The Turner River is one of the most popular kayak trails in the Everglades for a good reason – it’s the best.
I haven’t paddled every trail in the Everglades, but I’ve done a lot of them. So far, the Turner River wins out because, unlike most trails, where you choose either cypress swamp or mangrove or sawgrass environments, the Turner River takes you through it all – with over-the-top scenery and wildlife too.
Starting at the Tamiami Trail a few miles east of Everglades City, it begins in an achingly beautiful freshwater cypress forest of Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge. Then the giant cypress trees, maples and pond apples give way to saltwater-loving mangroves and you make your way through mangrove tunnels too tight for paddles: We pulled our way through branch-to-branch, feeling vaguely like Tarzan. Finally, the trail continues through open sawgrass marsh.
The scenery, the abundant wildlife and the trail’s proximity to cities (it’s eight miles to Everglades City; 75 to Miami) have made it a favorite among kayakers and kayak outfitters, who offer one-way trips with livery service allowing you to paddle from the Tamiami Trail all the way to Everglades City in a five to six hour trip. (Details below.)
One kayak outfitter with whom I spoke said he had stopped running trips there because of crowds.
But when we arrived at 9 a.m. on a winter Sunday with perfect weather, we were the only people in the parking lot and we saw not a soul on the Turner River for several hours. Even then, we passed only a handful of kayaks and canoes. However, when we returned, the small parking lot on the Tamiami Trail was completely full.
Two weeks later, we returned, paddling the river on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The river was just as lovely and full of wildlife, but we passed three or four guided kayak tours, each with five or six boats, so we rarely felt alone in the wilderness.
My conclusion: The Turner River is popular for a good reason. Give it a try, but plan and prepare accordingly. If you can, start early or go on a weekday.
Ways to kayak the Turner River
There are many different ways to kayak the Turner River. Here are a few options:
- Bring your own canoe or kayak, put in at the launch on the Tamiami Trail, paddle north and/or south and return to your car. (There’s not much current so paddling upstream is not an issue.) If water levels are high, you should still be able to paddle 45 minutes to an hour downstream and then back.
- Bring your own canoe or kayak. Arrange to be picked up at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades National Park, shuttled to the launch site and then paddle back to your car. EvergladesAdventures.com, which operates out of the Ivey House Bed and Breakfast in Everglades City, will provide this transportation service for one boat and two people for $26. (There are other outfitters.) If you consider paddling to Chokoloskee, please see a note of caution below.
- Rent a kayak or canoe from one of several outfitters licensed to provide service in the wildlife refuge.
- Go on a guided adventure with an outfitter. (Same list as above.)
We chose to explore the Turner River from the launch site, paddling both north and south and then returning after several hours to our own car – an approach I recommend if you have your own kayak. The advantages to us: Nobody to pay, we could launch at our own schedule and paddle a trip of whatever length we wanted.
In previous years, we headed north first and found that area to be very beautiful. In January 2017, however, an invasive aquatic plant called hydrilla had turned the northern stretch of the Turner into a mat of vegetation. Paddling through it was like paddling through pudding.
We turned around and headed south, where, thank goodness, the hydrilla lessened and virtually disappeared. (The park service is working on a plan to kill and remove the hydrilla, which probably exploded because of the extra wet and warm 2015-16 winter season.)
The first section southbound on the Turner is full of wildlife – small alligators and all sorts of birds. The vegetation is spectacular: The trees are packed with airplants that cover every available surface; there are beautiful groupings of water lilies and swamp lilies.
After about 45 minutes, the first mangrove tree appears and then you plunge into a shadowy mangrove tunnel. That tunnel opens up to placid pond, and then it is mangrove tunnel No. Two. This one is tighter and longer. We tuck our paddles into our canoe and pull ourselves through it in a form of hand-to-hand combat, ducking constantly to limbo under low branches. (Don’t try the second mangrove is water level is high; there might not be enough clearance.”
The open marsh that follows rewards us with birds – flocks of storks, squawking, grunting ibis, herons voicing their annoyance, kingfishers with their rattling call.
