The Ocklawaha River almost died, but you’d barely know it now.
This wild river near Ocala forms the western border of Ocala National Forest. The Ocklawaha is pristine, profoundly quiet and lined with ancient cypress trees. It’s the sort of the place where in an eight-mile kayak trip, we saw one beer can, two man-made structures and dozens of birds, turtles and gators.
This Ocklawaha River could easily be gone, however. By all rights, it should have been obliterated by the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a construction project that would have turned this lovely wildlife-filled river into a wide, dead, industrialized channel.
Construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a shortcut for ships between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, began in 1964. Its proposed route followed the Ocklawaha and would have widened and channelized it. It was never finished, though, thanks to opposition from Florida environmentalists.
The only sign of that project on the Oklawaha River are its huge bridges – towering structures that are a strange site in the middle of a forest and over only a small river. The bridges were designed to allow big barges to pass under. The canal project was killed in 1971 after it was almost a third complete.
The land along the river, which was purchased for the canal, has become the one-mile wide Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. This corridor allows black bears, deer, bobcats, otters and other wildlife, which is plentiful, to move freely. It’s named in honor of the woman who led the fight to save the river.
When I decided to paddle the Ocklawaha, I didn’t know the history. I was merely looking for a pretty river near Ocala to explore. The Ocklawaha delivered. There’s a steady current, so with livery service and a one-way route, it was an easy and relaxing paddle. Fallen trees and limbs have been cut to allow small boats to pass. Much of the Oklawaha’s water comes from the spring-fed Silver River, so lower portions of the river have spring-like clear water with fish visible.
We arranged our trip through Ocklawha Canoe Outpost and Resort. We took the most popular trip, the four-hour paddle from Gores Landing north to the outpost ($49 for canoe rental and livery service for two). You could easily spend more time on this trip if you explored the tributaries and stopped to take photos. Trips of different lengths are available, including two- and three-day overnight trips with camping at primitive sites along the river. The outpost also rents six cabins that sleep up to six.
We saw just one other boat on the December weekday we visited. We saw uncountable turtles, a dozen alligators and a variety of birds including our favorites that day: kingfishers flitting about with their big heads and rattling call.
For sheer beauty, there are several nearby spring-fed streams that might beat the Ocklawaha – the Silver River and Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest, for example. But the Ocklawaha is the only one of the three that lends itself to a multi-day outing with primitive camping.
Paddling the eight-mile section of the river, I had the feeling I was far from the commercial world. The space seemed vast, with no telltale highway sounds or power lines to bring me back to daily life.
And the Ocklawaha is worth experiencing because it’s nice to celebrate that it’s still there. In fact, because the land purchased for the barge canal became a greenway, you could argue the Ocklawaha is wilder and better preserved because of the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Tips for planning a trip on the Oklawaha River
- Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost Resort, 15260 NE 152nd Place, Fort McCoy, FL 32134. 352-236-4606 or 866-236-4606.
- Ocklawaha River map
- The half-day liveried paddle trip I took from Gores Landing can be done in canoes ($49 for two people) double kayaks ($60 for two people) or single kayak ($39 each.)
- The one-night camping trip is $92 (single kayak), $102 (two in a canoe), $112 (tandem kayak.)
- Three days trips with two nights on the river start at $260 for two in a canoe, with prices varying depending on gear and number of people.
- Cabins at the Ocklawaha Outpost are efficiently designed and cute but very compact. They range from $104 per night for $149 for a single night in a two-bedroom cabin. The outpost also offers RV full hook-ups.
- Oklawaha Outpost does provide livery service if you bring your own canoe or kayak. For the Gores Landing eight-mile trip, the fee is $35 for the first boat and $20 for those thereafter. The 18-mile trip from Highway 40 is $62.50 for the first boat and $25 for additional. A longer trip is also available. Call for details: 352-236-4606 or 866-236-4606.
- A less expensive alternative would be to bring your own kayak or canoe and put in at Gores Landing, where primitive camping is available for $5 a night. It’s not to hard to paddle upstream and back for a pretty trip on the Ocklawaha.
Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest
- Florida Rambler contributor writes about hike-in primitive camping in Ocala National Forest
- Ocala National Forest Home Page
- Ocala National Forest – Wikipedia
- The Florida Trail through Ocala National Forest
- Interactive recreation map for Ocala National Forest
- The Trails of Ocala National Forest by Sandra Friend, FloridaHikes!
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek
- Near Cross Creek, you can dine at the historic Yearling Restaurant, 14531 E. County Road 325, Cross Creek, just down the road from the state park. The 59-year-old restaurant celebrates the Florida Cracker culture. It serves Rawlings’ legendary sour orange pie, as well as frog legs, catfish, venison and the best cheese grits I’ve ever had. It’s decorated with antique outboard motors, old guns and enough memorabilia to be an antique store.
- Historic Micancopy, Florida’s oldest inland city, is a few miles away and is a great place to browse antique shops.
- Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens in Micancopy is a bed and breakfast known for its white pillars, wide verandas and Southern hospitality.
- Nearby Paynes Prairie State Park offers extensive hiking plus shaded sites for tents, trailers or RV camping. The park is known for its sinkholes, birdwatching and alligators.