We would have loved kayaking the Chassahowitzka River, better known as the Chaz, if only one of these things were true:
- Within the first 10 minutes, we paddled over magical springs that sparkled like swimming pools (and, indeed, you can swim there.)
- On one of the Chaz’s tributaries, we spent 15 minutes watching a family of five or six otters scampering, swimming, fishing, diving and delighting us.
- We paddled up a tributary where the water got clearer and shallower as you reached a beautiful spring.
We didn’t care that we didn’t spot the manatees that frequent the Chassahowitzka or the bald eagles we were told to watch for. Let’s not be greedy: It is a splendid kayaking river for the scenery alone.
The Chaz is located a half hour south of the better known Crystal River. It’s about 100 miles west of Orlando in a rural, less-developed area of Florida that calls itself the Nature Coast. The Seminoles named it “pumpkin hanging place” after a type of climbing pumpkin that may be extinct, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.
Important to note: To preserve special rivers like the Chaz, follow these best practices. Stay in the vessel. Avoid docking on riverbanks. Don’t trample vegetation or kick up silt. Avoid climbing on banks and walking on sand point bars. Don’t climb trees or use rope swings.
At the river’s origin, there’s a tiny community with a handful of houses and trailers. Within a few miles of paddling downstream, you enter the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a vast tangle of saltwater marshes and wild islands.
Whereas it was once a sleepy off-the-beaten-path destination, it has now become a popular boating destination, so weekends can get crowded.
Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge pops into the news because it is the winter home of the whooping cranes that were re-introduced to the area by following an ultra-light from Wisconsin. (You are not likely to spot the cranes; their home is a remote island whose location is kept secret.)
Launching on the Chassahowitzka
The Chaz is an easy river to kayak. We put in your own canoe at a sandy launch site at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, where you also can rent kayaks and canoe at reasonable rates.
The water is so clear you see schools of fish as you paddle. As soon as we launched we started seeing herons, pelicans and osprey. (Eventually we saw hawks, kingfishers, cormorants, anhingas and a pair of wood ducks, too.)
Immediately to the right of the marina and within a five-minute paddle you come to the Seven Sister Spring. Many people miss this beautiful series of springs because they start paddling downriver.
As you’ll see on the map, there are several tributaries, some with springs, which are worth exploring. The first, Crab Creek Spring, leads to a lush lagoon with a spring and a single large home.
We kayaked up the Salt Creek, which was less scenic (dead trees and some sort of aquatic plant that covered the shore and rocks like a mat,) but this was the place where we happened on the otter family that will remain an enduring memory of this trip.
As you paddle downstream, the river widens and you pass fishing shacks, mansions, sunken boats and plenty of birds.
In about 2.5 miles (not counting all the tributaries to explore), you come to a sign marking the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and from there on, the rest is open and unshaded. We turned around here, but if you skipped the side-trips (and I wouldn’t), you could continue paddling for miles. In another three or four miles, you reach the Gulf and, just before it, Dog Island, a recreation area with a restroom and dock.
Planning your kayak trip on the Chassahowitzka
The community around the Chaz is small, but there are more options for dining and lodging in Homosassa, 20 minutes away. For those who want to center their activities around the Chaz, here are a few options.
- You can rent kayaks or launch your own at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, 8600 W Miss Maggie Drive, Homosassa. Launching is free but there is a charge for parking.
- You also can rent kayaks from Seven Sisters Campground, 8544 W Miss Maggie Drive
- Camping at the Chassahowitzka River Campround is for both RVs with full hookups and a separate tent area.
- We stayed two blocks away at the Chassahowitzka Hotel, a historic building from the turn of the century now operated as a B&B by the fourth generation of the original family. Rates start at $125 per night. It’s a lovely spot that caters more to groups than individuals. (You can rent the whole place for $1200 per night and it sleeps 18.)
- The Chassahowtizka Hotel is connected to the Seven Sisters Campground, which has RV sites and cabins.
- Sorry to say, the Chaz is now a VERY popular destination, particularly on sunny weekends. So like other popular spots, your best experience will be to go early or on a weekday. This also means visitors are urged to avoid damaging the shorelines.
In Homosassa there are several choices for dining including the locals dive bar, the waterfront Freezer Tiki Bar, which steams delicious peel-and-eat fresh shrimp and serves cheap beer. The menu is limited, but the smoked mullet fish dip is worth the visit alone.
Old Homosassa, founded in 1835, has a delightful waterfront area. There are two adjacent moderately priced waterfront resorts: MacRae’s and Florida Cracker Riverside Resort. (The hotel is now part of the successful Florida Cracker Restaurant group, which started by serving outstanding traditional foods in a small restaurant in Brooksville.)
The Florida Cracker Riverside Resort is memorable for the small island off its bar that is home to a colony of monkeys. While we strolled the waterfront, watching the monkeys, a group of manatees swam by.
Things to do near Chassahowitzka River
- We combined kayaking the Chaz with a night in Brooksville and bicycling the truly great rail trail, the Withlacoochee State Trail.
- Near the river, there are many miles of hiking trails in the Withlacoochee State Forest.
- About 20 miles south is the Weeki Wachee, a gorgeous spring-fed river to kayak and home to the historic and fun underwater show performed by “mermaids” swimming in the spring.
- About 20 mile north is the Crystal River, the most popular place to see, kayak with and swim with manatees. Here’s our complete guide to kayaking in the Crystal River area and how to see Three Sisters Spring.
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a manatee rehab center with viewing windows where you are guaranteed to see manatees. There are many other native animals on displays and programming that would especially appeal to families.
- Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a National Historic Landmark preserving ancient Indian mounds.
- Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park is a quick, interesting stop. The tumbling down stone walls of the sugar mill, part of a pre-Civil War plantation, are set under towering oaks. The mill’s owner is an important guy in Florida history — its first senator. The site is 15 minutes from Chassahowitzka on the way to Old Homosassa.
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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.