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Six best towns for kayaking in Florida

Last updated on April 10th, 2021 at 03:15 pm

If you love kayaking and are planning a getaway, Florida is an ideal place to base your trip.

Away from the crowds and tourist attractions, Florida has several quaint towns close to multiple rivers and waterways.

Kayaking in Florida ranges from rivers where the stream is as clear as a bottle of spring water (because that water often comes from actual Florida springs), to rivers where the tannic waters are as orange as strong tea, to coastal waters where you paddle through saltwater.

We’ve picked six destinations we think are the best towns for kayaking in Florida. These are great places to base yourself so as to have several kayak options nearby. Several are also good places for hiking, biking and exploring a Florida that is off the tourist path.

When is the best season for kayaking in Florida?

We love planning trips for the fall, because the weather has cooled and it’s the off season for tourists. Mid- to late October and November can be some of the best weather in Northern Florida.

In December and January, we’ve kayaked some of these rivers in North Florida and started the day with weather in the high 30s! In those cases, we ended up with sunny weather in the 60s by afternoon. If this is when you plan your trip, be prepared for a wide range of temperatures. 

The most popular time for almost all outdoor activities in Florida is spring. You have the best chance of good weather in March and early April, but you will be competing for accommodations.

What about our steamy summers? I live in Fort Lauderdale and I consider summer the “off” season for paddling trips. But in Central and Northern Florida, where people swim from sandbars along rivers, the busiest time for these waterways is actually summer. Personally, I’m put off from swimming by the possibility of alligators, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who say the combination of avoiding dusk and watching for gators (who generally do avoid people) reduces the risk.

Summer, of course, is the absolutely best time for tubing, and several of the towns mentioned below are full of people who come specifically for the tubing. For kayakers, those tubing rivers — the Ichetucknee and the Rainbow — are at their best in winter because the wildlife avoids the crowds. 

One reason Ocala is among the best towns for kayaking in Florida: Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest, where the swimming is excellent -- if you like 72 degree water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

One reason Ocala is among the best towns for kayaking in Florida: Alexander Springs in Ocala National Forest, where the swimming is excellent — if you like 72 degree water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Ocala: Four fabulous kayaking rivers in 45 minutes

The town of Ocala isn’t the attraction here, so if you find a vacation rental outside of town, go for it.

What makes Ocala so appealing is that not only is it home to my favorite Florida spring and river – Silver Springs – but it puts you close to three other wonderful kayak trips—Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and the Ocklawaha River.

All of these rivers either border on or are located in Ocala National Forest, which means they are wild and surrounded by pure nature. Because its watershed is within Ocala National Forest, for example, Alexander Springs is unusually healthy. (Nutrient levels, which feed algae growth, have not increased over the entire 60 years they have been measured.)

These four rivers provide a range of recreational opportunities. The swimming and snorkeling is excellent at Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs, as is the camping throughout Ocala National Forest,

Silver Springs offers the broadest array of wildlife of any river – from monkeys to manatees to alligators to otters.

Juniper is a narrow twisty run, a challenge for kayakers that rewards you with extraordinary beauty.

The Ocklawaha is wild, with primitive kayak camping and fewer visitors.

Here are details from Florida Rambler on kayaking four great rivers:

Tips on accommodations: If you can reserve a cabin at  Silver Spring State Park in Ocala, you are in luck. It’s a great state park with terrific cabins. You also can reserve cabins in a remote location where Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost Resort has a compound.

Rainbow River near Dunnellon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Rainbow River near Dunnellon is an aquatic preserve and has strict rules of what you can bring to the river. Dunnellon is one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida because of both the Rainbow and the Withlacoochee. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Dunnellon: Quaint town plus Rainbow River and Withlacoochee

The Rainbow River flows right through Dunnellon and is the town’s biggest draw. The spectacularly clear spring-fed Rainbow River is famous for its tubing in summer.    

That’s one reason Dunnellon is one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida. But there are others. You can’t tube on the Withlacoochee River and its water is not clear, but it is full of wildlife and great natural beauty — well worth paddling.

The Withlacoochee is a blackwater river, stained the color of strong tea from the tannins in the decaying vegetation in the cypress swamp along the river. The dark water in the Withlacoochee is like a mirror for the beautiful cypress trees that line its shores and the spectacular sky overhead.

