Many things can pop into one’s mind when thinking about Florida. I mean, basketball, football, beaches, nightlife – take your pick. Oh, and did I mention alligators?
But my plan here is to talk about kayaking – or, more specifically, to share some ideas regarding where you can do so in the Sunshine State.
Just look at the list of the bodies of water in this beautiful state:
There are 1260 miles of coastline, 1700 rivers, 7700 lakes, and over 700 springs.
Those numbers look unreal even to me – and I’m the one writing this article.
With all that water, Florida pretty much has all the kayaking possibilities covered. Experts can go for adrenaline-fueled routes that will take days to finish. Or you could relax and go down a quiet river while marveling at the forests that surround you.
I know; it sounds like kayaking heaven. And to be quite honest, it kind of is.
But where’s the best kayaking in Florida?
The Sunshine State has a lot to offer – but, unfortunately, it’s impossible to go over everything in one go. But I managed to narrow it down to the 10 best places to kayak in Florida!
Florida’s Kayaking (And Fishing) Laws & Regulations: Things To Keep In Mind
I know you’re here for the recommendations on where to kayak in Florida – but there are a few things you should be aware of before you launch your ‘yak or setting off on any kayaking trips. Yes, I’m talking about the laws and regulations that apply to kayakers.
So, let’s get this law-related bit out of the way – and then we can get to the exciting part.
Here are Florida’s laws and regulations to keep in mind:
- There’s no minimum age requirement for kayaking in Florida – unless the vessel has a motor with more than 10 HP.
- Kayaks under 16 feet long that aren’t equipped with a trolling motor do not have to be registered in the state of Florida.
- All motorized vessels, regardless of length, operating on public waters must be titled and registered.
- You must have a USCG-approved PFD for each person on board. If your kayak is over 16 feet long, you’ll be required to have a throwable Type IV PFD, too.
- Operating any vessel under the influence is against the law in Florida; the alcohol level of 0.08% is considered the legal limit.
- Florida allows an overhang of 9 feet in the rear and 3 feet in the front of the vehicle when transporting a kayak.
- You are required to possess a hunting, freshwater, or saltwater fishing license in Florida when engaging in fishing and hunting activities.
10 Best Places To Kayak In The Sunshine State
As I’m sure you’re aware, Florida has a lot to offer to paddlers. So much so that it might just be downright impossible to decide where to go paddling first.
Now, is this a bad thing?
No, absolutely not.
The Sunshine State isn’t just filled to the brim with lakes, rivers, and coastlines Florida’s known for its forests, swamps, and beautiful scenery that you can paddle through for days.
You can enjoy the scenery at night, too; it’s not all about going out in Miami on a Saturday night.
Underwater light shows, fishing on remote islands in the Florida keys, or navigating the maze of mangrove tunnels in the Everglades… I could go on for days.
We don’t have that much time, though. So, let’s focus on these 10 best places to go kayaking in Florida – and what to do when you get there!
1. Santa Fe River
Best For Family-friendly outings
Lake Santa Fe and Lake Alto are located in the northern part of Florida – and mark the starting point of this beautiful 44-mile stretch of water. Along the way, you’ll find tributaries from the New River and the Olustee Creek.
But there are other surprises along this route that deserve mention here:
The Santa Fe river actually disappears at one point, only to reappear after about 3 miles.
That’s a pretty common sight in Florida – although I’m sure you won’t get used to it that easily.
You see, there’s a sink in the limestone, known as the Cody Scarp, under which the water flows for 3 miles before flowing out to the surface again. This “sunken” part of the river forms a natural bridge that can be crossed by humans and any animals in the area.
It’s been there for about 14,000 years now, by the way. So, crossing this bridge makes you part of an elite club, alongside Native Americans, Early Europeans – and every beautiful animal that calls the state of Florida home.
“That’s all great, but I don’t plan on paddling under some limestone.”
That’s a fair point, I’ll admit. But don’t worry; there’s no way you’ll ever get bored on this trip:
Strong currents will take you down a 15-mile stretch filled with beautiful springs and surrounded by forests. The ones I’d like to mention here – because you’ll be talking about them when you’re done – are the Poe Springs, Lily Springs, and Ginnie Springs.
