Last updated on March 16th, 2020 at 03:50 pm
There are prettier rivers and wilder rivers, but the Peace River offers something you can’t find elsewhere: A place to paddle and camp through undeveloped forest filled with wildlife within an easy drive of 7 million South Florida residents.
The Peace River is located in Central Florida just east of Sarasota. Most trips start in Arcadia, where outfitter Canoe Outpost runs an extensive and professional livery service.
It’s an easy river to paddle: There’s enough current so you don’t have to work hard and there are no narrow, twisty spots requiring skill.
As a result, it makes a great beginning trip for Scouts, church groups, families and folks who aren’t sure about this nature thing. There are areas of extreme beauty, with towering cypress and live oak trees and most folks will see alligators and a variety of birds.
I like to think that some of those first-time paddlers will be so inspired by the peacefulness and wildlife that they go on to explore and enjoy the natural world in less-well-known locations.
Some of those folks, however, are the type who think that camping means throwing your empty PBR cans into your campfire. (Signs at Canoe Outpost caution: Aluminum doesn’t burn, Einstein.) Sadly, the price of popularity is that the Peace has more litter than many wild rivers.
A major attraction of the Peace River is the opportunity for wilderness canoe camping. Two- and three-day canoe trips involve selecting a sandbar with open higher ground nearby and pitching a tent. Sites are plentiful and most have fire pits. (There are no other facilities, of course, and Canoe Outpost distributes detailed instructions on “making wee-wee in the woods” – we’re talking a full 8 ½ x 11 inch sheet of text.)
We recently paddled the 19.5 mile route from Zolfo Springs to Gardner, camping one night along the way. Canoe Outpost calls it the most popular overnight trip. (Wilder sections of the river lie north of Zolfo Springs, but require abundant water and special arrangements.)
Day trips are also popular on the Peace, and can be done in five, eight and 12-mile runs. (Canoe Outpost delivers you and a canoe to the start and you paddle back.)
In our two-day trip along the tea-colored Peace River, we saw deer (on four occasions) and too many gators to count (most quite small.)
The bird life was extensive. We particularly enjoyed the many belted kingfishers with their Mohawk crests, two red-tailed hawks noisily conversing across the river and a parade of wild turkeys.
All the wading birds we love in Florida, including a limpet feasting on an apple snail, were easily seen. Hundreds of turkey vultures were evident; we saw some feasting on either a wild boar or a small cow.
Some parts of the river are quite scenic and others are lined with heavily eroded dirt and clay bluffs without vegetation. For me, the best scenery came courtesy of ancient cypress trees surrounded by a forest of knobby knees and draped in long dangles of Spanish moss.
Many paddlers enjoy sifting for fossils, including shark teeth, which are abundant. The fossils are the remains of ancient marine organisms deposited on the floor of the ocean between 5 million and 26 million years ago. The fossil layers contain phosphate, used in making fertilizer.
This part of Florida was mined for phosphates starting in the 1880s and the Peace River and environs were heavily strip-mined with steam shovels. Fortunately, there’s little evidence of the mining left.
Most of the land along the Peace River is in private hands, though after the first few miles of our trip, no signs of development were evident along the river. At our campsite, we heard the low of cows in the distance, reminding us that this is Florida cattle country.
The Peace River is one of 45 designated by Florida as paddling trails, and for South Florida residents, I recommend it for a weekend getaway. If you’re new to outdoors adventures, bring your childhood GI Joe sleeping bag and the tent used for backyard sleep-overs, and give it a try. If you’re a seasoned paddler and camper, this is a good trip when you don’t have time to drive to Ocala National Forest, the Wekiva basin or the Withlacoochee rivers. All three are more pristine and scenic, but they’re also two to three hours further north.
Planning your Peace River canoe trip
- Canoe Outpost, the largest outfitter on the Peace River (and, they say, in Florida)
- Canoe Safari, a small competing outfitter on the Peace.
- Interesting background and history of the Peace River from the Southwest Florida Water Management District
- PDF map of the Peace River canoe trail.