A third great kayaking destination is 45 minutes south: Crystal River, where people (primarily in the winter) snorkel with manatees. Outside manatee season, however, you can paddle the waterways and into gorgeous Three Sisters Spring, which is reserved for manatees only in the winter.

Dunnellon is a cute town, too, with some good restaurants and an interesting history. In 1888, phosphate was discovered here and phosphate mining made Dunnellon so prosperous it was nicknamed Boomtown. Some of the historic buildings from that era remain.

Here’s a Florida Rambler story about Dunnellon and the rivers you can kayak with it as a base.

A Florida Rambler story on things to do in Crystal River.

Tips on accommodations: We loved the Rainbow Rivers Club, a complex that seems more like a state park than a commercial establishment, and made an excellent base for taking advantage of all the things to do in Dunnellon. 

High Springs is one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida: One big reason is the Santa Fe River, where we delighted in this small unnamed spring near Rum Island (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

High Springs is one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida: One big reason is the Santa Fe River, where we delighted in this small unnamed spring near Rum Island (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

High Springs: Splendid springs, the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee

High Springs (population 5,350) benefits from visitors to its springs and rivers. It has preserved a historic core of Victorian and Craftsmen style buildings, some dating from the 1800s. Located about 20 miles northwest of Gainesville and its University of Florida, you can feel the impact of the student population in its business district. It’s a livelier and more charming small town than many in this rural area of northern Florida, with interesting restaurants serving local craft beers.

What makes it one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida, however, are two terrific Florida treasures – the Ichetucknee Springs and river and the Santa Fe River.

Well-known for decades as one of the best Florida rivers to kayak or canoe, the Santa Fe has enough current that we could do a 15-mile trip in six hours and not be exhausted. And there’s so much to see in the 15 miles! The Santa Fe offers a dozen springs along the way, plus places to stop and explore or have a picnic.

The Ichetucknee is just stunningly beautiful. We like to kayak it in winter, when it’s not full of folks on tubes and the wildlife emerges. But tubing the Ichetucknee in summer is a joyous only-in-Florida experience that we thoroughly enjoyed on a hot day.

Tips on accommodations: You can camp on the Santa Fe River at O’Leno State Park, a Florida treasure with a scenic campground that is a Florida Rambler favorite. There are some charming bed and breakfasts in the area. Kayak groups often base at the inexpensive mid-century Cadillac Motel.

Rocking chairs on porch of Princess Place lodge, Palm Coast, Florida

Rocking chairs on the porch of the Princess Place lodge, which has a magnificent view and ocean breeze even on hot days. This waterway is part of the Pellicer Creek Paddling Trail. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Flagler Beach: Old Florida beach town with kayaking too

We love the cinnamon-colored sand on the broad beaches of this low-rise beach town, where you can still find free parking on the beach. Indeed, Flagler Beach is first and foremost about its beaches. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Flagler Beach..

But Flagler County has lots of unspoiled waterways nearby, both fresh and saltwater, making it one of the best towns for kayaking in Florida.

Here are several county and state parks and paddling trails that offer good kayaking:

  • Tomoka River State Park is the launch site for the 13-mile-long Tomoka River Paddling Trail. Here’s a map of that trail with put-in spots and contact information for an outfitter.
  • Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park  is a good place to access the 6.5 mile Bulow Creek Paddling Trail. Here’s a map of that trail with put-in spots and information about outfitters. In addition to paddling the trail, you can also paddle upstream about 3 miles as the creek narrows. This section is considered the most wild and scenic.
  • Haw Creek Preserve State Park and its Russell Landing marina give you access to the pristine blackwater Haw Creek. It passes through an old cypress swamp under a lush tree canopy that leads to Crescent Lake. The remote Haw Creek is not heavily used, so you may have it all to yourself. The trail is 5.7 miles from Russell Landing to Bull Creek Fish Camp, which is located at the end of Mud Lake.
  • Princess Place Preserve is a delightful place to hike, kayak, camp and tour the lovely 1888 hunting lodge, which has a great story of a real princess behind it. It’s also the start of the Pellicer Creek Paddling Trail through an unspoiled tidal estuary to Faver-Dykes State Park. Here’s the trail map and guide to the 6.5 miles round trip Pellicer Creek Paddling Trail.
  • Gamble Rogers State Park has a boat ramp on the Intracoastal Waterway and offers inexpensive kayak rentals. (a single for $15 or a tandem kayak or canoe for $25.)
  • Fort Matanzas is one of my favorite places to go in the Flagler Beach area, and it is on a body of water that is a great place to kayak – the Matanzas River and Matanzas Inlet. One place to launch your kayak is the Helen Mellon Schmidt Park in St. Augustine.