Oh, and be sure to make a stop at Rum Island – a scenic park where you can spend the day in the Florida sunshine.
2. Blackwater River State Park
Best For Outdoor enthusiasts
The Blackwater River State Park is one of the go-to Florida kayaking spots if you’re looking for some light canoeing, kayaking, and scenery – if you’re only there for those specific things, that is.
But if you wish to “broaden your horizons,” you could also try kayak fishing, camping, tubing – the list goes on.
It’s pretty much perfect for – well, everything.
But let’s focus on the river alone. Blackwater – or, in the language of the Muscogee, Oka-Lusa – is a beautiful clear river that turns golden as you get closer to the sandbars. It flows peacefully through the Blackwater State Forest, an untouched ecosystem of longleaf pine and wiregrass – one of the largest in the world of its kind.
There are miles and miles of trails for paddling or hiking, whatever you’re in the mood for on that day. If we’re talking strictly about paddling, though, there are several trails you can explore here, designed to show you the best parts of the river and the forest.
All in all, the trails will give you about 31 miles worth of paddling and scenery. Honestly, if that’s not enough, you’re just not appreciating the Floridian beauty that is Blackwater.
So I’m going to need you to take a step back and rethink this whole situation because you don’t know what you’re missing.
3. Suwannee River State Park
Best For Multi-day Paddling Trips
“What’s up with all these parks? Let’s focus on the rivers!”
Well, I wish I could do just that – but there are just so many things to do and see in this place.
But as a fellow paddler, I can understand that all you want to hear about are the river trails you can conquer with your ‘yak. Well, the good news is, you’ll have a lot of conquering to do here.
And folks, I’m not kidding:
The Suwannee River stretches out from southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico.
Are you wondering how much of a stretch that is? Well, it’s about 246 miles worth of paddling, give or take.
And to be honest, if I were to just focus on this glorious river, I would end this round-up happy and feeling like I’ve shown you the best that Florida has to offer.
It’s a beautiful trail that will give you various types of scenery for days on end. From Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll pretty much never take the same picture twice!
But somewhere along the way, the Suwannee and the Withlacoochee river meet – and at that point, you’ll find yourself at this Florida State Park.
It’s a place rich with history, too – old steamboats and ghost towns long abandoned. It genuinely is something you should experience – and not just for paddling, either.
“Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away…”
4. Rainbow Springs State Park
Best For Springs, Springs, Springs!
Next on my kayaking in Florida round-up is another historical landmark. Not so much for the actual history – but for the old-school marketing that turned this river into the Famous Rainbow Springs State Park.
So, is there some sort of rainbow phenomenon that occurs at the river or in the park?
Well, no, not at all, really. I mean, I’m sure that you could spot a rainbow or two after it rains, but there’s no colorful miracle that occurs every day and makes this place unique.
The name’s nothing but a clever marketing trick created in the 1930s.
Before that, it was simply called Blue Spring. And before that, it was called the Wekiwa Creek – a name given to it by the Native American Seminole tribe.
Whatever you choose to call it, the spring itself is quite a sight to see.
It’s a first-magnitude artesian spring that can produce up to 490 million gallons of water – on a daily basis. Yup, you read that right. It’s the fourth largest in Florida for a reason.
The spring forms the headwaters of the Rainbow River, which then goes on to empty into the Withlacoochee River.
It’s interesting to note that this was once a private outdoor park and remained privately owned until 1990. That’s pretty crazy considering that the Rainbow River became a Natural Landmark two decades earlier, in 1972.
Today, the clear blue waters and moss-draped cypress trees attract tourists, swimmers – and, of course, paddlers – with canoe and kayak rentals readily available from the headsprings launch area.
Follow the trail, and you may even spot some otters, birds, and other animals native to this area, all while soaking in the beauty of the limestone formations and vegetation.
5. Crystal River Preserve State Park
Best For Off-the-beaten-track Explorers
Can you guess what I have in store for you next? If you said “Another spring?” you’re technically right. Well, it’s springs – plural – but you get the idea.
The Crystal River is a short body of water that stretches from Citrus County down to the Gulf of Mexico. And when I say “short,” I mean short – especially when compared to some of the giants found on this list (read: Suwannee River).