In this section, you find the only landing spot on the trail, a little section of ground with a few palm trees and a several picnic tables. It is a perfect places to stretch. It comes about 1.75 miles into the trail, so watch for it and stretch your legs.
The paddling guide provided by Everglades National Park has helpful points marked on the map, including the junction with the old Turner River Canal, which is plugged to restore water to the Turner River.
There were so many birds in the old canal, however, that we decided to divert from the trail to see how far it extended. At what appeared to be the end of the canal, we found a narrow access points where we could paddle into another basin. This discovery was perhaps our favorite: This hidden, off-the-trail body of water was packed with wildlife, from alligators to schools of fish visible in the clear water to all sorts of birds. Except for the sound of our paddles and the birds, there was complete silence.
We paddled downstream to the next mangrove tunnel and turned around, retracing our path.
How long did it take? In the trip that included heading north and also exploring the old canal, our total paddle time was perhaps four or five hours. In the 2017 return trip, where the northern stretch was too thick with hydrilla and we did not explore the canal, the trip was somewhere between three and four hours round trip.
Be prepared: Water levels will make a big difference
A note of caution: Reports from summer 2018 suggest high water levels/hurricane damage may make the full run of this river to Chokoloskee very difficult.
Experienced kayaker Kelli Preti wrote us after an August trip that was no fun. Excerpts from her report: “I spent nearly three hours almost laying flat down (thank God I am reasonably thin and in good shape), to pull downed branches over my back. I was literately covered in spiders and ants…. There is virtually no cell service, and my GPS, which has a South East Marine chip, did not show any of this waterway until I was nearly to Chokoluskee.”
She added: “I think the river is fine for maybe the first 30 minutes to one hour. You can paddle the first 15 or 20 minutes into the mangroves with no problem, but that’s when you should turn around. I should have thought about it when a group behind us with a guide said they were just going to the mangroves and back.”
I’ll add: I have paddled this river several times in the winter as an out-and-back. If you consider paddling through to Chokoloskee, keep Kelli’s advice mind.
Tips for kayaking the Turner River:
- Map and Turner River trail guide from national park service. (PDF)
- Be aware that it may be impassable when the water gets low. One March, we had tried to do the Turner, but it was too late in the season. Similarly, it is not a good trip for summer, when swarms of no-see-ums and mosquitos will greet you. From November to February, however, it would be hard to beat the beauty and wildlife of the Turner River.
- Canoes or kayaks over 16 feet long will have a hard time maneuvering the mangrove tunnels.
- There is no overnight parking at the Turner River lot. There is a restroom and picnic tables.
Your visit to Everglades City area
We love visiting Everglades City. It’s a small fishing village with fresh seafood, historic buildings and access to many outdoors adventures.
- A great saltwater kayak trail nearby is Sandfly Loop, which gives you a taste of the Ten Thousand Island.
- Halfway Creek is another kayak trail quite close to the Turner River. It’s where we kayaked the time water was too low in the Turner River.
- There are two good boat tours offered at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
- Everglades City is the base for many stone-crab fishermen, so it’s a good place to indulge in the seasonal seafood. Here’s where to eat stone crabs in Everglades City plus general background on the city.
- Visit one of our favorite, off-the-beaten-track stops, historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee, just four miles away. (Its docks are a lovely place to watch the sunset.)
- We’ve stayed at Ivey House Bed and Breakfast in Everglades City, which also operates a kayaking outfitter.
- Nearby Ochopee Post Office on the Tamiami Trail is the smallest in the US. And cute.
- Our guide to the scenic drive across Florida via Tamiami Trail is full of good places to hike, picnic and explore.
- Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park: Excellent trail for bicycling and wildlife viewing in Everglades National Park.
- Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery: It’s always a thrill to view his large-format black-and-white photos of Florida’s wilds.
- Big Cypress National Preserve
- Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk: This is a beautiful spot worth a short walk. One of the prettiest boardwalks in the Everglades region, and it’s free!
- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park