Camping / Kayak & Canoe / Southeast Florida

Legendary Fisheating Creek : Kayak trail lives up to hype, but timing is everything

The dark tea-colored water was a mirror for the cypress forest along Fisheating Creek.

The dark tea-colored water is a mirror for the cypress forest along Fisheating Creek.

For decades, I have wanted to kayak Fisheating Creek , which is just west of Lake Okeechobee.

The problem: For 10 years, the stream was closed to kayaks and canoes because it was in private hands. During that time (1989-1998) Fisheating Creek achieved legendary status. (Isn’t that how prohibition works? Forbid it and we want it even more?)

But since the state purchased the creek lands in 1998, the biggest challenge to kayaking Fisheating Creek has been fluctuating water level. In the summer, when Florida is hot and buggy, water levels are high enough to paddle Fisheating Creek. When the weather cools and the mosquitos subside, water levels plummet.

A wood stork takes flight along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

A wood stork takes flight along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

If you want to kayak Fisheating Creek comfortably, you have to time it to a few brief weeks in the fall.

So, on a beautiful November day, my husband and I realized, THIS was the weekend, and we might not have another soon.

After years of hearing about it, our expectations were high, and, generally, that’s a bad thing when traveling. Consider this: Florida’s best-known and most-loved nature photographer, Clyde Butcher, says it was seeing Fisheating Creek  that first opened his eyes to the true beauty of Florida.

Cypress knees along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

Cypress knees along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

A primitive campsite along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

A primitive campsite along Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee.

Reflections along Fisheating Creek.

Reflections along Fisheating Creek.

Our experience? Even with that, Fisheating Creek lived up to our expectations.

It is spectacularly scenic, with every stroke of our eight-mile kayak trip bringing us to a photo-worthy scene. We were never outside the sight or sound of wildlife, with birds squawking and trilling, heron and wood storks flying as we approached and dozens of alligators lounging, splashing and cruising.

There was no sign of man except the trail markers that kept you from paddling down dead ends. But the star is the forest of ancient cypress trees and knees, full of Spanish moss, air plants; each tree unique and full of personality.

This is, without question, one of the prettiest rivers in South Florida, and it’s only two hours from the 6 million people who live in the Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade counties.

How to kayak Fisheating Creek

Fisheating Creek was beautiful for the entire eight mile paddle.

Fisheating Creek was beautiful for the entire eight mile paddle.

Because all put-in spots are on private land, you have two choices in kayaking Fisheating Creek, and both start at the Fisheating Creek Outpost, a beautiful  live-oak-shaded campground and boat ramp right off U.S. 27.

You can bring your own kayak or canoe and put in here and then paddle upstream or downstream and back and it will cost you just $2 per person. You also can rent canoes and kayaks here for rates starting at $8 an hour.

The other option: pay for livery service for your or their kayak or canoe and start upstream and paddle back to the outpost campground.

Gator along Fisheating Creek.

Gators are constant companions along Fisheating Creek.

If you choose the livery service option, you can be delivered eight miles upstream at Burnt Bridge, which makes an excellent four- or five-hour day trip.

You also can be delivered 16 miles upstream at Ingrams Crossing, which is about an eight-hour paddle. If you’re a camper, you can stop and make a primitive camp at sites along the way and make a weekend out of it.

These livery options are only available when water levels are sufficient. (Here’s where to check.)

Primitive campsite where a paddler could choose to spend the night Fisheating Creek.

Primitive campsite where a paddler could choose to spend the night on Fisheating Creek.

We paddled the eight mile route from Burnt Bridge when the water was 2.75 feet high. You need 1.5 feet of water to kayak (2 feet to canoe) without constant portaging. At 2.75 feet, the water level was perfect, with a gentle current and no obstacles.

On our trip, there were plenty of exposed sandbars that made perfect spots for a lunch break and a few areas of higher ground that appeared to be popular (though very clean) primitive camping sites.

It is also possible to paddle downstream from the Outpost and explore the stream and its backwaters. (See more on that below.)

The wild world of Fisheating Creek

Fisheating Creek is 52 miles long, starting in Highlands County and ending at Lake Okeechobee. The most popular section for kayakers is upstream from Fisheating Creek Outpost.

At some points on this marked trail, Fisheating Creek narrows into a shaded almost swift stream through islands of cypress trees, with tight switchbacks.  At other points, it widens into slow-moving sunny lakes. The water is a dark orange tea color from tannins.

On a perfect autumn day, we came across perhaps five other boats, including a few fishermen reporting lots of action. Occasionally, we’d hear a little traffic noise in the distance, but most of the time, we were immersed in a wild world that felt primeval.