The Crystal River is a mere 7 miles long – but within those short 7 miles, you’ll encounter 30 natural springs responsible for about 300 million gallons of warm water that the river receives every day.
So, what does the park have to offer?
Well, the Crystal River Preserve State Park is something of a time machine; original Florida at its best, untouched state.
It will show you what the Sunshine State looked like centuries ago. Much of the 27,500 acres of land haven’t been touched by humans and are home to hardwood forests, pinewood, mangrove islands, and – well, you know, the springs.
So, should you bring your paddles to this nature preserve?
You absolutely should!
There are two launch areas, the first at the Mullet Hole and the second right across the visitor’s center. And if you decide to park your ‘yak for the day, you’ll still be able to go hiking, fishing, or cruising on a boat!
One may argue that if you feel like going on a boat tour, then you might as well paddle that boat yourself. But hey, that’s a matter of preference.
6. Lake Okeechobee
Best For Kayak Fishing and Camping
Lake Okeechobee, also known as Florida’s Inland Sea, is the second-largest freshwater lake in the United States. Let that sink in.
That’s a bit of a play on words – the sinking thing, I mean. See, the lake’s incredibly shallow, with the depth averaging about 9 feet.
I know, I know, the wordplay wasn’t good; I’ll try harder, I promise.
The Okeechobee Lake stretches over an area of 730 square miles, and it’s divided between five counties – Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry. The five counties meet at the point in the center of the lake.
The five parts of the lake further separate depending on what kind of activities you’re looking for:
If you want to go fishing, you need to visit Clewiston, the lake’s southern shore, where you have a chance to catch the native largemouth bass and the speckled perch, among other species like the Okeechobee catfish and the black crappies.
And after you’re done fishing, you can go ahead and get LOST on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (get it, LOST, as in “Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail” for short… I’ll stop, don’t worry).
All jokes aside, this scenic 110-mile trail circles the Big O, giving you a great view of nature and incredible wildlife. Oh, and you get to spend the night at a nearby campground – if you decide to stay more than a day, that is.
7. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Best For: An old-school mermaid show (Yup, you read that right.)
If the Crystal River Preserve is a time machine showing Florida from a couple of centuries ago, then Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is a time machine, too, but with only one setting – the post-war United States.
That’s right; you can come down to Weeki Wachee Springs and catch an underwater mermaid show that will show you what the tourists did for fun back in the 50s!
And what’s more 1950s than an underwater mermaid show?
Of course, the mermaids aren’t the only thing the Weeki Wachee is famous for:
This park is home to the deepest freshwater cave system in the country. Now, I know that diving might not be what you’re here for – you’re more into the above-the-surface type of water sports – but it’s still a fantastic experience.
The 7.4-mile Weeki Wachee River is a spring-fed haven for paddlers, featuring blue waters, diverse wildlife, and currents that are strong enough to do the heavy work for you – while you sit back and enjoy the ride.
I’d even say it’s one of Florida’s top destinations for family-friendly paddling trips.
The main kayaking trail is 1.5 miles long, located in the heart of the park, and surrounded by wetlands and forests. The bad news is that the clear blue water is off-limits to swimmers.
Well, at least within the boundaries of the park.
But as soon as you leave those borders, you’re free to jump out of your canoe and take a dip in the clear, cool water. Heck, that dip alone would be enough for me to go to the park in the first place!
8. Blue Springs State Park – St. Johns River
Best For: Wildlife sightings and recreational paddling
I’ll try to squeeze in two things into one spot here. I mean, it’s pretty obvious from the title, so I’ll just get straight to it.
The Saint Johns River is the longest in the state of Florida, stretching out to a monstrous length of 310 miles. It starts up north Florida, snaking its way down while going through 12 counties.
It takes its time doing so; let’s get that straight:
It’s a lazy river with a flow rate of 0.3 miles per hour.
Because of its length, there are more than a few lakes that the river flows into, and at its widest point, it’s nearly 3 miles wide.
And what about the Blue Springs State Park?
Well, I’d say it’s the place to be if you happen to flow down the river.
