The Econlockhatchee River, or the Econ River, as it is universally called, is one of Florida’s great unspoiled rivers, full of natural beauty, wildlife and surrounded by preserved public land.
Located close to population centers between Orlando and Daytona Beach, the 19-mile-long Econlockhatchee River Paddling Trail is a classic Central Florida outdoor adventure. It’s only a half hour from Orlando, Sanford and, to the east, from Titusville.
For those who want to immerse in the wild, it’s one of the rare places where you can paddle for a day, choose a sandbar and pitch a tent, and then paddle for another day, probably without seeing any (or many) others and passing only a house or two. A good outfitter serves the river, allowing for downstream paddles with livery service.
Why we loved our day on the Econlockhatchee River
I’ve paddled a lot of beautiful rivers in Florida, but three things made the Econ special.
First, I loved the beauty and sheer number of old, huge, live oak trees, spreading out over the water with every inch of their bark covered with air plants and resurrection ferns and draped with Spanish moss. Each seemed like an exceptional specimen. Alongside the oaks are magnificent bald cypress trees and sabal palms. I wanted to take a million photos.
Second, I have always loved roseate spoonbills (who doesn’t?) and so I was thrilled when a spoonbill along the Econ River let us paddle close and then flew, then let us paddle close again and then flew, giving us repeated views of those vivid pinks against the brilliant blue sky.
Finally, what great sandbars. As the blackwater river snakes through the forest, it deposits sand in mounds that glisten and beckon you to take a break, picnic and stretch your legs.
The Econlockhatchee River Paddling Trail
The Econlockhatchee is one of the largest tributaries of the mighty St. Johns River, starting at Lake Conlon near the Orlando Airport and flowing 54 miles north to the St. Johns.
The state designated paddling trail begins downstream (which, get your head around this, is up on a map; the river flows north.) The trail begins 19 miles from where the Econ meets the St. Johns, ending at County Road 419 Bridge. The outfitters will put you in at the start of the trail and you paddle downstream 8.5 miles to Snow Hill Bridge for a four-hour trip that is mostly through Little Big Econ State Forest.Econolockhatchee-trail-map
The second segment of the Econ River trail starts at Snow Hill Bridge and ends on the St. Johns River at C.S. Lee Park and boat ramp. This is an 11.5-mile paddle, largely through the Little Big Econ State Forest and Wildlife Management area, and takes five to six hours. The last mile is on the St. Johns River and the floodplain marshes where the Econ meets it. You can arrange for the full 20-mile trip, the 8.5 mile trip or the 11.5-mile paddle.
Here’s the state’s brochure and map of the Econlockhatchee River Paddling Trail.
We chose the 11.5-mile paddle, and someday we hope to return to do the other section.
Our segment flowed through beautiful forest land as the river twists back-and-forth. The river is not so narrow as to provide mid-day shade, but it is possible to paddle near the shore under the shadows of live oaks and cypress much of the way.
At about the halfway point, there is a very nice wooden shelter and several picnic tables on a big sandy landing site within the state forest. It makes a great stop along the way, although it does not have bathrooms and is not within the designated primitive camping area.
The last mile or two are through the wide sunny floodplain where the Econ meets the St. Johns. We paddled two months after Hurricane Ian and water levels were high. In this section, it was impossible to tell where the usual rivers banks actually were. There were no river banks. Looking at a map on my phone, I could see where the river was supposed to be, but where we were paddling, in plenty of water, was actually over land.
While it was a challenge to find our way through a tractless floodplain, we could see the big bridge over the St. Johns at SR 46 and knew we’d be able to navigate there eventually. It was an adventure, and we made it.
Paddling the Econ River as an out-and-back
You can also do a kayak outing without livery service as an out-and-back trip. While there is a steady current on the river, you can have a good day of paddling by heading upstream from the Snow Hill Bridge through a section within the Little Big Econ State Forest. Two miles upstream you’ll pass a footbridge over the Econ River for the Florida Trail.
This is a beautiful narrower part of the river, with trails on both sides that are popular with hikers. (If you want to hike when you’re in the area, you can start at the Little Big Econ Barr Street Trailhead, where we had a great hike on a previous visit.)
For out-and-backs, I don’t recommend paddling upstream from the C.S. Lee Bridge as it’s a slog on the wide airboat-ridden St. Johns River before you get to the good part of the Econ River.
Primitive camping along the Econlockhatchee River
If you’re a kayak or canoe camper, the Econ River is for you. There are two designated primitive camping areas. You’ll find them shown on these maps of the Econlockhatchee River Paddling Trail.
The West Camp Area is located near the Barr Street hiking trailhead and can be accessed from both the hiking trail or by canoe or kayak from the paddling trail.
The more remote location, where you’re less likely to see other campers, is the East Camp Area, accessible only by canoe and kayak. The East Camp Area starts two or three miles downstream from the Snow Hill Bridge. Both camping zones are on the north side of the river and you must obtain a permit from the Little Big Econ State Forest office. To get a permit, contact the forest at (407) 971-3500 or reserve via floridastateforests.ReserveAmerica.com.
These are primitive sites – no tables, no bathrooms, pack-it-in/pack-it-out.
Wildlife along the Econ River
In addition to alligators, Little Big Econlockhatchee Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is home to gray fox, river otter, wild turkey, bobcat, resident and migratory waterfowl, wood storks, wading birds, white-tailed deer and turkey. It’s common to see sandhill cranes, roseate spoonbills and hawks, which we did. Also common are bald eagles and osprey.
The Muscogee name for the river means “River of Many Mounds,” which comes from a large number of Indian middens along the waterway. (We actually didn’t see any that we could identify.)
Outfitters on the Econlockhatchee River
While the trail info from the state lists three outfitters, the only one with recent information or a website is Rock on Recreation Rentals. (You might find older info for Adventures in Florida and Econ Outfitters; they’re the same company now under the larger Rock On umbrella.) Info: 407-476-3737.
One great things about Rock On is that the firm will provide shuttles if you bring your own boat or will provide rental boats. The company also offers trips on the Wekiva and many other Florida waterways.
Things to do near the Econlockhatchee River
- Hiking: There are many hiking trails, including the Florida Trail, in the region. Popular hikes are in the Little Big Econ State Forest. Here’s a hiking trail map. We enjoyed the Kolokee Trail; here’s a trail map. Another nearby hiking destination is the Geneva Wilderness Area; here’s a trail map.
- Next door to C.S. Lee park is a popular bar and restaurant, the Jolly Gator Fish Camp Bar and Grill.
- A half hour away is a community where we’ve enjoyed a weekend, charming historic town, Winter Park.
- We love a terrific nearby beach town, New Smyrna Beach, 45 minutes east.
- We have lots of ideas for natural adventures in the area in this article: Eight natural places to enjoy in Orlando area
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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.