If you think all there is to the Suwanee River is an old song with problematic lyrics, you’re missing out on one of Florida’s greatest kayaking, canoeing and camping rivers.
While it’s a long drive from some parts of Florida, if you can spare a couple of days, the Suwanee will reward you with tranquility, beauty and a paddling trip that is different from rivers and streams elsewhere in Florida.
It’s a long river: It snakes 270 miles south and west from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico. There are so many great segments to kayak or canoe, you could keep returning and not repeat yourself.
My visit to the Suwanee – my first – was based in White Springs, near the northern end. My husband and I rented a canoe from American Canoe Adventures, which also shuttled us back to our car.
The outfitter offered eight trips, ranging from three miles ($35 for a canoe or double kayak) to nine miles ($50) and can customize longer and overnight trips, including guides, equipment and food delivery to campsites.
We chose an eight-mile trip starting at the US 41 bridge at White Springs, and every inch of it was unspoiled splendor. (Many consider the Suwanee between White Springs and Suwanee River State Park in Live Oak the most scenic part.)
The Suwanee’s water is stained a deep orange from tannins from the vegetation. It has steep banks with occasional rock ledges and outcroppings of limestone. In some places, the water has carved the limestone into sharp blades and edges. Along its banks, cypress trees, pines and live oaks are full of bird song. We saw cardinals, kingfishers, a lone gator and two deer. There are many sandy banks, ideal for picnics and camping.
On a sunny May Sunday with temperatures in the 70s, we passed only two other boats, both locals fishing. This stretch of Suwanee is not wilderness, however. We saw an occasional dock or cabin and stopped to stretch our legs at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
One of our favorite stops was the old springhouse in that state park. It’s an odd structure built alongside the river and it’s easy to stop here and get out and walk around.
The springhouse dates from the heyday of White Springs, when White Sulphur Spring was believed to have medicinal or health benefits. (Native Americans considered it sacred and curative too.) Starting in the mid-1800s, people came to White Springs by stage coach and railroad “to take the waters.” This tall structure on the Suwanee was once full of shops, dressing rooms and doctor’s exam rooms.
White Spring was so popular there were a half dozen hotels and visitors included Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford.
Today, the last of the historic hotels, the Telford, is closed and the slightly smelly spring is all that remains of that era.
Resources for kayaking or canoeing the Suwanee River
- Suwanee River Wilderness Trail. Florida State Parks offers an exceptional resource for Suwanee paddlers — five river camps, and they’re free. Each camp has five raised, screened sleeping platforms, tent sites, hot showers and restrooms. The camps were built between 2003 and 2010. To make reservations at any of the river camps, call 1-800-868-9914.
- The state site doesn’t provide a map of the camps, but SuwaneeAdventures.com has done an excellent job mapping and describing them. This site is also a good source for a list of outfitters.
- We used American Canoe Adventures as our outfitter. If you bring your own kayak or canoe, you can arrange shuttle service through them.
- This blogger has excellent advice for those planning a longer camping trip, including where you can buy food along the way.
- Interested in joining a group outing that provides support, transportation and camaraderie? PaddleFlorida.org has a Suwanee paddling/camping trip Oct. 22-27, 2015. Price is reasonable and organization has a great track record.
Camping and cabins in Suwanee River country
We stayed in terrific cabins in Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, where there are also highly rated campsites. Reservations are through ReserveAmerica.
Here’s our report on Stephen Foster Folk Center State Park, its very odd and dated museum about Stephen Foster and its excellent cabins.
Other state parks along the Suwanee River with camping and/or cabins:
- Suwanee River State Park in Live Oak also has cabins and camping on the river.
- Fanning Springs State Park in Fanning Springs has cabins and primitive camping.
- Lafayette Blue Springs State Park in Mayo has cabins and tent camping.
- Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland has camping.
All reservations are through ReserveAmerica.