We would have loved kayaking the Chassahowitzka River, better known as the Chaz, if only one of these things were true:
- Within the first 10 minutes, we paddled over magical springs that sparkled like swimming pools (and, indeed, you can swim there.)
- On one of the Chaz’s tributaries, we spent 15 minutes watching a family of five or six otters scampering, swimming, fishing, diving and delighting us.
- We paddled up a tributary where the water got clearer and shallower until we finally waded the last little stretch to the beautiful spring called “The Crack.” And we had this mysterious lagoon and swimming hole all to ourselves.
We didn’t care that we didn’t spot the manatees that frequent the Chaz or the bald eagles we were told to watch for. Let’s not be greedy: It is a splendid kayaking river for the scenery alone.
The Chaz is located a half hour south of the better known Crystal River. It’s about 100 miles west of Orlando in a rural, less-developed area of Florida that calls itself the Nature Coast. The Seminoles named it “pumpkin hanging place” after a type of climbing pumpkin that may be extinct, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.
At the river’s origin, there’s a tiny community with a handful of houses and trailers. Within a few miles of paddling downstream, you enter the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a vast tangle of saltwater marshes and wild islands.
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge pops into the news because it is the winter home of the whooping cranes that were re-introduced to the area by following an ultra-light from Wisconsin. (You are not likely to spot the cranes; their home is a remote island whose location is kept secret.)
Launching on the Chaz
The Chaz is an easy river to kayak. You can put in your own kayak at a sandy launch site at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, where you also can rent kayaks and canoe at reasonable rates.
Print out a map of the Chaz or get one at the marina.
The water is so clear you see schools of fish as you paddle. As soon as we launched we started seeing herons, pelicans and osprey. (Eventually we saw hawks, kingfishers, cormorants, anhingas and a pair of wood ducks, too.)
Immediately to the right of the marina and within a five-minute paddle you come to the Seven Sister Spring. Many people miss this beautiful series of springs because they start paddling downriver.
As you’ll see on the map, there are several tributaries, some with springs, which are worth exploring. The first, Crab Creek Spring, leads to a lush lagoon with a spring and a single large home.
The “must do” tributary is Baird Creek, a narrow shaded winding stream that is considerably longer. It’s a beautiful paddle; be sure to go to the end. First you reach the Blue Spring, a wide area where the water turns turquoise. Then, continue as the creek narrows all the way to the Crack, a spring that emanates from a deep rocky crevice in the pond. When we paddled, the river was shallow at the end so we continued the last few hundred feet barefoot in ankle-deep water walking on white sand. What fun!
At the end, the Crack is a perfect and popular swimming hole with a rope swing, and on this Sunday afternoon, we were the only ones there.
Paddling up Baird Creek takes about an hour, depending on how long you linger in this lovely spot.
We kayaked up the next tributary, Salt Creek, but it was less scenic. (Lots of dead trees and some sort of aquatic plant that covered the shore and rocks like a mat.) This was the place, however, where we happened on the otter family that will remain an enduring memory of this trip.
As you paddle downstream, the river widens and you pass fishing shacks, mansions, sunken boats and plenty of birds.
In about 2.5 miles (not counting all the tributaries to explore), you come to a sign marking the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and from there on, the rest is open and unshaded. We turned around here, but if you skipped the side-trips (and I wouldn’t), you could continue paddling for miles. In another three or four miles, you reach the Gulf and, just before it, Dog Island, a recreation area with a restroom and dock.
Planning your kayak trip on the Chaz
- Put in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, 8600 W Miss Maggie Drive, Chassahowitzka. Launching is free but there is a charge for parking.
- Camping here is $38 a night for RVs with full hookups; $23 per night for tents.
- We stayed two blocks away at the Chassohowitzka Hotel, a historic building from the turn of the century now operated as a B&B by the fourth generation of the original family. Rates are from $80 (shared bath) to $100 (private bath) per night. It’s a lovely spot that caters more to groups than individuals. (You can rent the whole place for $600 per night and it sleeps 18.)
- Dining: There are several choices 20 minutes away in Homosassa, including the funky waterfront Freezer Tiki Bar, which steams delicious peel-and-eat fresh shrimp and serves cheap beer. The menu is limited, but the smoked mullet fish dip is worth the visit alone.
Things to do near Chassahowitzka
- We combined kayaking the Chaz with a night in Brooksville and bicycling the truly great rail trail, the Withlacoochee State Trail.
- Near the river, there are many miles of hiking trails in the Withlacoochee State Forest.
- About 20 miles south is the Weeki Wachee, a gorgeous spring-fed river to kayak and home to the historic and fun underwater show performed by “mermaids” swimming in the spring.
- About 20 mile north is the Crystal River, the most popular place to see, kayak with and swim with manatees. Here’s our complete guide to kayaking in the Crystal River area and how to see Three Sisters Spring.
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a manatee rehab center with viewing windows where you are guaranteed to see manatees. There are many other native animals on displays and programming that would especially appeal to families.
- Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a National Historic Landmark preserving ancient Indian mounds.
- Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park is a quick, interesting stop. The tumbling down stone walls of the sugar mill, part of a pre-Civil War plantation, are set under towering oaks. The mill’s owner is an important guy in Florida history — its first senator.