The Park was established back in 1970 and is quite a success when it comes to preserving the ecosystem and its wildlife. As a national wildlife refuge, it is home to a record number of manatees that are a must-see attraction if you ever come across the Blue Springs State Park. The record number’s 485 manatees, by the way.
That’s nearly 500 of these gentle giants swimming around the area!
Sure, if you wish, I suppose that you could go paddling down the 310-mile river. But if you don’t want to spend a good chunk of your vacation time going down the longest river in the state, I’d recommend sticking to the Blue Springs State Park.
9. The Great Calusa Blueway
Best For Kayaking in Coastal Waters
Okay, let’s take a break from the springs, lakes, and state parks. The Great Calusa Blueway is just a good old-fashioned kayaking trail. Well, it’s a trail; you can kind of use it for whatever you want, I suppose.
It’s a 190-mile saltwater paddle trail filled with secluded beaches, protected estuaries laced with mangrove tunnels and barrier islands, and tidal creeks. Now, I know that I mentioned some giant rivers in this list – but this is a different type of monster.
I’m not saying that it’s the longest trail in the world – but that’s a lot of miles to paddle.
It’s not just the sheer length of the Great Calusa that’s so impressive; it’s everything it offers, as well.
You could be an absolute beginner, and there would be a part of the trail suitable for you. Plus, the pros among you will have room to put their paddling skills to work, too.
Several key ports deserve mention, including the Fort Myer, Pine Island Sound, Sanibel Island, and the Captive – Caloosahatchee River.
The Pine Island Sound features an incredible Aquatic Preserve. At this point, the trail loops and winds into a saltwater lagoon and tidal salt marsh. That’s the beauty of the Great Calusa – there are indeed so many things to see:
You could come back a hundred times, and you’ll find something new that captivates you.
The Caloosahatchee River is one of the newest segments of the Great Calusa Blueway used by Calusa natives and settlers from Fort Myers. Boats take advantage of the route to this day.
It also offers opportunities for fishing, bird and wildlife watching, and camping on Picnic Island. It genuinely is one of those complete, all-in-one trails in the Sunshine State.
10. Indian River Lagoon State Park
Best For Getting in Touch With Nature
Finally, we get to the last paddling spot on my list – and, perhaps, the most exotic.
The Indian River Lagoon National Estuary covers over 180 miles of Florida’s east coast. If you love all things nature, you’ll be glad to learn that the Lagoon’s known as the “most biodiverse habitat in North America.”
It’s home to over 4000 plants and animal species!
It may be the only place on this list that you should visit, even if they suddenly banned any type of paddling on the river.
Don’t worry, though; paddling is very much allowed.
It’s a heaven-on-earth type of place that I’m talking about here. Forests, wetlands, shorelines, islands, fresh and salt waters – there are so many different places to visit and a whole different side of Florida to experience.
There are five freshwater rivers, five saltwater inlets, and four brackish water basins.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information I’m throwing at you, don’t be – I’m honestly having a hard time listing it all.
“So, where can I paddle?”
That’s the big question here. But it requires a big answer, too, so give me a moment to catch my breath.
You can pretty much explore the entire Island by launching your ‘yak on any water body you can find.
What are the spots I would recommend the most, you ask?
Off the top of my head, I would recommend hitting the Indian River, Banana River, and Mosquito Lagoon.
Just make sure to respect the land; it’s one of the most sacred spots in the state!
10 Best Places To Kayak In Florida – Conclusion
The state of Florida has a lot to offer, so it’s alright if you’re not sure where to start. If you plan on visiting Florida kayaking, I feel a top 10 list, like this one, will always help get you going.
That’s the whole point of us paddling your way through rivers, streams, lakes, and other bodies of water:
Kayakers like to get going and explore the beauty of nature from a different perspective – while also getting an adrenaline rush when the currents get serious. That’s something we all have in common, no matter where we launch our kayaks.
So, can the Sunshine State provide that?
It sure can – and then some. It’s a beautiful state, and there are plenty of reasons to take a Florida vacation, and I genuinely believe that your ‘yak can help you get to know it even better!
If there are any Floridians reading these, please feel free to recommend more places to kayak in Florida. I’d love to hear more about your favorite paddling spots and top kayaking adventures!