Bass fisherman probably know about the upper St. Johns River and Welaka as a destination. But we discovered on a recent visit that it is also an appealing destination for paddlers, hikers and lovers of small-town old Florida.
We stayed at the Welaka Lodge and Cabins on the recommendation of another outdoors writer. With a beautiful waterfront location, pool and comfortable cabins with hot tubs, it was a great base for exploring the region.
Welaka, about 20 miles south of Palatka, provided us several excellent outdoor adventures:
- We rented a canoe from the lodge and paddled along the shore of the St. Johns River to pretty little Welaka Springs.
- Nearly across the river from the lodge is the point at which the Ocklawaha River joins the St. John’s, and paddling up the Ocklawaha from here is a scenic trip.
- A 10 minute drive from the lodge is Welaka State Forest with extensive hiking through longleaf pine forests.
- About 20 minutes away is Dunn’s Creek, a state-designated paddle trail that looks promising. Unfortunately the outfitter was closed the day we had hoped to explore Dunn’s Creek.
Kayaking and canoeing along the St. Johns River
Welaka is the native American word for the St. Johns River and roughly translates to mean river of lakes. It’s not surprising then, that this is a wide river, popular with powerboaters and less so with kayakers.
We did enjoy paddling here, though care is recommended. Stay near the shore to avoid powerboat traffic. Be very cautious crossing the wide river, where winds can be surprisingly strong. This is a river where you want to wear your life jacket (if that is not your usual habit), and it is not recommended for beginning paddlers.
We paddled north along the eastern shore of the St. Johns from Welaka and enjoyed the view of boat houses and residences along the way. But the really beautiful part is the undeveloped shoreline, lined with large cypress trees, live oak trees, tall longleaf pines and lots of Spanish moss draping everything.
All along the river, you see osprey nests, great blue herons and wading birds.
Our destination was Welaka Springs, which is a small (third magnitude) spring surrounded by private property. The only man-made element in the pretty cove with the spring is a simple houseboat. It’s a lovely spot.
Paddling north beyond the spring we found a sandy shore with a forest clearing that was not labeled “no trespassing“ and had a picnic. Across the river from the springs are several islands that were full of nesting wading birds.
On our return trip we enjoyed the undeveloped western shore before crossing back to Welaka Lodge
I also highly recommend paddling up the wild and undeveloped Ocklawaha River. The hard part is crossing the St. Johns River, because it is so wide and at least on the day we did it, windy.
Once on the Ocklawaha, however, conditions were great for kayakers and canoeists. The forest that lines the river is thick and wild with beautiful cypress trees. On our late afternoon paddle, we were serenaded by several barred owls hooting to each other.
The third good kayaking destination is Dunn’s Creek, a 6-mile long river connecting St. Johns River to Crescent Lake. There are two public access points, one at Georgia Boys Fish Camp and another at Brown’s Landing. Most of the western shore of the river is Dunn’s Creek State Park
We were traveling without our boat and could not paddle this trail because the outfitter was closed that day. I’d recommend you call ahead to McGhee’s Boat Rental, which has kayaks and powerboats for rent.
In the summer, monitor the spread of blue green algae. We were there the last weekend of April and a minor algae bloom was underway. It could get worse as the weather warms up. Here’s a report on where algal blooms are occurring.
Hiking in Welaka State Forest
There are many miles of marked trails in Welaka State Forest, but our absolute favorite and maybe the top experience of our visit to the area was the trail to Mud Springs.
The trail itself is an easy, shaded forest walk on a 1.75 mile loop trail. There’s lots of parking and this trail is well-marked.
Mud Springs turns out not to be muddy at all, and instead is a circle of clear blue-green water with clouds of white sand bubbling from the spring. I intended only to wade into the 72-degree spring but it was so pleasant I edged deeper and deeper until I was up to my shoulders and my clothing was soaked. But it was so worth it! (There are no signs banning swimming.)
A bridge and boardwalk leads to a dock on the spring run that we are told is accessible by kayak from the St. Johns River. (Here’s the trail via Putnam Blueways.)
The clearing for the spring in the forest is a delightful spot to linger, including a picnic table, shelter and benches. On a weekday in April, we had it all to ourselves.
Welaka State Forest has an excellent trail map, well groomed trails with many trees blazed with trail markings. Still we could not follow the blazes and map and took a number of wrong turns. Unless you are adept at leaving breadcrumbs, consult a map on your phone or you’ll never get out of here.
These trails also lead to two primitive camping sites on the St. Johns River – Orange Point and John’s Landing, which was a beauty.
A final note for hikers: Wear insecticide and protective clothing for both ticks and chiggers. We learned the hard way.
Other things to do near Welaka
It takes all of five minutes to see, but we loved stopping at the small free aquarium of the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, which is walking distance from Welaka Lodge. The 1950s era aquarium has tanks with important native species and good information about them.
If you use Welaka as a base, the eastern side of Ocala National Forest would be an hour away, for a visit to Alexander Spring or Salt Springs, which are good kayaking destinations. St. Augustine is about an hour northeast; Flagler Beach is about an hour east.
Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka is a worthwhile destination for its historic gardens and structures.
The Putnam County Blueways has information on 13 paddling trails in the area.
About 45 minutes away is the little visited Haw Creek Preserve State Park, where Haw Creek, a cypress-lined blackwater creek can be kayaked. (You must bring your own boat.)
Resources for planning a trip
Welaka Lodge and Cabins, located in Welaka on the St. Johns River, offers cabins as well as RV camping sites.
There aren’t a lot of commercial establishments in this off-the-beaten-path area. We enjoyed dinner at Shrimps R Us. It was, however, the only place within a half hour to eat on a weeknight. It’s an unadorned local spot, painted bright yellow inside and out.
I would recommend you bring your own kayak – the lodge only has one kayak and one canoe to rent. There is a public dock and kayak launch two blocks north of the lodge.
This region was explored by botanist/explorers John and William Bartram in 1775-76 and and Putnam County, where Welaka is located, has lots of resources about where the Bartrams visited and what they saw. Here’s the Putnam county website on the Bartram Trail. Theirs is a remarkable story worth exploring if you’re in the area.