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3 Southwest Florida kayak trails that aren’t famous but should be

Shell Creek: Beautiful kayak river near Punta Gorda

Shell Creek: Beautiful Southwest Florida kayak trip near Punta Gorda. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Every part of Florida has terrific waterways, but Southwest Florida kayak options are plentiful, varied and excellent. 

You can paddle through rural Old Florida scenery along creeks with otters and alligators and you can kayak in saltwater where dolphins and manatees are common. 

So many choices; so few winter weekends!

To help you kick off your planning for fun Southwest Florida kayak trips, I’ve selected three of my favorite kayak trips to places that aren’t well-known but deserve to be.

Since I started cataloguing my travels for Florida Rambler 10 years ago, I’ve been delighted to discover several off-the-beaten-path kayaking trails like these. 

Mound Key: Take the Calusa Blueway to an archaeological island

Calusa Blueway marker along one of the best Southwest Florida kayak trails

Calusa Blueway marker at Mound Key Archaeological State Park. (Photo: David Blasco) 

I have a thing about islands. Just the idea of a place that is isolated and separate appeals to my love of exploration.

This kayak trip crosses the clear blue saltwater of Estero Bay between Fort Myers Beach and Estero to take you to an island that was once the center of civilization in this region.

It’s hard to believe that Mound Key, now wild and uninhabited, was a ceremonial site for the Calusa Indians, who built a temple atop a mound created from shells and fish bones.

Then, when the Spanish came, Mound Key was the site of the first Jesuit mission in this part of the New World.

We have kayaked from Koreshan State Historic Park and from Lovers Key State Park. Either way, it’s an easy three or four hour roundtrip (with lots of time to picnic and explore the island.) We think the trip from Lovers Key is more scenic because from Koreshan, there is a long canal with many powerboats.

Here’s the full report on a kayaking trip to Mound Key. 

Here’s the outfitter from Lovers Key State Park, a good place to begin your trip. 

Imperial River: Through Old Bonita Springs with manatees

Imperial River kayak trip, Bonita Springs

I can’t guarantee you’ll get to paddle with manatees, as we did, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this pretty little trip near Naples.

This isn’t the wildest river. Most of the way, you’ll pass houses and cabins, though they’re widely spaced and surrounded by live oaks, pines and cypress trees.

The prettiest section is the eastern stretch, where cypress trees and their knobby knees dominate the landscape. The trail gets twisty with a bit of a current. It’s not enough to be any problem and makes the return trip easy.

Manatees frequent this river in the winter and the tea-colored water is clear enough to let you see them well.

If you paddle the Imperial during the day, I recommend you then drive 10 minutes west to one of the most beautiful beaches in America (according to that professor who goes by the name Dr. Beach): Barefoot Beach. It’s a great place to take a walk at sunset.

Here’s the full report on kayaking the Imperial River.  (Here’s a brief story about combining the Imperial River with a visit to Barefoot Beach.)

Here’s the outfitter to rent kayaks on the Imperial River.

Shell Creek: The prettiest kayak trip you’ve never heard of

Shell Creek: Beautiful kayak river near Punta Gorda

Shell Creek: Beautiful kayak trip near Punta Gorda. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Shell Creek is about five miles east of Punta Gorda and it deserves to be a destination for kayakers from well beyond its area. You will have to travel several hours to kayak anywhere more beautiful.

This river offers undisturbed natural beauty: Live oaks decorated with Spanish moss arching over the creek, gnarly cypress trees, turtles sunning on fallen logs, shy alligators plus birds galore. There are only a few houses as this river is the source of drinking water for Punta Gorda.

You can paddle for a few hours or all day: there are 13 miles of river good for paddling. We came across a few fishermen in motor boats, but for 90 percent of the time, it was just us and nature.

Here’s a full report on kayaking Shell Creek.

More Southwest Florida kayak trips

There are scads of other great spots to kayak, so let me offer up a few more recommendations:

Near Fort Myers and Punta Gorda: 

Near Naples and Everglades City: 

There are even more kayak trips included in the kayak channel of


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