Birding / Kayak & Canoe / Southwest Florida

Port Charlotte sea kayaking: White pelicans & mangrove mazes

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

The Punta Gorda area is a good place to see wintering white pelicans, which are much larger than our year-round residents, the brown pelican. 

~ Hundreds of miles of Gulf coastline around Port Charlottee and Punta Gorda are wild and natural preserves, making this one of the best places for salt-water kayaking.

Launching from Placida, an out-of-the-way fishing town near Port Charlotte,  you can see magnificent white pelicans in winter and explore mangrove tunnels that are true mazes. You’ll constantly hear ospreys calling overhead and see all sorts of wading birds.

White pelicans visi the Punta Gorda area every winter, migrating from the Grand Teton mountains.

White pelicans visit the Charlotte Harbor area, migrating from the Grand Teton mountains.

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

Emerging from the mangroves, we see white pelicans in the distance.

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

Mangrove tunnels on the Woolverton Trail near Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte .

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

At the end of that latticewort of mangroves, two other kayakers meet us along the Woolverton Trail near Port Charlotte.

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

Despite the sign, the Woolverton Trail is more maze than trail.

Spotted Eagle Ray near Punta Gorda

Spotted eagle ray in Charlotte Harbor.

Punta Gorda sea kayaking: White pelicans and mangrove mazes

Fisherman attracts both rarer white pelicans and more common brown pelicans in Gasparilla Sound.

We got even luckier: We paddled right over a small spotted eagle ray gliding along the shallows and watched in awe as a pair of pink roseate spoonbills passed overhead.

On a previous trip, we saw dolphins feeding; others have seen manatees here.

In short, this is a wonderland of wildlife and natural beauty, and paddling it on a beautiful winter day is about as great a way to experience the real Florida as I’ve ever found.

This part of Charlotte Harbor is shielded from wind and waves by Gasparilla Island, home to the exclusive resort town of Boca Grande. Still, this kayak trip is best for calm days and because these are shallow waters, plan your trip to span high tide. This is one of more than 50 kayak trails in the Punta Gorda listed on the Charlotte County Blueways map.

Launching from Placida

For all its miles of coastline, this part of the Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte area has only a few spots to launch your kayak. One of the best is Placida Park, 6499 Gasparilla Road, Placida. Several outfitters also will arrange for kayaks to launch from here. (See details below.)

If you put in your kayak at Placida Park, you can paddle the coast north or south. We headed south, under the bridge to Boca Grande Island, then under the adjacent old railroad bridge that is now a fishing pier, and along an area of old working marinas.

On a past trip, this is where we watched dolphins feeding on the abundant fish. On a January visit, we saw a number of magnificent white pelicans here.

You may be saying: Yeah, yeah, pelicans;  I see them all the time.

The common shore birds we have come to love are brown pelicans, year-round residents of Florida who frequent fishing piers and whose fishing forays involve crashing headfirst into the waves.

Punta Gorda (and many Florida coastal areas) attract a different bird: white pelicans, who spend their summers in the Grand Tetons. White pelicans are much larger, with bright orange beaks and black-fringed wings. These are impressive birds: Among North American birds, only the California Condor has a larger wingspan.

The white pelicans of Punta Gorda occupy islands in Charlotte Harbor but can be spotted along the coast in the Placida area. We saw several, including some who joined the brown pelicans in swarming a fisherman who was tossing fish overboard.

If you launch a kayak from Placida, you can paddle into a challenging maze of mangrove tunnels that includes a kayak trail called the Woolverton Trail. Another alternative is to skip the mangrove tunnels and explore the coast, heading further south and then inland on a twisting channel that takes you to a large shallow pool popular with wading birds called Boggess Hole.

We explored the Woolverton Trail area; next time we’ll paddle on to Boggess Hole. The Woolverton Trail winds through a large area of mangroves that were once carved up as mosquito-abatement ditches. The channels are almost a grid format and, at one point, someone hung numbered signs at some of the intersections of the channels to aid navigation.

We plunged into this beautiful mangrove maze, expecting the numbers to follow a sequence and be a guide. They didn’t. After several turns that only took us deeper into the maze and with numbers that weren’t consecutive (#3, #3A, #5 then #14 and #17), we decided to retrace our “steps,” for fear we’d spend the night there.

Along the return, we met a kayaking couple who said they get lost every time they paddle this lovely maze, but if they call up Google Earth on their phone, they can find their way out. Indeed, we learned, Google Earth has a very good map of these mangrove tunnels.

The Woolverton Trail has a wonderful origin. Edwin Woolverton, now well over 90 years old, created the kayaking trail to give back to a community he loved. The Minnesotan started spending winters in a waterfront trailer in Punta Gorda in the 1970s and he put in many hours clearing the channels to create the trail. Now it is maintained by Charlotte County, which is said to be installing better signage soon.

You can start the Woolverton Trail by turning inland between channel markers #11 and #12 into Catfish Creek and taking the right channel. On the right, there is a wooden sign marking the Woolverton Trail. If, as you reach intersections on the “trail,” you choose the option of going straight or taking a right, you’ll emerge to the Gasparilla Sound. (Here’s a link to a Google map that shows the channels.)

Having safely emerged from the mangrove tunnels, we found a sandy stretch in the mangroves overlooking Gasparilla Sound where we ate a stand-up picnic lunch and enjoyed the birds, boats and leaping mullets. As is often the case with mangrove areas, landing spots are scarce.

Planning your kayak trip to Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda

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Placida Park
 Placida Park
6499 Gasparilla Road
Placida, FL

This busy boat ramp has metered parking.

Need to rent a kayak or prefer a guided tour? Two outfitters serve the Placida area:

This area is part of Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.

Make a weekend of visiting Punta Gorda

Punta Gorda is a great weekend getaways – it’s a historic town with moderate prices. Here’s a Florida Rambler roundup of things to do in Punta Gorda– from a great car museum to good bicycling trails to one of Florida’s most classic crab shacks, Peace River Seafood.

Kayakers will find this a good destination because there are so many paddling options. On the same weekend in which we did our salt-water kayak trip off Placida, we paddled gorgeous fresh water Shell Creek with cypress trees, alligators, turtles and arching lives oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Both kayak outings were terrific and they were completely different.

The Charlotte CountyBlueway Trails map lists them both among its 57 trails.

More great outdoors activties in the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte area:

  • Just across the causeway, the Old Florida island of Boca Grande is a great place to explore on bike, with a picturesque bike trail that takes you past quaint historic buildings and to spectacular beaches.
  • The 9-mile Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail is a new rails-to-trails path nearby.

    Lighthouse on Gasparilla Island

    Lighthouse on Gasparilla Island

  • Don Pedro Island State Park  is an island park reachable only by boat. It’s a short kayak paddle across the Intracoastal Waterway. Visitors are rewarded with a mile of uncrowded sandy beach.
  • Stump Pass Beach State Park  has a mile-long secluded beach where you’ll find seashells and shark teeth. This out-of-the-way park is a gem.

Find a room near Placido Park

Hotels in Port Charlotte – Charlotte Harbor (and vicinity)

Hotels in Punta Gorda

Find a campsite near Placido Park

Harbor Lakes RV Park

Gulfview RV Resort

Ramblers Rest RV Resort

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