Punta Gorda offers plenty of things to do: Kayaking, biking, birding and discovering crab shacks
This beautiful riverfront town doesn’t have a beach. Don’t let the lack of oceanfront sand stop you from experiencing the many fun things to do in Punta Gorda.
Located midway between Naples and Tampa, Punta Gorda is on the shores of the Peace River, which becomes wide and open here as it enters Charlotte Harbor. Charlotte Harbor estuary is the second largest in Florida (after Tampa Bay) and ranks 17th in the nation in size. These waters are known internationally for fishing (especially tarpon) and sailing.
Many things to do in Punta Gorda revolve around the water vistas including parks and walking/biking paths along the waterfront, historic neighborhoods with cobbled streets along the river and stately old homes. In winter, Punta Gorda’s calendar is full of festivals and its downtown buzzes with pedestrians on weekends
Things to do in Punta Gorda: There’s a big variety
The town’s attractions for visitors are very diverse. It’s a good base for outdoor activities, including kayaking, biking, fishing and birding, and also offers great spots to capture the authentic Florida, from crab shacks to its historic district.
- Peace River Botanic Gardens: Opened in fall 2017, this park is on 30 acres abutting the Peace River, with massive sculptures, landscaped grounds and a beautiful natural setting. We were surprised how impressive these gardens are. If you’re looking for things to do in Punta Gorda, combine a visit to this garden with lunch or dinner at the nearby Peace River Seafood crab shack. The gardens were founded by Roger E. Tetrault, the late CEO of a large off-shore oil company and his wife Linda. Admission is $13 adults.
2. Boat tours. The city is the perfect place to take a sight-seeing cruise on Charlotte Harbor, where you are likely to see dolphins and many kinds of birds. You also can take a longer cruise on to explore nearby beaches and islands, including Cabbage Key and Cayo Costa,a pristine barrier island with miles of beach that is home to a state park. The King Fisher Fleet operates boat tours out of the downtown marina.
3. Peace River Wildlife Center is a small wildlife rehabilitation center located in the mangroves overlooking Charlotte Harbor at Ponce de Leon Park. You can visit every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Permanently disabled pelicans, eagles, hawks, ospreys, tortoises and turtles are among its residents. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Ponce Park, by the way, is also the favorite spot to watch sunsets over Charlotte Harbor.
4. Fisherman’s Village. Near downtown you’ll find Fisherman’s Village, a waterfront open-air mall with restaurants, locally owned shops and live music. Built on a pier over the water, it is easy to spend time here dining, shopping and enjoying the views.
Things to do in Punta Gorda: Bike trails
5. Bicycling. A popular activity for bicyclists and pedestrians is touring the many murals that celebrate Punta Gorda’s heritage and dot the downtown.
Cape Haze Pioneer Trail is a nine-mile trail that starts on the western side of Charlotte Harbor, off SR 771. The flat, straight paved trail takes you through pine forests and wetlands to the community of Placida, where the Placida fishing pier and the Placida cove complex of shops and The Fishery restaurant provide an old Florida feel. (See more on Placida below.)
6. Placida is the jumping off point for Gasparilla Island, where another trail beckons bicyclists. The six-mile-long Boca Grande Trail is scenic, with views of waterways, lighthouses, quaint Boca Grande’s downtown and mansions. It was Florida’s first rail-trail. In the tourist season, however, golf carts rule. Still, if you set your expectations for scenery instead of speed, this can be a great bike trail.
While these two trails are very close and could be combined, locals do not recommend biking over the narrow toll bridge to Boca Grande.
Things to do in Punta Gorda: Excellent kayak trails
7. Kayaking and canoeing. Charlotte Harbor offers more paddling opportunities than you can exhaust unless you spend a lifetime there. The Charlotte County Blueway Trails map lists 57 trails.
Bring your kayak or It’s Time! Kayak and Canoe Tours can arrange a tour or rent equipment for several different trips.
I recommend Shell Creek, five miles east of Punta Gorda, which deserves to be better known: I thought it was one of the prettiest kayak trails in Florida. Here’s more about paddling on Shell Creek.
I also loved paddling into Gasparilla Sound. My report here describes seeing dolphins and dozens of migrating white pelicans.
8. Another appealing choice would be to visit to Don Pedro State Park, an island park reachable only by boat. This destination could make a great day trip, with a picnic and a long walk on a deserted beach.
You launch your kayak or canoe at the land base of Don Pedro State Park, 8450 Placida Road, Rotunda West. It’s only 15 or 20 minutes across the water to the island, where you can explore the mangrove tunnels and shoreline. Look for the island dock (not directly across the water, but a bit south, behind a mangrove island) from which there extends a sandy trail to the beach. Don Pedro is known for great shelling and shore birds. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to the barrier islands along this section of the Gulf coast.
Things to do in Punta Gorda: Hiking and birding
9. Go birding. There are seven sites in Charlotte County listed in the Great Florida Birding Trail. With a little effort, you’re likely to spot rare and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and the Florida Scrub Jay. You don’t have to work hard to see eagles, osprey plus all sorts of wading and shore birds.
I’m not a serious birder, so I seek out scenic hikes where if I see birds, it’s a bonus to the beauty of being in nature. Several birding sites are ideal for both avid and casual birders like me:
10. Visit the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, 65,000 acres of flatwoods, hammocks, prairies and marshes. This is the place for red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and, in winter, thousands of tree and barn swallows. The property is criss-crossed with old logging roads that provide miles of hiking or fat-tire bicycling.
Babcock-Webb has a paved road good for bicyclists that runs for several miles along Webb Lake.
Babcock-Webb also offers a guided Babcock Wilderness Adventures tours, which use old school buses to traverse rough roads and splash through shallow waters to view wildlife. The tours are $24 for adults.
11. Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve is known for its birds, which can be viewed while walking its five miles of loop trails.
12. A short but rewarding hike is a one-mile North Cape Flats Trail in the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. The trail ends at a wild sandy waterfront of Charlotte Harbor.
13. A little further north, Blind Pass Beach Park is known for its beach birds and for the shark’s teeth you can find in the sand. Across the street is short trail to a lagoon within Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. There’s a boat ramp there for exploring by kayak or canoe.
Punta Gorda crab shacks and fish houses
10. Go out for fresh seafood. With the fertile waters of Charlotte Harbor, you’d expect Punta Gorda to have plenty of fresh seafood restaurants, and it does.
Outside of town, there are several places in historic buildings with authentic Old Florida atmosphere.
Peace River Seafood is a exactly what you’d expect from a crab shack – the freshest seafood and a rustic 1927 Cracker cabin. I’ve written a story all about Peace River Seafood here.
More things to do near Punta Gorda
11. Across a causeway surrounded by Charlotte Harbor, the Old Florida island of Boca Grande is a great place to explore on bike, with a picturesque bike trail that takes you past quaint historic buildings, to spectacular beaches and lighthouses.
Resources for planning a visit to Punta Gorda
- Southwest Florida Visitor Center
- Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area
- Don Pedro State Park
- Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve
- Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park
- Gasparilla Island State Park
- Stump Pass Beach State Park
- Kayaking Gasparilla Sound
- Paddling Shell Creek
- Peace River Seafood
- King Fisher Fleet
Nearby destinations recommended by Florida Rambler:
- Boca Grande
- Camping at Camp Venice
- Oscar Scherer State Park
- Legacy Trail and Venetian Waterway Park
- Kayak to Mound Key Archealogical State Park
- Calusa Blueway kayak trail
- Cayo Costa State Park
- If you’re in Punta Gorda on July 4, consider this unusual holiday tradition: The Peace River Freedom Swim
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.