Theme parks, sandy beaches, and Spring Break come to mind when most people think of trips to The Sunshine State, but Florida has so much more to offer! With its exciting and varied natural landscape and many places more spectacular from the water, spending time in the outdoors is a must whether you live there or are just visiting the state. From saltwater reefs in the Keys to mangrove forests, this state has some of the most pristine and beautiful paddling routes.
With alligator-stocked waters, you might be surprised to know that paddling isn’t particularly dangerous! Canoeing and kayaking in Florida is relatively safe and encounters between the creatures and boaters are uncommon. The best way to keep yourself safe is to keep your hands and feet in the boat and be aware of your surroundings when launching or docking your watercraft, especially if it’s at dawn or dusk, since alligators are more active at night. So now that you know it’s safe, we’ve created this guide to help you decide where to dip your paddle next and to round up the best kayaking in Florida.
South Florida also has some excellent kayaking trails that contain completely different flora, fauna, and wildlife. Starting at Everglades City, rent a kayak at one of the several outlets and head out into the famous swamp for an up close look at alligators, turtles, and ancient mangrove forests. It is also the gateway to Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Waterway in Collier County. The 5-mile Sandfly Island Loop is a good run for beginners and can easily be done in a day. It starts at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, then across Chokoloskee Bay and then back again through mangrove islands. For dedicated paddlers, take the 100 miles of the Wilderness Waterway along the west side of Everglades National Park, ending in Flamingo – a trip typically takes 5 days with camping facilities located along the way.
For a place that calls itself the Canoe Capital of Florida, Milton is a hotspot for paddling enthusiasts. The small town in the Panhandle boasts Coldwater Creek, a waterway that’s considered one of the best paddling routes in the area. Head to Coldwater Recreation Area for kayak rentals and the beginning of the popular run. The lovely spring fed creek has sandy river rock bottoms and sand bars for picnicking along the way. The creek is also the fastest in the state, although lazy enough at 3 mph for any level of kayaker. Going upstream is a good workout and after a day of paddling, you’ll appreciate the current pushing you along on the way back to the park. There are a few homes dotted along the creek, but mostly you’ll find ancient pine and hardwood forests, scrub habitat, and hammocks.
For a break from the asphalt jungles and hordes of tourists, head to Cedar Key, a quaint fishing village off the Gulf of Mexico. Besides its pink and purple hued sunsets, it’s also a great spot for kayaking. A good beginner route is a 30-minute paddle to the historic Island of Atsena Otie, an ancient Native American water trail. The island is also a perfect spot to look for Native American artifacts like arrowheads and pottery, though always be sure to be respectful. Paddle back to shore under a Florida coast sunset. Take your time to ensure you take advantage of opportunities to spot wildlife like blue herons, and eagle and osprey nests in the protected mangrove forests. Summer also brings the return of Leatherback turtles and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of dolphins frolicking in the blue waters.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Situated in the heart of the agricultural flat lands in North Florida is one of the gems of the state. At Ichetucknee Springs, you’ll find crystalline, ice-cold waters flowing from fresh water springs and feeding into the Ichetucknee River. In 1972 it was designated a National Natural Landmark by the US Department of the Interior and called “the clearest water in the world” by Jacque Cousteau. Although the river is open seasonally for tubing and swimming, it’s open year round for kayaking and canoeing. Weekdays in the off-season is the perfect time to glide through the clear waters of the river to try to catch a glimpse of river otters playing or a blue heron and turtles soaking up the sun on an old log. Along the river you’ll also see ancient moss-covered Cyprus and limestone banks, the same landscape that the Native Americans traversed. It truly is some of the best kayaking in Florida!
Situated in West Central Florida is another paddling trail with the typical landscape of moss-covered mangroves, pine and scrub. Flowing 46 miles through Manatee County to Tampa Bay, the Manatee River is a popular spot for kayaking and canoeing and the Upper Manatee River Run is a great place to get your paddle wet. Running from Fort Hamer Country Park to Manatee Dam, the trail is a 9-mile paddle perfect for beginners. Along the way you’ll find sandbars to stop at for a picnic or to stretch your legs. On weekdays, the river is mostly empty, making it the best time to watch for birds, manatees, alligators and other wildlife. Bring your own gear or rent for the day at Ray’s Canoe Hideaway nearby, which is also a launch point for the popular paddling trail.
Suwannee River might have the typical landscape of Florida waterways in the North Central part of the state, but this river has a rich history filled with Native Americans and the first settlers of the US colonies. Starting at a launch point at Stephen Foster State Park, explore White Springs near the US 41 Bridge before paddling the popular run. Along the way you’ll discover ancient Cyprus and pine forests plus 22 freshwater springs feeding the river. You can also stop off at Suwannee River State Park in Live Oak for a break and to explore the Civil War fortification camps and old cemetery. You’ll also get to see several conservation areas along the river, including Camp Branch, Swift Creek, and Woods Ferry. At the end of the run is Spirit of the Suwannee River State Park, a popular spot with hiking trails and kayak rentals.
Right in the heart of the bustling metropolis of Miami are the beautiful mangrove forest preserves and inlets of Oleta River, the largest urban park in the US. Kayaking is a great way to explore all of the inlets in this paradise, including the nearby Haulover Inlet if your arms are up for the workout. You can also stop by the 200 ft. sandy beach for a swim or to stretch the legs. The park has several nature trails where you can spot nesting birds and local flora and fauna typical of South Florida. For the novice paddler, the park offers guided tours, but if you want to explore on your own, the map is pretty easy to follow. The park has a general store with gear rental options if you aren’t planning on bringing your own.
Further along the Gulf Coast is another gem and a popular destination for outdoor water adventures. Next to Captiva Island is Sanibel Island, one of the barrier islands in this tropical coastal area. With its mangrove forests, the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for a variety of birds. The Commodore Creek Kayak Trail also starts in the park. The 2.5-mile loop passes the Tarpon Bay, a beautiful spot to explore the small bays and mangrove tunnels along the shoreline where you may see pods of dolphins frolicking or manatees munching away. If you’re feeling up for a bit of an Old Florida history lesson, stop in at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates for a tour – consisting of 20 acres of historical buildings dating back to the 1920s and 30s – before heading back to the launch at the refuge.
Further west in North Central Florida is the popular Rainbow Springs, a first magnitude spring that pumps fresh water into the Rainbow River, which flows 6 miles into the Withlacoochee River. Along the way you’ll discover flora and fauna typical of West Central Florida including moss-covered pine and cyprus, turtles, and river otters. Launching at Rainbow Springs Park in Dunnellon, this paddling route will take you past the Ocala National Forest and back again in a loop to Rainbow Springs, the fourth largest spring in the state. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1972, the park was originally a tourist attraction in the 1930s but now is a protected wilderness area. Kayak rentals are available at the park, which also offers a picnic area, restrooms, and hiking trails if you feel like stretching your legs.
St. Johns River
Florida’s St. Johns River is a must-see, not just for its crystal clear waters that flow from Blue Springs in Deland, but to witness the large population of West Indian Manatees. Starting at the launch point at Blue Springs State Park near Deland in Central Florida, the paddling route follows the Blue Springs that feed into the St. Johns River. Along the way you’ll pass by a designated manatee refuge about 3.5 miles away at Hontoon Island. Keep in mind that the park refuge area is closed November 15th to March 1st to protect the wildlife.It’s a short paddle round trip but it’s well worth your time, if for nothing else but the manatee sightings, which makes this route some of the best kayaking in Florida!