Last updated on January 9th, 2020 at 11:23 am
Just 45 minutes from Tampa or St. Petersburg, the beautiful Little Manatee River and environs are a natural haven that can keep you busy exploring for several days.
The Little Manatee River is an ideal kayak or canoe outing, with a choice of trips of different lengths and challenge. A long-time outfitter makes it an easy outing to plan, offering camping and cabins too.
Little Manatee River State Park is also a gem, and at 2,416 acres, a big one. The park is home to a secluded campground shaded by live oaks and it offers miles of trails.
You have a great choice of outdoor recreation here — hiking, camping, kayaking, plus outstanding mountain biking at nearby Alafia River State Park.
Kayaking or canoeing Little Manatee River
The Little Manatee has been designated an Outstanding Florida Waterway by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. (It’s one of 40 waterways whose inclusion means it deserve special protection.) It begins near Fort Lonesome and ends 40 miles later when it flows into Tampa Bay.
The section near Little Manatee River State Park, which is the ideal section to paddle, is shallow, with clear tannic water, a white sandy bottom and rather steep banks. There is virtually no development along the way, so you leave the world of roads, cities and man-made noise behind.
The banks are lined with arching oak trees and forest with an occasional sighting of bright orange fruit on long-abandoned citrus trees. It is, in short, a gorgeous river, just the sort of place paddlers treasure.
We paddled when the river was an inch or two below normal and there was a light current. At these conditions, it would easy to kayak against the current for out-and-back trips.
But the Little Manatee is blessed with an experienced outfitter who can arrange for your trip to be all downstream, delivering you (and your kayak if you bring your own) back to your car at the end.
Here are some options for paddling the Little Manatee River:
- In the state park, you can rent canoes and kayaks for out-and-back trips. If you have just an hour or two, this would be great way to spend a little time on the river.
- TheCanoeOutpost offers several trips. The most popular and easiest paddle is a 5-mile route through the state park. The outpost is located immediately upstream of the state park, so you can launch from there, float through the park, and be retrieved at the end. With the route through the state park, you can stop and use the park’s picnic pavilions and trails. (The canoe outpost also offers a shorter version of this trip, ending in the park after 2.5 miles.) This trip is billed as family friendly and good for beginners as the route is wider with no tight turns. There are pretty tributaries along the way that can be explored.
- A more challenging trip starts 6 miles upstream of the Outpost and you paddle back through a wooded wilderness. This trip, which we took, requires ducking under branches, navigating around fallen logs and perhaps wading across a shallow sandbar. I’ll offer more details below.
- True kayak pros may want to test themselves with the 10-mile paddle, which adds 4 miles upstream to the previous trip. If you want to camp on the river, this is where you start. The outfitter doesn’t push this trip unless you are a very experienced paddler.
Like Goldilocks, we opted for the trip that was not too hard and not too easy – the middle section above the park, and it was just right for us.
We enjoyed miles of scenery and solitude, with a modest number of birds and no alligators. In the middle of a wild river, you oddly come upon a power plant intake facility.
The only other structure is an ancient rusting railroad trestle. With a big sandbar at its base, it is a perfect place to stop for a picnic.
You can clamber up its sandy banks, obviously popular with riders of all-terrain vehicles, and walk out on to the trestle. The rotting wood, missing railroad ties and great distance down to the river were enough to keep me from venturing very far, but I loved seeing the trestle up close.
At the trestle and just downstream of it, you’ll find some litter along the Little Manatee, which otherwise felt wild and untouched.
The Canoe Outpost says their peak season is March to August, as most people swim as well as paddle the river. Note: Alligators are scarce here, but not unheard of, so I personally would do no more than wade around a sandbar.
Hiking Little Manatee River State Park
This is a good park for hikers, with scenic trails through many varied habitats of all lengths.
The family-friendly .8 mile Oxbow Trail is near the outstanding riverfront picnic pavilions. This trail goes along the river, with a nice mix of upland and wetland.
There are also 12 miles of trails shared by equestrians and hikers in the main section of the park, which is south of the river. If you are interested in a horseback trail ride in the park, it can be arranged at reasonable rates through Born to Ride.
But the trail hikers will most treasure is in a wilder part of the park that you must enter from the highway on the north side of the river. Here you can hike a 3-mile loop, which traverses several habitats and offers pretty river views. If you want a longer hike, you can add a second loop for 6.5 miles of hiking trail. These are shady trails as lovely as you’ll find in Central Florida. They are maintained by the Florida Trail Assn.
Camping and cabins at Little Manatee River State Park
The state park campground has 34 large wooded sites offering good privacy and a wooded setting. They offer full hookups. Rates are $22 per night. These are among the most attractive campsites you’ll find in a state park.
There are also equestrian campsites available and a primitive backpacking campsite that is a 2.5-mile hike into the woods. The primitive site has a picnic table and fire ring.
Campsites at Little Manatee are popular with snowbirds and thus hard to snag. A good alternative is to camp next door (1.5 miles away) at the Canoe Outpost, where there are wooded campsites for tents or RVs. The only drawback to these campsites is the proximity to US 301 and its traffic noise. (There are some primitive campsites back in the woods that are probably quieter.) Rates are comparable to those at the state park.
We stayed in a two-bedroom two-bath cabin at the Canoe Outpost, and it was a charming, well-equipped spot. It’s $135 a night and designed to work well for two couples or a group, with each bedroom offering two bunks and double bed. The one-bedroom cabin is $95 a night.
The cabins here have many of the benefits of cabins in state parks, but book up less far in advance and thus are more accessible.
Resources to plan a trip to the Little Manatee River
Little Manatee State Park
215 Lightfoot Rd.
Wimauma, FL 33598
- Route map of designated paddling trail from State of Florida.
- Information on routes from Canoe Outpost.
- We enjoyed the reports on paddleflorida.net in planning our trip.
- Useful information on hiking trail at Little Manatee River State Park
Things to do near Tampa
Busch Gardens: This is the Gulf Coast’s only theme park.
Ybor City: Once the cigar capital of the world, Ybor City retains much of Tampa’s old city charm and Latin flavor. Restaurants, art galleries, pubs and patio cafes are everywhere, and you can still see Tampa’s famous cigar-makers practicing their trade. Best way to explore is by foot.