Between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers, there’s a stretch of the Caloosahatchee River that offers a taste of Old Florida — small towns, family-owned diners, a scenic country road, tree-lined rivers ideal for kayaking and two excellent public campgrounds.
We’ve visited this stretch of the Caloosahatchee between the towns of LaBelle and Fort Myers several times for kayaking trips. If you’re a camper, you can make a great weekend out of a kayak trip and a stay at Caloosahatchee Regional Park or the waterfront WP Franklin Campground. If you’re not a camper, the hotels of Fort Myers are a half hour away.
If you’re just passing through the area, you can enjoy a scenic drive on SR 78 along the river’s north shore and stop for delicious country cooking at a mom-and-pop restaurant or a hike at one of the preserves.
Or make your visit during the last weekend in February, when LaBelle celebrates its annual Swamp Cabbage Festival, which includes its popular armadillo races.
Here are some highlights of exploring this Old Florida stretch along the Caloosahatchee.
Kayaking and canoeing the rivers along the Caloosahatchee
We first explored this area because of the Great Calusa Blueway, Lee County’s effort to build awareness of its many kayaking trails. (Here are maps and information about the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail.)
The Blueway identifies a half dozen tributaries of the Caloosahatchee. I can’t vouch for all of them, but there are four tributaries I can recommend, each described below. In addition, you can kayak on the Caloosahatchee itself. While the river does get some power-boat traffic, kayakers like to paddle around the narrow scenic channels created by the many oxbow islands.
Here are four good kayak trails along the Caloosahatchee:
This river is all the things I love about kayaking destinations – out-of-the-way, uncrowded, scenic, quiet and full of wildlife. As a bonus, it’s the only place I’ve kayaked where I’ve seen zebra, llamas and bighorn sheep along with alligators, turtles and a variety of birds. I’ve written a detailed trip report on Telegraph Creek, which is an easy paddle that you can make long or short, as fits your day.
Hickey’s Creek is s a beautiful river surrounded by lots of wild land preserved in Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park.
There are three choices for places to launch to paddle Hickey’s Creek. Two require lugging your kayak a long way to the launch point so you’ll need a kayak carrier.
The third option is to launch from WP Franklin Locks, where there is a boat ramp and free parking.
- Launch from Caloosahatchee Regional Park. The is perfect if you don’t have your own kayak or canoe because you can arrange to rent kayaks here. It requires 24-hour notice for $40 per day for a single or tandem kayak. (Call 239-694-0398 for reservations.) If you don’t rent, it’s a long haul getting your kayak from the parking lot to the launch site, so you’re better off at WP Franklin Locks.
- You can launch from Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park, but the site has similar access issues. There’s a quarter-mile-long shell-rock path separating your car from the launch site, so you’ll need a wheeled carrier to move your kayak. No rentals are available here.
- Here’s what we did and recommend: Launch from WP Franklin Locks. The 5-mile round-trip paddle to Hickey’s Creek plus about an hour hike in the park made a full and very enjoyable day.
Here’s our experience on Hickey’s Creek:
From WP Franklin, the Caloosahatchee is a wide river with powerboat traffic, so it isn’t my favorite kind of kayaking. On the plus side, the scenery is good and you only paddle about 1.5 miles before you enter Hickey’s Creek. (On the right, after what is described as “the mansion.”)
Hickey’s Creek is a narrow twisting waterway lined at first with houses but eventually has a very wild and natural feel. Unfortunately, you are never out of earshot of State Road 80, a constant reminder of civilization.
The river is lined with big arching live oak trees, tall pine trees and some bald cypress and has a good amount of widlife. We were lucky enough to spot an otter as well as a couple of alligators and a few birds.
When we arrived at Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park, we were surprised to find what a gem it is. There are several miles of well-marked trails that traverse a variety of landscapes. We walked the red loop trail that went along the river on a trail with ups and downs and gnarly roots to make it interesting. The park has restrooms and picnic tables and a fishing platform on the creek. It would be easy to spend a couple hours hiking and picnicking here.
When Hickey’s Creek was closed to us on one trip to the region, a park staffer suggested Bedman Creek, which is directly across the Caloosahatchee from the Alva boat ramp. We were warned it might be a little “woolly.” It was – we had to get out and lift our canoe over two fallen trees. But we considered that inconvenience an adventure and decided Bedman Creek was definitely worth paddling.
Bedman Creek starts at the Caloosahatchee, hidden behind an oxbow island and a raft of lily pads. As you begin paddling up the quiet creek, you pass under beautiful arching live oak trees with strands of Spanish moss that must be two stories high. The river passes orange groves and a farmhouse with horses in the field. Turtles splash into the water as you approach and several aging bridges add rustic interest.