“Visit Flagler” kayaking resources, including outfitters

Fort Pierce is one of the best towns to base a kayaking getaway because of the St. Lucie River South Fork, which is scenic and filled with wildlife. (Photo: Erin Blasco)

Fort Pierce is one of the best towns to base a kayaking getaway because of the St. Lucie River South Fork, which is scenic and filled with wildlife. (Photo: Erin Blasco)

Fort Pierce: Pretty paddles in Southeast Florida — and near the beach

The kayaking options around Fort Pierce are a bit spread out, requiring an hour drive to reach some of them. But this appealing region has a wide variety of recreational opportunities and the small towns of Stuart, Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie are charming with a variety of accommodations.

This area also has the advantage of having a beautiful barrier island — Hutchinson Island — where you can find uncrowded, unspoiled beaches. You might combine a beach getaway with the paddling getaway. 

My favorite paddles in the region are two very different ones on the St. Lucie River. The St. Lucie South Branch is wild and gorgeous  — a jungly forest of old live oaks thick with air plants and Spanish moss. You put in at Hosford Park, right off I-95. From there, you pass a few small islands and after paddling about two hours, you reach a remote area where you can picnic and take a hike reachable only by boat. At that point, you turn around and head back.

Another St. Lucie paddle starts with a third mile of open water when you paddle across the Intracoastal/Indian River at Cove Road to St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park, a little slice of paradise. It’s the wild northern tip of Jupiter Island, with narrow twisty mangrove channels and eventually a spectacular deserted beach. St. Lucie Inlet Preserve has a 2.7 miles long beach whose southern boundary is the wild and wonderful Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. This means the beach actually continues uninterrupted for more than five miles without houses or roads.

Both these kayak trips, plus a third on Ten Mile Creek, are described in this story on paddling the St. Lucie and its tributaries.

An hour south of the St. Lucie River is one of Florida’s two federally designated Wild and Scenic River, the Loxahatchee River (the other is the Wekiva). You can rent kayaks or launch yours at Riverside Park and paddle through the pristine cypress forest. You also can launch your kayaks downstream at wonderful Jonathan Dickenson State Park.  

There are also many saltwater kayaking options along the mangroves of the Intracoastal.  You can launch a kayak and explore the waterways of Fort Pierce Inlet State Park or launch from North Causeway Island Park, 500 N Causeway, Fort Pierce, FL 34949. Both sites are served by an outfitter who offers kayak rentals.

Resources from Florida Rambler for planning a kayaking getaway in the Fort Pierce/St. Lucie area.

Tips on accommodations: There are well-situated state park cabins in Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Hundreds of cormorants float in a tight group on Pine Island Sound

Cabbage Key is one of the best places for kayaking in Florida. Near Cabbage Key, hundreds of cormorants floated in a tight group on Pine Island Sound during our kayak outing. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Cabbage Key: Funky historic inn and pristine Pine Island Sound

This destination is different. It’s not a town; it’s a historic inn on a beautiful island in Pine Island Sound accessible only by boat.

When we visited, we rented kayaks from the inn, but you can arrange to bring your own kayak with you when you book the water taxi (for a fee.)

Located 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers, 5 miles south of Boca Grande, 8 miles north of Sanibel and Captiva islands, this island is beautifully situated in a location where you can kayak to various islands and beaches through waters that are full of birds and wildlife.  

We think Cabbage Key is a kayaker’s dream.

Here’s more from Florida Rambler about a stay at Cabbage Key.

Other great bases for kayaking in Florida

If you scan through our 100+ articles on kayaking destinations, you’ll see there are plenty of other places that could be added to this list. These include:

Got a favorite we’ve missed? Please add it to the comments blow. 

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From the Editor:

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