By Kevin Mims
Imagine glistening, turquoise spring water that flows for miles and miles under cypress and bay trees, where cormorants dry their wings after swallowing their catch, where manatees glide over swaying green grasses, and deer amble to the water’s edge on early misty mornings.
It might sound like something out of a dream or a movie, but the Weeki Wachee River is quite real, and kayaking it is a must for any water-loving outdoors enthusiast in Florida. Although famous for its first-magnitude spring and the mermaids that perform in its underwater theater, Weeki Wachee is much more than an iconic roadside attraction.
A crown jewel of natural West Central Florida, the river’s clear and winding waters attract novice and experienced kayakers alike. The river is family-friendly, perfect for wildlife viewing, and boasts some of the most beautiful scenery of any Florida waterway.
The best way to experience the spring-fed river is to launch from the paddling outfitter at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, near the headsprings. From there, you’ll paddle downriver for approximately six miles until you reach the takeout point. The swift current makes it easy enough for inexperienced kayakers (and those who just want to enjoy a lazy afternoon on the river) to paddle from the headsprings and glide with the flow, with plenty of places to pull over and take a dip at spring vents and swimming holes of varying depths along the way.
The spring water stays a constant 72 degrees year-round, so it feels cool in the hot summer months and warm on a chilly winter day. The river alternates between full sun and ample shade under cypress, gum trees, maples, and oaks, and winds through green tunnels of holly trees and palm undergrowth.
Depending on the season, vibrant colors of native flowers, such as golden tickseed sunflowers and lavender climbing astor, stand out against the green vegetation on the banks.
The first leg of the three-hour journey takes paddlers about 1.5 miles through a portion of the state park, where the river is at its clearest and bluest and surrounded by protected wetlands and forest. Wading birds, schools of mullet, and turtles are some of the animals you’ll likely see on or near the water as the river twists and turns. This is also where you’ll likely pass by one of the state park’s riverboat tours, which run along the portion of the river inside the park.
There is no swimming on the river within the state park boundaries, but once outside, paddlers are free to take a break and go for a dip, and various parts of the riverbank offer good stopping points for a picnic lunch. Don’t be surprised if you see some of the more daring paddlers lined up to jump from the high branches of cypress trees here and there.
After several miles, protected wildlands give way to residential waterfront properties, and as you near the Gulf of Mexico, the river widens and paddling becomes more challenging near the takeout point at Rogers Park, which marks the end of the adventure. There, you can catch a shuttle back to the parking lot at the headsprings (be sure to arrange for a shuttle ride in advance).
Directly across from Rogers Park, which has restrooms and a small beach, is the Upper Deck restaurant, a popular spot to grab a drink and bite to eat while enjoying an elevated view of the water.
For anyone who prefers a shorter paddle trip and a guide, Boating in Florida offers hour-long eco-tours that start at the kayak launch and go upriver toward the headsprings while providing information about the surrounding flora and fauna, kayaking tips, and tips on river etiquette. Another eco-tour option through the state park allows for an hour-long guided tour and followed by a regular day of paddling on your own.
When you go…
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is open every day. Launch as early as 8 a.m. or as late as 1 p.m. (2 p.m. if you bring your own kayak or paddleboard). Rentals and shuttles are available through Boating in Florida at the head springs. (The entrance is adjacent to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park parking lot). Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is located at 6131 Commercial way, Spring Hill. Reservations are required and can be made through the Boating in Florida website or by calling 352-597-8484.
Love kayaking? Here are more great places to paddle in Florida.