Camping / Kayak & Canoe / Northeast Florida / Northwest Florida

Suwanee River: Skip the song; but go for kayaking & camping

The Suwanee River will reward you with tranquility and beauty

The Suwanee River will reward you with tranquility and beauty

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.

Along the Suwanee River, you pass through a forest cypress trees, pines and live oaks. all full of bird song.

Along the Suwanee River, you pass through a forest with cypress trees, pines and live oaks. all full of bird song.

Steep banks on Suwanee at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

Steep banks on Suwanee at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

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.

The Suwanee is a blackwater river, which means its color comes from tannins in decaying vegetation.

The Suwanee is a blackwater river, which means its color comes from tannins in decaying vegetation.

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.

Suwanee River snakes 270 miles south and west from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico.

Suwanee River snakes 270 miles south and west from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico.

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.

White Sulphur Spring then and now in White Springs.

White Sulphur Spring now and in historic photo.

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

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:

All reservations are through ReserveAmerica.

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White Springs, FL 32096
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