Just a half-hour drive from downtown Tampa, this is one of the most scenic rivers in Florida. The state's 31-mile designated canoe trail runs from Crystal Springs to the City of Tampa's Rowlett Park, though the upper reaches can be difficult to paddle. The section below the state park, Seventeen Runs, should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers. Canoe Escape, on Fowler Avenue, is one of the state's best outfitters and offers rentals as well as drop-off and pick-up if you bring your own paddlecraft. Call (813) 986-2067 or go to www.canoeescape.com.
Made famous in the song Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster, this river starts in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and twists and turns for 207 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near the town of Suwannee. The river has dozens of access points, which allows for a variety of day or overnight trips. It is possible to wilderness camp, stay in state parks or use one of the state's new "river camps." It is recommended that paddlers, regardless of skill level, portage Big Shoals above White Springs, the only Class III rapids in Florida. Call the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at (800) 868-9914 or go to www.suwanneeriver.com.
With its headwaters located in the Green Swamp east of Brooksville, this river (not to be confused with another Withlacoochee in north Florida) passes through a variety of terrain, including cypress swamps, oak hammocks and pine forests. Camping is available at Silver Lake Recreation Area, part of the state forest system. Technically, the river has 83 miles of trail, but conditions vary with water level. Contact the Nobleton Canoe Outpost, (352) 796-7176 for information and reservations, or visit www.nobletonoutpost.com.
This 31-mile canoe trail near Milton in the Florida Panhandle flows through the unspoiled Blackwater River State Forest. At times, overhanging trees form a canopy over the river. Up the high bluffs, you'll also see some impressive stands of cedar. The only true undeveloped sand river left in the United States, the Blackwater is a must for every paddler's life list. Ideal for beginners and families (plenty of sandbars for picnicking). Call Blackwater Canoe Rental at 1-800-967-6789 or visit www.blackwatercanoe.com.
This river, approximately 110 miles long and flowing along the edge of the Ocala National Forest, was once a major thoroughfare for paddle-wheeled steamboats traveling up the nearby St. Johns. Rich in history and "Cracker" Florida charm, the Ocklawaha still has bobcat, deer and black bear living along the shoreline. To plan your trip on the Ocklawaha or the nearby Silver and Dead rivers or Cedar Creek, contact the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost & Resort in Fort McCoy at (352) 236-4606 or go to www.outpostresort.com.
Little Manatee River
One of the best kept secrets in Central Florida, this sleepy little river north of Bradenton is one of the best day trips in the state. The tannin-stained river has plenty of sandbars to pull over and rest as well as many good access points. Look for turtles and otters in the water, and birds of prey soaring overhead. The trail ends on the south bank at Little Manatee River State Park, which has full-facility camping. The Canoe Outpost in Wimauma is full-service, but plan early because the river gets crowded on weekends. Call (813) 634-2228or go to www.canoeingfun.com.
Few rivers in Florida measure up to this beauty when it comes to variety. Starting in a cypress swamp, the river flows for more than 60 miles through a variety of terrain before emptying into Charlotte Harbor, one of the finest fishing areas in Florida. Paddlers can explore 14 miles of the river in Myakka River State Park alone. An easy day trip is a 6-mile loop around Upper Myakka Lake, a great place to see gators and waterbirds. The Myakka Outpost rents canoes and bikes. Call the outpost at (941) 923-1120 or go to www.myakkariver.org for information.
The Peace River
As the name implies, the 67-mile Peace River canoe trail is a laid-back paddle. Flowing through cattle and phosphate country, this river is a favorite destination for fossil hunters. In some spots, this tea-colored river is narrow, picking up speed as it flows between steep banks. But then the terrain changes, and the river widens, slowing to a snail's pace. The Peace has many tiny islands to explore and plenty of sandy beaches for camping. The Canoe Outpost in Arcadia is the best place to start. Call (863) 494-1215 or go to www.canoeoutpost.com.
Santa Fe River
A tributary of the more heavily traveled Suwannee River, the Santa Fe is one of those sleeper spots usually only paddled by locals and die-hard river runners. The trail begins in O'Leno State Park, where the Santa Fe reappears after flowing underground for more than 3 miles. For 30 miles, the river snakes its way through hardwood hammocks and swamps, passing several springs. The Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs offers trips on the Santa Fe, Suwannee and Ichetucknee rivers. Call (386) 454-2050 or go to www.santaferiver.com.
