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Kayaking the Econlockhatchee: Unspoiled, lovely, easy to reach

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.

Roseate Spoonbill along Econlockhatchee River
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: The beauty of this roseate spoonbill took my breath away. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

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Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: Live oaks arching over the waterway. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: Live oaks arching over the waterway. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: Sandbars beckon you to take a break. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: Sandbars beckon you to take a break. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: A covered shelter makes a good stop along the 11.5-mile portion of the paddle trail. It is not, however, located in the designated primitive camping area. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: A covered shelter makes a good stop along the 11.5-mile portion of the paddle trail. It is not, however, located in the designated primitive camping area. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: A black crowned night heron was one of several varieties of birds we saw. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: A black crowned night heron was one of several birds spotted. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: I don't think the lower section of the river gets enough boat traffic for the alligators to be blase about kayaks. Most plunged into the water before we even got sight of them. This guy, quite big, hung around long enough for a photo. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: I don’t think the lower section of the river gets enough boat traffic for the alligators to be blase about kayaks. Most plunged into the water before we even saw them. This guy, quite big, hung around long enough for a photo. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.)

Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: I loved this roseate spoonbill so much I had to use a second photo. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Econlockhatchee River: I loved this roseate spoonbill so much I had to use a second photo. (Photo: David Blasco)

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

  • Next door to C.S. Lee park is a popular bar and restaurant, the Jolly Gator Fish Camp Bar and Grill. It sounds great but is currently closed for repairs after severe flooding from Hurricane Ian. Next time, we’ll be sure to visit.

Notes from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.

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Joe Blanda

Sunday 4th of December 2022

Thank you for continuing to post these wonderful blogs. So nice of you to share these beautiful places here in Florida.

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