Row merrily, merrily, merrily down one of Tampa Bay's best kayak trails

Caladesi Island on a kayak. 
Photo by Carole Liparoto
Caladesi Island on a kayak. Photo by Carole Liparoto
Published Jul. 24, 2014

The benefits of a good kayak or canoe trip can be pretty wide-ranging.

See places that aren't accessible by motorized boat. Get that rare upper-body cardio workout in. Or experience a whole new dimension of couples therapy when you paddle tandem with your significant other through narrow waterways (more on that later).

But the single best reason you should pick up a paddle this summer is that our very own backyard happens to have some of the best trails in the country (of both the saltwater and freshwater variety).

After a few months of touring local kayak and canoe trails, my husband and I came away with some pumped-up rhomboid muscles, some pretty sweet sandal tans and a new appreciation for Bay-area ecology … and for working together. Here are some of the best spots we visited.

Weedon Island Preserve

This one's a no-brainer. Centrally located in Tampa Bay just off the Gandy, Weedon Island is one of Florida's most celebrated places for kayakers. The South Paddling trail is a marked, 4-mile loop (give yourself approximately three hours) that will have you meandering through grass flats and mangrove tunnels. If you feel like you're being watched, it's just the thousands of small black crabs crawling on the branches. Spoonbills, white ibises and leaping mullet are plentiful too. The launch site is next to the fishing pier at the end of Weedon Drive.

Upper Hillsborough River

The storied Hillsborough River trail winds its way down to Tampa Bay through some seriously old-school Florida terrain teeming with large alligators. I am a native Floridian and consider myself pretty in tune with nature. But I can tell you that there were stretches of the narrow, shaded upper portion of this river (from Morris Bridge Park to Trout Creek Park) that were pretty intimidating. Gators, spiders and snakes are plentiful, the trail is not well marked and, depending on tides and downed trees, you may experience "portages." That's fancy paddler talk for getting out in the muck and carrying your boat. Remember that part about couples therapy? This one took a calm, coordinated team effort. This trip might not be for the beginner. On a final note: We employed the "two-car shuffle" here, parking one car at the Morris Bridge Park launch in Thonotosassa and the other downstream at Lettuce Lake Park.

Fort De Soto

A great place for a first-time kayak excursion or family outing, Fort De Soto offers a 2 1/2-mile marked trail through calm waters. There's a rental stand with a friendly staff, sit-in and sit-on kayak options and an easy shove off into the wide, sun-exposed trail. A recent aerial survey counted approximately 4,831 manatees in Florida's waterways. This trail works well for paddleboarders, too, since there's no ducking under mangroves and no low tide issues to deal with.

Caladesi Island

Caladesi Island is voted a top beach time and time again for its lovely white sand, ample shells and bird nesting areas. But there's an excellent trail for paddlers too. From the Sail Honeymoon rental stand on Dunedin Causeway, it's about a 30-minute paddle to Caladesi. You'll need to be alert crossing the channel, but all in all, it's an easy three-mile round trip in which you'll paddle though mangroves and protected glass flats (no motor boats allowed). Dolphins and osprey were out and about all day, as was the popular Caladesi Island Ferry.

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Weeki Wachee

There's about five-and-a-half picturesque miles of crystal clear water to traverse in Weeki Wachee. We launched near Rogers Park (at the Weeki Wachee Marina) and headed upstream first (not difficult here). This spot is tops for a group trip since much of the river is under natural canopy and there's ample room to paddle side by side, but not too much that you'd lose each other. Plus, there are plenty of kitschy river homes with friendly, chatty locals as well as some cool rope swings to attempt along the way.

Fred Howard Park

A nice option for the north Pinellas folks, Fred Howard Park offers a marked half-mile mangrove loop (but it's not your best bet at low tide) as well as a two-mile loop through Lake Avoca. You could also launch from the park to paddle over to Anclote Key. It's about two-and-a-half miles and ocean conditions can be on the rougher side. If you'd prefer a lazier paddle, head over to the white, sandy beach at Sunset Beach.