The Apalachicola once played a role in the state's early Indian Wars. Paddlers can start in Georgia and follow the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico or set up base in Apalachicola (a.k.a. Oyster Town) and embark on a variety of day trips. All together there are more than 100 miles of trails, which is one reason why Paddler Magazine and the American Canoe Association recently named the Apalachicola Trail System one of the top paddling destinations in the United States.
For a free map, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission at (850) 488-5520 or visit www.myfwc.com/recreation/apalachicola_river/paddling.asp.
St. Johns River
The St. Johns River, one of only a few rivers in the Western Hemisphere that actually runs flows north, can get big, wide and rough. But in the upper reaches, especially above Blue Springs Run, the river is still as wild as it was 250 years ago when the first explorers paddled its waters. Camp at the state park near Orange City and explore Blue Spring Run, a half-mile stretch of the cleanest, purest water in the world. To help protect manatees, the run is closed in the winter months, but the main river still provides numerous opportunities for the experienced paddler.
With miles of side creeks to explore, it is easy to spend a full day on the Chassahowitzka River and never make it out to the gulf. The big draw is the freshwater springs. Bring swimming trunks, a mask and snorkel. The main springs are well-marked, but ask the locals about some of lesser known swimming holes. You won't be sorry.
This 6-mile waterway begins in a spring at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park and is home to one of the largest herds of West Indian Manatee in Florida. Paddlers often see these gentle animals moving slowly upstream, especially in the winter months. The Halls River, which joins the Homosassa from the north, offers additional backwater paddling. As you near the gulf, freshwater mixes with salt. These are prime fishing grounds. Bring a rod and reel.
Located 4 miles northwest of Fort White, this gin-colored river flows for 6 miles through shaded oak hammocks before emptying into the Santa Fe River. This spring-fed river is always crystal clear and 72 degrees. In 1972, the headspring was declared a National Natural Landmark. During the spring and summer months, the river is packed with tubers. The Ichetucknee is an easy, leisurely paddle. Note: in order to preserve the area, no food or drink is permitted on the river.
The Indian River Lagoon System
The "IRL," as it is called by locals, extends 156 miles along Florida's east coast from Ponce de Leon Inlet to Jupiter Inlet. Considered to be North America's most diverse estuary, the overlapping tropical and subtropical climates supports 4,300 plants and animals, 72 of which are endangered or threatened. The best paddling areas are Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, Turkey Creek, the Sebastian River, the Banana River, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the Mosquito Lagoon in Canaveral National Seashore.
The Great Calusa Blueway
This 100-mile paddling trail is the most user-friendly waterway in Florida. With easy-to-find markers and excellent maps, paddlers can travel from the pristine waters of Estero Bay to Sanibel and Pine Island Sound. The trail offers everything from short, one-hour trips for beginners to long-distance geocache hunts for the tech-savvy adventurer. To find out more, go to www.greatcalusablueway.com.
Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail
This 105-mile paddling trail, located on the Gulf of Mexico between the St. Marks River lighthouse and the Suwannee River, was the state's first attempt to service long-distance sea kayakers. With well-marked primitive campsites located a day's paddle apart, Big Bend is the best place to try your first overnight expedition. Paddlers must secure permits before heading out. Go to www.myfwc.com/recreation/big_bend/paddling_trail.asp.
Everglades National Park
One of the state's true treasures, the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway is a challenge for even the most experienced paddlers. Paddling opportunities include day trips from Flamingo, Everglades City and Collier-Seminole State Park, or hardy souls can island-hop their way down along Florida Bay or stay "inside" and paddle the backcountry. Go to www.nps.gov/ever.
With thousands of miles of rivers, bays and ocean to explore in and around Florida, an intrepid adventurer could spend a lifetime exploring the state's waterways. While I haven't been everywhere (though I'm trying), over the years I have paddled from the Okefenokee Swamp straddling the state line with Georgia, down the Suwannee River, along the west coast and Florida Bay and across the Gulf Stream to Bimini. Here are a few of my favorite paddles, in no particular order. This list is subjective, of course, so send us an e-mail (with "Favorite Paddles" in the subject header) to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will run some of your feedback in a future issue of Gulf & Bay.