Kayaking the Alafia River brings a surprise: Shoals, riffles and rapids.
The river’s bottom is largely white sand, but a half dozen times in a 12-mile canoe trip, limestone rocks crop up and offer a rare-for-Florida moment of whitewater thrill.
We paddled the Alafia River, a half hour east of Tampa, when the water was an inch or two below average water levels.
At this level, it would be easy for Florida folks who are out of practice reading upcoming rapids to catch a rock that could capsize a canoe or kayak. (Keep your electronics in dry bags.)
Mostly, though, those riffles are just plain fun.
Rapids aren’t the only surprise about the Alafia River (pronounced by locals as AL-uh-fi, but you’ll also hear AL-uh-FI-uh)
The river was the site of a huge toxic chemical spill. Some 28,000 gallons of phosphoric acid spilled into the river from a fertilizer manufacturing plant during a rainstorm in 1997. The spill killed vegetation along the river, a million bait fish and 75,000 game fish, according to reports at the time.
The surprise? You’d never know it now.
The Alafia River is lined with a tree canopy of magnificent cypress and beautiful live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and fuzzy with air plants.
We saw plenty of wildlife along the orange-tinged tannic river: A large gator, six feral hogs, lots of turtles, schools of fish easily spotted against the white sandy bottom, kingfishers, herons, whistling ducks, and assorted other birds.
There are only a half dozen houses along the 12-mile Alafia River kayaking trail. The river is quiet, clean and serene. Despite its history, it seems like an untouched wild place.
Locals favor the river for summertime swimming and splashing on sandbars. There are a number of good places to get out of the canoe to picnic and wade. At a few points there are even picnic tables at labeled canoe stops.
How to kayak the Alafia River
Because of the current and rapids, this is a river best enjoyed as a downstream paddle. We did see kayakers paddling upstream, and they said they managed to make it through the rapids with some effort.
We put in at a lovely county park, Alderman’s Ford, and paddled 12 miles downstream to the docks of an outfitter, Alafia River Canoe Rentals. Just beyond the outfitter, you would come to Lithia Springs, another terrific county park, where you can put in or take out kayaks.
The family that runs Alafia River Canoe Rentals has been there for 40 years, including the heyday in the 80s when the Alafia had a reputation as a bring-a-cooler-filled with-beer river.
Today the river is much quieter and the outfitter’s services are more limited. We dropped off our canoe at Alderman’s Park, drove and parked our car at Alafia River Canoes, and then, the outfitter drove us back to Alderman’s Park to start our paddle trip.
We found the Alafia River to be well worth the effort required to arrange a trip.
Alafia River Canoe Rentals
4419 River Drive
Valrico, Florida 33596
Phone (813) 689-8645
100 Alderman Ford Park Drive
Plant City, FL, FL 33567
The canoe launch entrance is located at 9625 Canoe Launch Loop Lithia, FL 33547. The launch entrance opens daily at 7 a.m. to allow joggers and walkers early access to the park.
Admission: $2 per vehicle
Among its trails, Alderman’s Ford Park has a popular 1.9 mile paved loop that follows the north and south prongs of the Alafia River. The loop is good for hikers, dog walkers and strollers. It links with a boardwalk and foot bridges, leading into shaded woods of huge cypress and oak trees.
Things to do near the Alafia River
A day on the Alafia River can be paired with several other nearby parks and rivers.
The beautiful Little Manatee River is a half hour drive away. The day before we did the Alafia, we paddled the Little Manatee and also had a wonderful hike at Little Manatee River State Park. Here’s our story on things to do around the Little Manatee River.
Other places to explore nearby include Lithia Springs County Park, Alafia River State Park and hiking at Alderman’s Ford Nature Preserve.
Alafia River State Park
Alafia River State Park is heaven for mountain bikers; on many lists, Alafia is ranked in the top three mountain-bike destinations in Florida. Off-road cyclists volunteered to build the trails, maintain the trails and they use the trails day in and out. The entire park is a former phosphate mine, which is why it is full of steep hills and valleys — unusual contours for Florida. Despite its former life as a mine, it is full of beautiful mature trees.
Alafia River State Park has a popular campground on a comparatively flat corner of the park around a pretty little lake. There are mature trees and shade around the attractive campsites.
Off-road bike trails dominate the rest of the park. There is a hilly one-mile loop trail specifically for hikers, where bikes are prohibited, but hikers aren’t welcome on the busy 17 miles of Alafia River State Park bike trails. The park does have extensive equestrian trails and equestrian camping available. These trails are open to hikers (and not bikers), but we didn’t find these great for hiking. Either we had a hard time following the trails — we kept ending up on bike trails — or the trail followed an uninteresting sunny landscape. (It’s possible we missed the better equestrian trails.)
The small lakes in the park won’t be much challenge for kayakers and despite the name, the Alafia River does not flow through the park.
The 30 spacious campsites have electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring. Rates are $22 per night. The park is one of only a half dozen that also offer glamping — “luxury” camping. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on glamping in Florida State Parks.
Day-use Admission is $5.
Lithia Springs Park
Lithia Springs, a Hillsborough County park, is a popular swimming hole around a beautiful spring with a constant 72° temperature.
The lifeguard-protected swimming area has an expansive shallow sandy area popular with families. The spring vent draws swimmers to its deep blue opening, but you are not allowed to snorkel or scuba into the spring vent.
Be sure to explore the park and find another spring that is being restored and is closed to swimming. It demonstrates how gorgeous a spring in its natural state can be.
Lithia Springs is ideal for picnicking and also has a 3-mile hiking trail.
It’s also an excellent place to camp. There are 30 spacious campsites with electric, water, picnic tables and a fire ring. Rates: $22 per night plus utility fees, booking fee and taxes. Reservations accepted by phone, 800-326-3521
Lithia Springs Regional Park
3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia, FL 33547.
(813) 744-5572. Web site: Lithia Springs Park
Admission is $2.
Alderman’s Ford Nature Preserve
A 5-mile hiking trail winds through land along the Alafia River, offering views of the rapids in the river, as well as sections at a higher elevation through forests of pine and live oak.
Things to do near Tampa
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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.