Hundreds of miles of Gulf coastline around Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda are wild and natural preserves, making Charlotte Harbor one of the best places for salt-water kayaking.
Charlotte Harbor kayaking immerses you in a world where you hear ospreys calling overhead and see all sorts of wading birds including magnificent white pelicans that winter in the area.
Launching from Placida, an out-of-the-way fishing town near Port Charlotte, you can explore mangrove tunnels of the Woolverton Trail, which are true mazes.
Wildlife while Charlotte Harbor kayaking
While kayaing along the shore, we paddled right over a small spotted eagle ray gliding along the shallows and watched in awe as a pair of pink roseate spoonbills passed overhead.
On a previous trip, we saw dolphins feeding; others have seen manatees here.
In short, this is a wonderland of wildlife and natural beauty, and paddling it on a beautiful winter day is about as great a way to experience the real Florida as I’ve ever found.
This part of Charlotte Harbor is shielded from wind and waves by Gasparilla Island, home to the exclusive resort town of Boca Grande. Still, this kayak trip is best for calm days and because these are shallow waters, plan your trip to span high tide. This is one of more than 50 kayak trails in the Punta Gorda listed on the Charlotte County Blueways map.
Launching from Placida for Charlotte Harbor kayaking
For all its miles of coastline, this part of the Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte area has only a few spots to launch your kayak. One of the best is Placida Park, 6499 Gasparilla Road, Placida. Several outfitters also will arrange for kayaks to launch from here. (See details below.)
If you put in your kayak at Placida Park, you can paddle the coast north or south. We headed south, under the bridge to Boca Grande Island, then under the adjacent old railroad bridge that is now a fishing pier, and along an area of old working marinas.
On a past trip, this is where we watched dolphins feeding on the abundant fish. On a January visit, we saw a number of magnificent white pelicans here.
You may be saying: Yeah, yeah, pelicans; I see them all the time.
The common shore birds we have come to love are brown pelicans, year-round residents of Florida who frequent fishing piers and whose fishing forays involve crashing headfirst into the waves.
Punta Gorda (and many Florida coastal areas) attract a different bird: white pelicans, who spend their summers in the Grand Tetons and other western mountains. White pelicans are much larger, with bright orange beaks and black-fringed wings. These are impressive birds: Among North American birds, only the California Condor has a larger wingspan.
The white pelicans of Punta Gorda occupy islands in Charlotte Harbor but can be spotted along the coast in the Placida area. We saw several, including some who joined the brown pelicans in swarming a fisherman who was tossing fish overboard.
If you launch a kayak from Placida, you can paddle into a challenging maze of mangrove tunnels that includes a kayak trail called the Woolverton Trail. Another alternative is to skip the mangrove tunnels and explore the coast, heading further south and then inland on a twisting channel that takes you to a large shallow pool popular with wading birds called Boggess Hole.
We explored the Woolverton Trail area; next time we’ll paddle on to Boggess Hole. The Woolverton Trail winds through a large area of mangroves that were once carved up as mosquito-abatement ditches. The channels are almost a grid format and, at one point, someone hung numbered signs at some of the intersections of the channels to aid navigation.
We plunged into this beautiful mangrove maze, expecting the numbers to follow a sequence and be a guide. They didn’t. After several turns that only took us deeper into the maze and with numbers that weren’t consecutive (#3, #3A, #5 then #14 and #17), we decided to retrace our “steps,” for fear we’d spend the night there.
Along the return, we met a kayaking couple who said they get lost every time they paddle this lovely maze, but if they call up Google Earth on their phone, they can find their way out. Indeed, we learned, Google Earth has a very good map of these mangrove tunnels!
The Woolverton Trail has a wonderful origin. Edwin Woolverton, who died in 2017 at age 101, created the kayaking trail to give back to a community he loved. The Minnesotan started spending winters in a waterfront trailer in Punta Gorda in the 1970s and he put in many hours clearing the channels to create the trail. Now it is maintained by Charlotte County.
You can start the Woolverton Trail by turning inland between channel markers #11 and #12 into Catfish Creek and taking the right channel. On the right, there is a wooden sign marking the Woolverton Trail. If, as you reach intersections on the “trail,” you choose the option of going straight or taking a right, you’ll emerge to the Gasparilla Sound. (Here’s a link to a Google map that shows the channels.)
Having safely emerged from the mangrove tunnels, we found a sandy stretch in the mangroves overlooking Gasparilla Sound where we ate a stand-up picnic lunch and enjoyed the birds, boats and leaping mullets. As is often the case with mangrove areas, landing spots are scarce.
Planning your Charlotte Harbor kayak trip
[mappress mapid=”340″ alignment=”left” initialopeninfo=”false”] Placida Park
6499 Gasparilla Road
This busy boat ramp has metered parking.
Need to rent a kayak or prefer a guided tour of Charlotte Harbor? These outfitters serve the Placida area:
This area is part of Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.
Make a weekend of visiting Charlotte Harbor area
Punta Gorda is a great weekend getaways – it’s a historic town with moderate prices. Here’s a Florida Rambler roundup of things to do in Punta Gorda– from a botanic garden to good bicycling trails to one of Florida’s most classic crab shacks, Peace River Seafood.
Kayakers will find this a good destination because there are so many paddling options. On the same weekend in which we did our salt-water kayak trip on Charlotte Harbor, we paddled gorgeous fresh water Shell Creek with cypress trees, alligators, turtles and arching lives oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Both kayak outings were terrific and they were completely different.
The Charlotte County Blueway Trails map lists them both among its 57 trails.
More great outdoors activties in the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte area:
- Just across the causeway, 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 and to spectacular beaches.
- The 9-mile Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail is a rails-to-trails path nearby that offers good scenery.
- Discover a less well-known string of islands — Gasparilla Island, Don Pedro Island and Manasota Key. Each holds a spectacular state park with top beaches. Here’a Florida Rambler guide to this area..
Find a room near Placido Park
Find a campsite near Placido Park
Notes from the editor:
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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.