WEEKI WACHEE — Driving north on U.S. 19 past this classic Florida tourist attraction known for its mermaids, it is hard to imagine one of the state's best paddling rivers can be found a few hundred yards away.
Fed by a first-magnitude spring that discharges 64 million gallons of water each day, the Weeki Wachee flows roughly 8 miles through a variety of habitat before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Bayport.
The river is a favorite haunt of the West Indian manatee and a variety of other rare or endangered species, including river otter, wood storks and the American bald eagle.
Most Floridians are familiar with the Old Florida amusement park, which opened in 1947, went through some hard times and now is operated by the Florida State Park Service.
The river, one of the best-kept secrets on the Gulf Coast, is ideal for entry-level paddlers or families with small children. But experts can design a trip as easy or as challenging as they wish.
Exploring the river is a lot easier now that the state has taken control of the park. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Paddling Adventures rents canoes as well as single and tandem kayaks and offers transportation back upstream.
Paddlers also have the option of bringing their own canoes or kayaks. You can launch at the park for a $5 fee. Transportation back to your car costs $10.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Paddling Adventures provides pickups at noon, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., which gives you plenty of time for a nice, leisurely float/paddle with the current down river. (Pickup for all trips is at Roger's Park.)
Paddlers can start at 9 a.m. with the last boat out by noon if using their transportation or paddling back and 2:45 if using your own transportation and your own canoe/kayak.
Weekends tend to be crowded. But go on a weekday, and you might just have the river all to yourself.
The easiest, and most enjoyable trip as far as scenery starts at the outfitter located just south of the attraction and ends at Rogers Park. For the first mile or so, you share the waterway with sightseeing cruises from the state park. But the electric boats are quiet and slow, so they don't disturb the serenity.
About 3 miles downstream, you will paddle past a couple of good places to stop for lunch. The river has several twists and turns. Remember, stay to the left.
It is possible to paddle upstream from Bayport, but this should be attempted only by hardier paddlers because you will be going against the current.
The outfitter is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
For reservations call (352) 592-5666. Or for more information, go to weekiwachee.com.