Our trip was about two and half hours and was scenic the whole way. We turned around when the creek had narrowed too much to continue. We never passed another soul — I doubt many people kayak Bedman Creek, and that’s part of its charm.
The Alva boat ramp is at the end of Pearl Street. (Go east on Pearl from the bridge/Broadway Street.) Parking is $1 an hour or $5 for the day.
When you reach Fort Myers, there’s another excellent paddling choice.
In winter, manatees gather in the Orange River near a power plant that discharges warm water. But even without manatees, the Orange River is a beautiful kayak trail.
The brackish Orange River starts out wide and deep with pleasant scenery. As you paddle upstream, it gets narrower and the Old Florida ambiance grows, with live oak branches arching overhead fuzzy with airplants. After a few miles, the water is shallower and clearer and you begin to see small schools of fish. The farther upstream you paddle, the prettier it gets.
Here’s more information on kayaking the Orange River.
Camping along the Caloosahatchee
WP Franklin Campground, 17850 N Franklin Lock Rd, Alva, is an ideal hub for a kayak trip to Telegraph Creek or Hickey’s Creek because campers can launch kayaks right at the campground. Located on a peninsula in the Caloosahatchee adjacent to the lock and dam, it is a beautiful, quiet location with every campsite having a water view. It is clearly designed for RVs, offering standard electric, though tents are allowed. (There are “cruiser” sites designed for boat campers too.) Details about WP Franklin Campground. These campsites are popular with snowbirds and book up in advance, but occasionally come available on short notice due to cancellations.
Camping at Caloosahatchee Regional Park, 19130 North River Road, Alva, is also very convenient. The park offers 3.5 miles of hiking trails and challenging mountain biking trails. Camping is limited to tents. Campsites are in the woods, shaded by oak trees and not immediately adjacent to where you park. The park provides carts to move your gear to your individual campsite. Here are camping details.
If you’re looking for a pretty hike in the area, visit Daniels Preserve at Spanish Creek, 18500 Persimmon Ridge Road in Alva. The park has a 2-mile-long trail through a beautiful forest — big live oaks loaded with air plants plus large and old-growth Florida slash pines.
Small towns and restaurants along the Caloosahatchee
At the turn to 19th Century, rivers were the highways of Florida and this region was populated by cattle and citrus farmers. Two small towns along the river – LaBelle and Alva – retain a little Old Florida charm.
While LaBelle is located on the south side of the river, the most scenic stretch of road is along the north side, SR 78/North River Road.
LaBelle was founded in 1895 by landowner Captain Francis Hendry. The town would become the seat of the county named after him.
The historic town lost many original buildings in a 1928 fire but a few remain in a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Still, LaBelle’s downtown isn’t a cute tourist-oriented downtown.
Two very good restaurants are worth a visit when you’re in the area:
We’ve enjoyed excellent barbecue at Log Cabin BBQ, 480 W Hickpochee Ave. You’ll want to stop here after reading all the reviews on Yelp. The free soup was especially good. (Yup, free soup for everyone.)
We also had a terrific lunch in a beautifully restored downtown cafe called the Forrey Grill, with a tasty blackened grilled chicken on a croissant sandwich and fresh crunchy homemade potato chips. Here are reviews on Yelp.
In Alva, the place to go is the Alva Country Diner, 21200 Palm Beach Blvd., which is known locally for its broasted chicken. (On a Saturday night we visited, dozens of people were waiting in the parking lot for a table.)
Nearby: Explore Fort Myers riverfront
If you’re travelling along the Caloosahatchee, you’ll pass through Fort Myers and if you haven’t visited its river district lately, it’s worth stopping.
The city has developed its historic riverfront into a well-landscaped park that is a nice promenade with views along the wide Caloosahatchee. It’s located around the US 41 bridge.
Paralleling this riverfront area between the river and Main Street, the historic downtown features many beautifully restored historic buildings as well a lively bar, restaurant and shopping scene.
Places to explore near Fort Myers
- Six Miles Cypress Slough Preserve
- Bunche Beach: Heaven for kayakers, birders
- Fort Myers Beach: Charming seaside getaway
- Lovers Key State Park for manatees, kayaking and beaches
- Mound Key State Archaeology Site
- Cayo Costa State Park: Dreams of a private island
- What makes Sanibel special and nine ways to experience it.
Places to explore near Naples
- Naples: Rich in nature, beaches and boating
- Corkscrew Preserve in Naples
- Barefoot Beach is on Southwest Florida’s wild side
- Clam Pass Park, a Naples beach where you ride the tide
- Koreshan State Historic Site: Wacky Florida history; lovely spot preserved