Sunday, November 19, 2017
Outdoors

10 must-paddle places in and around Tampa Bay (w/video)

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Tampa Bay residents have an incredible selection of paddling locations at their fingertips, to the point that it can be overwhelming to pick just one place to spend a day on the water. Outside magazine seems to agree, naming St. Petersburg the top city for paddling in the Gulf in a recent issue.

To give you some ideas for summer paddling, we compiled the 10 best places to take a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard within a couple hours of driving. (Starting point for all estimates is downtown St. Petersburg.)

Pro tips: Always wear a personal flotation device, and pack generous amounts of sunscreen and water.

Hillsborough River (one hour)

Former Tampa Bay Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin used to tell his Cub Scouts they might see alligators here, but the gators won't bother you unless you bother them. "I want them to respect the river, never fear it," Tomalin wrote. In fact, alligators are just one of the sights at this scenic paddle spot: you may also find bobcats, deer and foxes, along with a variety of birds both common and rare. If you're feeling ambitious and know how to handle a paddle, check out the winding labyrinth of creeks and streams called the "17 Runs," but be aware that even experienced paddlers have gotten lost here. Click here for more info about renting.

Octavio Jones | Times

Hillsborough River

 

Little Manatee River (45 minutes)

This 40-mile river east of Tampa Bay has a lot of twists and turns until you get farther downstream, where the river widens and becomes brackish as it approaches the bay. There's lots of great fishing near the river opening, and you will run into a wide range of wildlife including otters, deer and local bird species. The river has a "designated" 10-mile paddling trail that's great for beginning paddlers. Hiking near Little Manatee is a good way to break up your day on the water, according to longtime paddler George Stovall. Click here for a map of the river, including the paddling trail and hiking recommendations.

Skip O'Rourke | Times

Little Manatee River

 

Myakka River (one hour, 15 minutes)

If you want to see an alligator — or 100 — go to Myakka. The river is more than 60 miles long, so you'll want to carve out a place ahead of time. You can rent canoes and kayaks from inside the state park at the Myakka Outpost, a good place to start your journey. Make sure to stay alert, but don't worry too much about the gators: If you avoid approaching or feeding them, they tend to stay out of your way. Also be sure to get a permit from the ranger station in the park if you go any farther south than State Road 72, because that area is limited access within the park. Overall, the river tends to be less busy during the summer, Stovall said. Entrance to Myakka River State Park costs $6 per vehicle, and camping is $26 per night not including tax and reservation fees. Click here for info on canoe and kayak rentals.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

Myakka River

 

Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers (two hours)

The Rainbow River is about as clear as a glass of water, and at a constant low to mid 70s temperature, it's the perfect way to stay cool on a hot summer day. While paddling down the river you will see turtles and fish below the clear water. If you can, get there on a weekday, because the area is popular on weekends. The Rainbow River empties into the Withlacoochee River less than 6 miles from the springs. There you will see all kinds of birds — kingfishers, kites, eagles — as you continue through the Withlacoochee State Forest, where campground options abound. Click here for info on canoe, kayak and SUP rentals.

Lara Cerri | Times

Withlacoochee River

 

Suwannee River (three hours or less, depending on the campground)

This is one a bit of a drive, so plan to spend at least one night camping if you want to get the most out of paddling the river. Campgrounds are located up and down the waterway, so you can easily turn your trip into a multi-day paddling adventure. The river and surrounding area contains a lot of wildlife variety, Stovall said. The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge has deer, snakes, alligators, and if you're lucky you can see coyotes. North of Live Oak at upper Suwannee is another scenic area lined with cypress and pine, but watch out for the currents farther up. Click here for more info on paddle camping. The river has a number of good canoe and kayak rental options, which you can find by Googling "Suwannee River Canoe Rental."

Scott Keeler | Times

Suwannee River

 

Chassahowitzka River (one hour, 30 minutes)

The "Chaz" is a beautiful, short paddle through the Citrus County wilderness, surrounded by sawgrass, trees and all sorts of wildlife. The water stays warm year-round and flows out of a series of freshwater springs that create nice spots to get out of your watercraft and swim around to stay cool. Be sure to check out The Crack and the Seven Sisters springs when you go to the Chaz. Kayak rentals are $35 per day, plus a $5 vehicle fee. Click here for more info.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

Chassahowitzka River

 

Silver Springs (two hours)

Monkeys — specifically rhesus macaques — are common along the banks of the Silver River in Ocala. You can start at the springs and paddle to the cypress swamp, where you're likely to see the monkeys. Observe them from a distance, because they can be aggressive. Aside from the unique attraction of the macaques, the Silver River has good birding and other wildlife varieties, including snakes and alligators. With calm waters and easy paddling, it's another good location for beginners. A single-person kayak costs $30 for full-day rental; stand-up paddleboards are $45. Click here for more info.

Ocala Star-Banner

Silver Springs

 

Caladesi Island (45 minutes)

There's no right way to experience Caladesi Island — it's paradise no matter what — but a great way to get there is by kayak or SUP. You have a good chance of seeing dolphins and stingrays, and there's a short trail through the mangroves once you reach the island. You can rent from Sail Honeymoon or Romantic Honeymoon Island (kayaks only).

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

Caladesi Island

 

Weedon Island Preserve (20 minutes)

If you live in St. Petersburg and are itching to paddle but don't have enough time for a full day trip, the preserve is a perfect spot. The 4-mile South Paddling Trail is your best bet to see a mix of the preserve's wildlife, from the crabs and shrimp in seagrass beds to multiple species of mangroves growing beside the trail. Drive to the end of Weedon Drive NE to find the trail; set aside three hours or so to paddle it. Check the tides before you go to make sure they are high enough to paddle the whole trail, and consider going on a weekday when the area is less crowded. Sweetwater Kayaks opens at 9 a.m. daily and rents out canoes, kayaks and SUPS.

Scott Keeler | Times

Weedon Island Preserve

 

Fort De Soto (25 minutes)

You can launch from many different parts of the park, but a paddling trail that runs for a little more than 2 miles is the best route for beginners. It starts at a mangrove-surrounded cove called Soldier's Hole and continues up the creek before looping back around at the opening of Mullet Key Bayou. Bring your binoculars if you paddle the trail, because there are lots of bird species around the area. Keep going to Mullet Key if you're up for a longer paddle. Click here for a map of the park and here for info on the Topwater Kayak Outpost, the best place to rent from.

Scott Keeler | Times

Fort De Soto

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