St. Lucie River South Branch kayak trail oak tree
Oak arches over the kayak trail on the St. Lucie River South Branch. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The St. Lucie River South Fork deserves to be better known as a kayak and canoe destination. I have several Florida paddling guides; none list it.

I recently paddled it for the second time on a warm December weekday and was delighted with the scenery, the wildlife and the remote feeling, even though it is five minutes off I-95.

The St. Lucie is wild and gorgeous  — a jungly forest of old live oaks thick with airplants and Spanish moss. There are a few small islands that inspire the imagination and, after paddling about two hours, you reach a remote area where you can picnic and take a hike reachable only by boat.

Located right at an I-95 exit 101 to Stuart, it’s 90 minutes from my Fort Lauderdale home, which means for a large urban population, it makes an easy day trip into nature.

The only downside:  At some points, the growling hum of I-95 is heard in the distance. It’s worth living with, though, to kayak such a beautiful river.

St. Lucie River South Branch airplants
The trees are thick with epiphytes on St. Lucie River.
St. Lucie River South Fork
Scene from St. Lucie River South Fork. (Photo: Erin Blasco)
St. Lucie River South Fork
Airplants and live oaks make the St. Lucie River South Fork scenic. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

If you have your own kayak, the trail starts at Hosford Park, a boat ramp with picnic tables, lots of parking but no restroom facilities. To find it, exit I-95 at SR76, Kanner Highway, and take the second right on Cove Road and then an immediate right onto Gaines Avenue.  If you want to rent a kayak South River Outfitters is nearby.

From Hosford Park, you paddle upstream (south.) There is little current and it’s an easy paddle the whole way. The entire trip up and back is about seven miles.  For the first 30 or 45 minutes, there are trailers and houses on the left, with undeveloped forest  that is part of Halpatiokee Regional Park on the right.

Heron flies over St. Lucie River South Branch
Startled great blue heron flies overhead on St. Lucie River.

Once you get beyond the houses, the twisty river surrounds you and you are likely to startle a great blue heron and see osprey swoop down to nab a fish. There are so many manatee warning signs on the houses along the way, they must be frequent visitors, though we didn’t see any. Mullets jumped and splashed and we saw a variety of birds, including a beautiful flock of black-bellied whistling ducks. (Notable for their very orange-red beaks and legs.)

The river goes from being a saltwater estuary with mangroves to a fresh water river, where we saw a few small alligators.  Otters are seen occasionally, according to Ed Stout, owner of South River Outfitters.

Among the delights of the paddle are the islands you encounter.  We enjoyed circumnavigating each one, but if you want to stay on the main river, just remember to stay left.

The largest and first island is called Treasure Island, and it contains a clearing that makes a good place for a snack. It has a short overgrown path down its middle.

Treasure Island has a great story, according to Ed Stout. The land was owned by a real-estate investor in the 1920s, but there was little action in Martin County. So he devised one of those classic Florida real estate gimmicks. He buried a sack of gold on the island and advertised a one-day treasure hunt in papers in Tampa, Jacksonville and other cities, on the theory that anything that brought people to his land was good for business.

“Three hundred people came,” Stout says, “That’s probably more people on that island than have ever been there at one time before or since.”

Somebody did find the gold, but nobody bought the land. Soon, the real estate boom collapsed and, in the end, Treasure Island was preserved.

Treasure Island is part of Halpatiokee. The 400-acre park extends along the west bank of the river the length of the kayak trail.

After two hours of paddling, you reach a landing in the park where you can pull your boat on shore, lunch at a picnic table and find the trail through the river hammock.  If you hike the full loop, it’s three miles and takes about two hours.

Shortly after the park, the river peters out into unappealing ditch, so the landing makes a good turn-around. Except for Treasure Island, there are few places where it is easy to get out of your kayak or canoe.

The St. Lucie South Fork was litter-free, clean and clear on our visit. But, like many South Florida waterways, man has tampered with it, and its health is at risk.

The problem with the St. Lucie, which is an estuary, rather than a true river, is that in the 1920s, man dug a canal between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie.  This created a navigable waterway, but brought fresh water from Lake Okeechobee down the St. Lucie.  Today, that means when Lake O gets too full, water polluted with agricultural run-off is flushed down the St. Lucie.  Several years ago, Ed Stout said,  the water was tainted with a toxic algae and the entire river had to be closed to paddling, fishing and all recreational use. Stout almost lost his business, which couldn’t operate for three months.

Over time, the river healed itself, but the essential problem hasn’t changed and could occur again during a wet year.

For now, however, the St. Lucie South Branch is a gem worth discovering.  And, for the long term, it’s also a gem worth protecting.

Planning your visit to the St. Lucie River South Fork:

  • Hosford Park boat ramp is at 7474 SW Gaines Ave. Stuart, FL 34997. We were especially impressed with its floating dock that had a handy kayak-entry area, providing grab bars on each side of the boat.
  • It might be handy to stop at Halpatiokee Regional Park8303 SW Lost River Road, Stuart, before or after your kayak to use restrooms, picnic or take a hike. There are clean public restrooms at the out hockey rink just five minutes from Hosford Park.
  • South River Outfitters is at 7647 Lost River Road,  Stuart, FL 34997,  (772) 223-1500.  A single kayak is $26 for a half day; a double or a canoe is $36.
  • Primitive camping is allowed at the picnic site/turn-around location in Halpatiokee Regional Park.  You must make reservations by calling 772-221-1419.
St. Lucie River South Fork
Great blue heron on the St. Lucie River South Fork.
St. Lucie River South Fork
A sign on Treasure Island in the St. Lucie River South Fork — there must have been a wedding here.
St. Lucie River South Branch South Fork Trail Map
Trail map courtesy South River Outfitters.

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