Our constant companion were the sights and sounds of the splendid wildlife:  The machine-gun rattle of kingfishers flying back and forth;  the complaining urnk, urnk of the flocks of ibis; the croaking calls of the great blue heron.  We saw many wood storks, anhinga, one sandhill crane, a few hawks, osprey and all the types of heron and egrets common to South Florida. We didn’t see some other regularly spotted residents:  swallow-tail kites and caracara.

There were alligators everywhere. Most were shy enough to silently slip into the water as we approached. A few plunged into the water showily – one managed to douse me and my camera in a big mud-flecked splash.

On a previous visit, we saw deer along the creek and muddy spots show evidence of wild hogs. Florida panthers also range through this area.

Paddling downstream from Fisheating Creek Outpost

Downstream from the outpost, Fisheating Creek is spectactularly beautiful. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Downstream from the outpost, Fisheating Creek is spectactularly beautiful. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s great paddling with the current using the livery service, as described above. But the scenery is just as stunning if you paddle downstream and return, paddling against the light current, back to the outpost. It might even be possible to paddle east a distance in winter when it gets too shallow upstream.

On our second visit to Fisheating Creek, we paddled about four miles east, which is downstream, from the outpost to a widening of the river called Paradise Lake. There was 2.1 feet of water, which turned out to be plenty. We had to walk over only one sandbar.

It was an absolutely stunning trip: The whole way, it was wild and pristine, with no signs of man except for a few other boaters, a single cabin and three pieces of litter. We took some wrong turns (which were all beautiful) and spent about six hours there, enjoying the company of uncountable alligators, herons, hawks, ibis and kingfishers plus a pileated woodpecker and loud-but-unseen owl.

I recommend this trip for day paddlers and also campers, because you can pitch a tent along the many sandbars for a wild and primitive camping experience.

If you paddle east, about 20 minutes after you go under US27, you come to a confusing area with many waterway options. Don’t take the left turn or the right turn — both lead to dead ends. Watch the current and choose the straighter course. At some points along the river, trees are banded with blue as trail markers.

Initially, there may be paddlers and fishermen, but as you kayak further from the start, you are likely to have the magnificent cypress forest to yourself.

Camping at Fisheating Creek

Campsite at Fisheating Creek Outpost off U.S. 27 near Palmdale.

Campsite at Fisheating Creek Outpost off U.S. 27 near Palmdale.

The campground at Fisheating Creek Outpost,  part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, has 120 sites. There are 68 sites  for tent campers and 48 RV full-hookup sites with 30 and 50 amp electric, water and sewer.

Fisheating Creek is a favorite group campsite for Scout and church groups.

Here are details and prices for camping.

Along the river, primitive camping is popular and allowed; check with personnel at the outpost for details.

Downstream on a beautiful November weekend, we saw two big sandbars occupied by kayak/canoe campers. There were plenty of other excellent camp sites.

Timing your visit to Fisheating Creek

This is a truly special spot; worth a little trouble. If you are willing to paddle during the wet season, bring lots of bug spray and good sun protection. Keep in mind: Paddling Fisheating Creek when there is more than five feet of water is challenge because the river blends into the adjoining cypress forest and it is easy to get off the trail.

My advice: Mark your calendar for early fall, monitor water levels and make a point to plan a trip here sometime between early October and early December. This one belongs on the bucket list of those who love the Florida outdoors.

Resources for your Fisheating Creek outing

Fisheating Creek Outpost
Address: 7555 N US Hwy 27, Palmdale, FL 33944
Phone:(863) 675-5999

 

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3 Comments

  1. What an excellent trip description, Bonnie! I loved the photos and links to camping and water levels. I’m excited about kayaking Fisheating Creek next month, although the water level may be too low. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  2. Bruce Gruber says:

    Another historic, though overgrown, water trek is the old cotton slave canal from the Wacisssa River to the Aucilla, from clear spring water to tannin laced translucency. During floatable high water you may encounter many downed trees requiring over/under portaging.

    http://www.flpublicarchaeology.org/blog/ncrc/2011/02/15/my-brief-encounter-with-the-slave-canal-and-the-wacissa-river/

    http://www.americantrails.org/nationalrecreationtrails/trailNRT/Wacissa-River-Trail-FL.html

  3. Dennis Burdett says:

    Are there any reviews/customer comments on the outfitter mentioned in your article that you can publish and feel that are relative to a multi-day trip and independent of business model hype,thanks for the post it was informative and a good evening read

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