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Best kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida: 15 wild rivers

This region may be known for its theme parks, but it should really be famous for its springs and rivers. If you like paddling, you’ll find some of the Florida’s best kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida.

Within an hour or two of Orlando, you can find wilderness, unspoiled waterways, even one of the two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida — the Wekiva. (The other is the Loxahatchee in Jupiter in South Florida.)

Kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida: Rhesus monkey at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida: The Silver River at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala is full of wildlife, including rhesus monkeys, which are escapees who thrive in the woods and are not native to Florida. Keep your distance from them; the monkeys have at times become aggressive toward visitors. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are also many outfitters, so if you don’t own your own kayak, you can usually rent one at these locations. This also means you often can line up one-way downstream kayak trips with a pickup at the end.

We’ve written extensively about kayaking in the Orlando and Central Florida region, so you’ll be able to click into stories with more details about these waterways.

Best kayaking near Orlando:
Silver Spring and the Silver River near Ocala

If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Silver Spring and the Silver River in Ocala. I’ve brought many friends and family members here over the years and you can’t beat the beauty of the clear spring. But it’s the wildlife that is over the top.

On a recent visit, I joined friends from Chicago here. I hesitated to promise them monkeys, manatees, alligators and flocks of birds– you can’t count on the wildlife being there. But in one afternoon of paddling, they saw monkeys, manatees, alligators and flocks of birds.

You’re not always so lucky with wildlife, but I remember being thrilled on my first trip on the Silver, where I saw neither manatees nor monkeys, but instead loved seeing so many turtles, fish in the clear water and the occasional alligator. (One time I also saw an otter!)

This is also a great destination because Silver Spring State Park has terrific cabins and campsites. You’ll have to plan ahead to reserve them; they’re super popular and worth the effort.

Here’s my full story: Silver Spring State Park has much to like: Kayaking, cabins, hiking, history

Kayaking in Orlando: Lake Norris near Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando: Lake Norris near Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Hidden gem: Blackwater Creek and Lake Norris

While Silver Spring has been famous for more than 100 years, another favorite is the opposite — few people have heard of it. But it is so worth discovering, especially if you’re the sort of rambler who wants to have a slice of nature to yourself.

We were awed by Blackwater Creek, a tributary of the Wekiva River, that leads to a Lake Norris, which is among the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in Florida.

Located near Eustis, it is largely within Seminole State Forest. The river is narrow with water so dark it’s like a mirror to the branches arching overhead. The shore is lined with cypress trees and their knobby knees. We saw otters and deer here but no people.

As the river opens into Lake Norris, there are dwarf cypress trees growing along the lake’s edge. It’s like a fantastic forest of bonsai specimens.

While this river is not served by an outfitter, You can arrange for free canoes by calling the Lake County Water Authority in advance. Details in the full story: Kayaking Blackwater Creek & Lake Norris in Eustis: Splendid waterways to discover.

Kayaking in Orlando area: Arbuckle Creek in Avon Park, one of the best Florida kayaking rivers
Kayaking in Orlando area: Arbuckle Creek in Avon Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Hidden gem: Arbuckle Creek in Avon Park

This is another unsung kayaking spot in Central Florida south of Orlando. This one is not regularly served by an outfitter, so it’s better for those who bring their own kayak. (Some outfitters plan trips here on occasion.)

Arbuckle Creek is a gorgeous river through an ancient cypress forest. The area is wild and pristine because the east side of the river is part of the vast undeveloped Avon Park Bombing Range. There are “warning” signs along the river forbidding entrance. When you reach Lake Arbuckle, you’ll see buildings that are part of the Avon Park Air Force Range and you are not invited to get out and explore. Lake Wales Ridge State Forest protects the west side of the lake from development.

Arbuckle Creek feels remote and wild but is convenient to Orlando and South Florida. It’s a gem, full of wildlife and magnificent scenery.

Full story:  Kayaking Arbuckle Creek in Avon Park: Unexpected beauty at a bombing range

Kayaking in Orlando: Six turtles at Silver Spring River, which offers some of the best kayaking in Central Florida. (Photo: David Blasco)
Best kayaking in Orlando: Six turtles at Silver Spring River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

More places for kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida

Beautiful park, fabulous kayaking, shady campground: Rock Springs Run and Kelly Park. Rock Springs Run offers among the most beautiful and well-known kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida. For many, if they heard the phrase “kayaking in Orlando,” their first thought would be Rock Springs Run. The spring-fed run is as beautiful as any stretch of river in Florida.

Kayaking in Orlando: Healthy eelgrass in the Wekiva River near Katie's Landing. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando: Healthy eelgrass in the Wekiva River near Katie’s Landing. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking the Wevika River Basin: The Wekiva River is accessible to kayakers and canoeists from four of its main tributaries — Rock Springs Run, Wekiwa Springs Run, Wekiva Falls Run and Black Water Creek. There are enough kayak options on the Wekiva to keep you busy for days and a variety of places to put in and take out. You’ll find several places to rent kayaks or canoes in the Wekiva system.

