Eustis, and Lake Harris – the Harris chain of lakes. Here, the Dora Canal – a wild, deeply shaded waterway between the lakes – is a haven for wildlife.
Loop the Loops
The Lake Harris Blueway glides right past islands of botanical beauty that make up Leesburg’s Venetian Gardens. On more than 36 miles of Lake County trails, there are designated campsites and cozy rest stops such as Harris Lodge. Less than 16 miles, the Lake Griffin Run has camping and canoe rentals at Lake Griffin State Park and waypoints such as Twin Palms Resort for a rest. Rimmed by the Emeralda Marshes on its eastern shore, it’s a prime route for birdwatching.
Out the door and into the water! Lake County has plenty of easy runs within quick reach of your cabin, campsite or motel room. In the Ocala National Forest, Clearwater Lake offers a gentle place to teach your children canoeing. Start exploring Mount Dora by slipping past palm-lined Palm Island for a daybreak delight. Or set the stage for family fun at Lake Jem Park with a picnic lunch by the playground, followed by a paddle on the placid Beauclair Canal.
The Wild Side
In 1773, botanist William Bartram explored the St. Johns River by canoe – and you can, too. Several Blueways follow the routes that Bartram pioneered, winding along wilderness waterways where alligators bellow and the trees dip low overhead. Consider Blue Creek Run in Astor, which parallels the mighty river, or an exploration of Stagger Mud Lake. The Okahumpa Marsh, a watery wilderness to the west, can be paddled via Flat Island Preserve or Helena Run.
With a Guide
Need a nudge to explore? Rangers from Lake County Parks & Trails occasionally offer guided paddling trips, as do local outdoors groups. Or go with an outfitter, like these offerings from TripAdvisor, to feel the comfort of a knowledgeable guide leading the way.
From tame Lake County trails to wilderness waterways, there are paddling adventures suitable for all ages and abilities. Bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent one during your visit. But don’t miss out on Central Florida’s favorite warm-weather outdoor fun – on the water!
To plan your trip to Lake County, visit www.lakecountyfl.com.