The Econlockhatchee near Sanford: Unspoiled and easy to reach. The Econ feeds into the mighty St. Johns River passing through a forest of big and beautiful live oak trees, reaching out over the water with every inch covered with air plants, resurrection ferns and Spanish moss. This is a place where you can pick a sandbar and camp overnight.

Juniper Springs in Ocala Forest: Fab kayaking at pristine spring run. This is a narrow, twisty stream that starts at Juniper Springs with aquarium-clear water. Unfortunately, the outfitter and livery service has not operated during the pandemic and is still closed as of mid-January 2023. Word is that it will reopen soon, so keep checking.

Kayaking in Orlando: In fall, the colors are are oranges and golds ata Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando: In fall, the colors are oranges and golds at Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest: Easy scenic paddling; lots of wildlife. When we visited Ocala National Forest and couldn’t paddle Juniper, we discovered nearby Alexander Springs. The clear waters flowing out of Alexander Springs create an easy stream to paddle with lots of wildlife, especially birds and fish visible in the clear waters.

Kayaking Blue Cypress Lake: Exceptional scenery, so many ospreys, near Yeehaw Junction. Chances are, you’ve never heard of Blue Cypress Lake near Yeehaw Junction. If that’s so, you’re missing a spectacular natural lake rimmed by old growth cypress trees and home to hundreds of ospreys and osprey nests. This lake is the headwaters of the St. Johns River. One of the peak times to visit is late spring when the osprey chicks are fledging and the adults are active in their constant feeding routine.

Hontoon Island near DeLand: Camping, cabins, great kayak trip in wild setting. The kayak trail circling this island in the St. Johns River is full of birds, gators and great scenery. We paddled if from the now temporarily closed state park, but there are outfitters serving this area from the Blue Spring State Park area. (The state park is closed as of Jan. 15, 2023, due to flooding from hurricane season.)

Kayaking in Orlando area: A dolphin paddled near us at the launch site on Turkey Creek. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando area: A dolphin paddled near us at the launch site on Turkey Creek. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Turkey Creek in Palm Bay combines kayaking and hiking. A scenic kayak outing on Turkey Creek takes you to Palm Bay’s Turkey Creek Sanctuary, where you can explore 3.5 miles of hiking trails. Along the way, see dolphins, manatees and other wildlife.

Ocklawaha River in Fort McCoy: Kayak or canoe a river that was saved. Environmentalists have won a few battles in Florida and paddling the Ocklawaha is a good reminder. This is a wild, untouched river that was once destined to be lost forever. Today, it is a beautiful spot to explore and it also lends itself to canoe-camping, which the outfitter facilitates.

Kayaking in Orlando: Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando: Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Blue Spring State Park in Orange City: Manatees in winter; plus paddling in the St. Johns and its backwater. The park is beautiful and paddling opportunities are numerous. The outfitter at Blue Spring makes it easy to explore the immediate area.

The Withlacoochee River: One of Florida’s most scenic kayak trails. The Withlacoochee River meanders through an unspoiled forest in rural Florida but still within an hour of Orlando and Tampa. There are only a few outfitters, but there also are locations where you can launch your own kayak and paddle and out-and-back on your own.

Kayaking in Orlando area: Weeki Wachee Spring has such a large flow of crystalline water that it replaces the water in the river every 60 minutes, making the water spectacularly clear and clean. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking in Orlando area: Weeki Wachee Spring has such a large flow of crystalline water that it replaces the water in the river every 60 minutes, making the water spectacularly clear and clean. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Weeki Wachee Springs: Kayaking, manatees and mermaids. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, an hour and 40 minutes from Orlando, is known for its iconic mermaid show. The gorgeous spring-fed river is a great place for kayak and SUP rentals, with crystal clear water and manatees often seen in winter. The kayaking trail from the park has been shortened in recent years as a preservation strategy, so this is a shorter paddle than in earlier days.

Spruce Creek near New Smyrna Beach: A diamond in the rough. Development is creeping up on Spruce Creek and Strickland Bay, but there’s still enough scenic shoreline left to enjoy an awesome day of kayaking.

Shingle Creek in Kissimmee is a regional park that is the closest scenic paddling destination to the theme parks – within 25 minutes. It offers either guided tours or rentals of kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards. Shingle Creek passes through an unspoiled cypress swamp, a green world of dappled shade where you have a good chance of seeing wildlife. Some call it a “real life jungle cruise.” The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, 4266 W Vine St., Kissimmee, FL 34741, (407) 343-7740.

More resources for kayaking in Orlando and Central Florida

Find kayak trails in other parts of Florida: Our 17 favorite kayak spots statewide

Florida’s Designated Paddling Trails: 50+ trails in Florida recognized by the state

Florida Rambler kayaking section with more resources and coverage

Notes from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.

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