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Imperial River: Delightful kayak trail through old Bonita Springs

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Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 09:28 am

The name Imperial River suggests a grand and imposing thing. Instead, the creek is just 9 miles long, winding through Bonita Springs into Estero Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not part of any state or county park and it’s not undeveloped, but it makes a delightful kayak trip under a canopy of oaks and pines, narrowing into a twisty cypress-lined creek as it gets too shallow to paddle near its headwaters.

Paddling the Imperial River in Old Bonita Springs is a trip back through Old Florida. The vegetation is thick and the houses aren't new. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Paddling the Imperial River in Old Bonita Springs is a trip back through Old Florida. The vegetation is thick and the houses aren’t new. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The tea-colored water is clear and the bottom is sandy at spots, allowing visibility to see fish, turtles and, if you’re lucky, manatees.

We were lucky on a weekend in March. We came upon manatees eight or 10 times, probably seeing the same three repeatedly. They swam under and around out boats, nibbled on the vegetation along the shore and imbued our trip with a little magic.

The Imperial River is part of the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile system of marked kayak and canoe trails in Lee County. I live in Fort Lauderdale and the Imperial River is the closest trail in the system – exactly two hours from my house.

Imperial River imperial river cypress trees Imperial River: Delightful kayak trail through old Bonita Springs
As you paddle east upstream on the Imperial River, the water becomes less salty and cypress trees begin to line the shore. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The best place to put in is in old downtown Bonita Springs. I never knew Bonita Springs had a downtown, actually, until I sought out the Imperial River. It does, and it’s quite old.

Over a 100 years ago, the city was called Survey (because a survey team discovered a spring there) and the river was originally Surveyer’s Creek. But the usual land-boom mania inspired folks to rename the town Bonita Springs and give the creek the grand name Imperial River.

On the Imperial River, we heard a single alligator splash into the water, saw a variety of birds and many many turtles. (Photo: David Blasco)
On the Imperial River, we heard a single alligator splash into the water, saw a variety of birds and many, many turtles. (Photo: David Blasco)

Bonita Springs was built around the railroad tracks and the original US 41, which brought travelers into Florida in the 1920s. The oldest building, now the center of redevelopment efforts, is the 1926 Liles Hotel on the Imperial River. The Liles Hotel has been restored to be used as city offices and is surrounded by a landscaped Riverside Park with fountains and sculptures.

Riverside Park is also home to six cute cottages, originally riverside tourist cabins built in 1945. One houses a kayak outfitter, who is happy to rent you kayaks or canoes to paddle the Imperial River. (Details below.) The cottages have been restored and look like the sort of places mid-century motorists loved.

Imperial River imperial river lush vegetation Imperial River: Delightful kayak trail through old Bonita Springs
Lush vegetation lines the Imperial River through old Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Across the river is the classic roadside attraction, Everglades Wonder Gardens, which had been operated by the same family as an animal attraction from 1936 to April 2013. When it closed, local photographer and conservationist John Brady took over the property, which was then purchased by the city in 2015.

It is now operated by a non-profit board on city-owned poperty. It is home to rescued and non-releasable birds and reptiles nestled housed under the sprawling banyan trees and plantings. It’s a gem, well worth a visit for its beautiful flowers and trees and interesting animals.

Imperial River Bonita Springs manatee
On one paddle a few years ago, we saw manatees repeatedly in the Imperial River in Bonita Springs. They are frequent visitors, though we didn’t see any in our January 2024 trip. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Old 41 is far enough off the tourist track to make the Imperial River and Everglades Wonder Gardens an Old Florida gem.

If you don’t rent kayaks at Riverside Park, you can put in your own kayak at the city-owned dock used by the outfitter or a nearby park. The best paddling is upstream to the east. West of Old 41, the Imperial River gets wider, less lush, more urban and more filled with motorboats.

The Liles Hotel is the oldest building in downtown Bonita Springs and is now houses city offices. Behind it are "tourist cabins" now serving as artist cottages. Cottage #6 is the CGT Kayak outfitters who operate on the Imperial River  (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Liles Hotel is the oldest building in downtown Bonita Springs and now houses city offices. Behind it are “tourist cabins” now serving as artist cottages. Cottage #6 is the CGT Kayak outfitters. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The upstream route takes you two or three miles to where the Imperial goes under I-75 and becomes narrow and shallow. The river has a natural shore with mangroves and sandy banks instead of seawalls. It is lined with old trees that form a shady canopy much of the way.

Most of the trail is past houses, but they are thick with vegetation. Flashy cardinals criss-crossed our paths and turtles sunned on logs. It’s not wild, but every minute is scenic.

The prettiest section is the eastern stretch, where cypress trees and their knobby knees dominate the landscape. The trail gets twisty with a bit of a current.

Great blue heron along the Imperial River in Old Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Great blue heron along the Imperial River in old Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The first few times we paddled here, current and tidal effects were not strong enough to be an issue. On our most recent visit (January 2024) the current around the cypress trees at the eastern end was so strong we were unable to paddle as far as I-75 and we had to turn around. (It had rained in recent days.)

Planning your trip to Bonita Springs and the Imperial River

CGT Kayaks Inc. operates seasonally out of Artist Cabin #6, Imperial river Fl 34135. Open starting at 9 a.m. Rentals start at $25 for 90 minutes in a single kayak. A half-day rental (enough to paddle up and back the Imperial) is $35 for a single; $50 for a double.) This is a great place for SUPs (Stand Up Paddleboards) and you can rent them for $25 an hour; $35 a half day. Call ahead for rental 239-221-8218. It operates Oct. 1 to June 1 and also offers guided tours.

The kayak launch at Riverside Park is used by the outfitter but it is open to the public. The problem is you have to haul your vessel about 100 yards from the parking lot. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The kayak launch at Riverside Park is used by the outfitter but it is open to the public. The problem for those with their own kayaks is you have to haul your vessel about 100 yards from the parking lot. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Putting in your own kayak. You have two alternatives.

You can use the docks from which CGT outfitters operate, but you have to carry or cart your vessel from a temporary parking spot a good 100 yards away.

The other alternative, which we used, is to park on the other side of the railroad tracks in Depot Park, where there is an opening in the trees along the river where you can launch your kayak. (See the photo below.) There are restrooms and picnic tables here as well.

Imperial River imperial river launch site Imperial River: Delightful kayak trail through old Bonita Springs
If you follow a dirt path along the pedestrian bridge pictured here, you’ll find what passes for a kayak launch. There is no sign. This is on the western side of the railroad tracks, west of the Liles Hotel complex. The bridge, by the way, leads to a pretty tree-shaded path in Island Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

More about kayaking the Imperial River

Everglades Wonder Garden has survived since 1936. Now it’s a small but serene spot to enjoy glorious flora, colorful birds, gators and more. It’s located on Old 41 Road right on the Imperial River.

Shangri-la Springs, the site of the original spring in Bonita Springs, has beautiful grounds you are welcome to stroll, an organic restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch and a 1921 hotel with eight updated hotels rooms.

The Great Calusa Blueway. Useful maps and a smart-phone app of the whole trail system are free. (Please note that Riverside Park in Bonita Springs is incorrectly placed on the Blueway map.)

Video tells history of Lile’s Hotel.

More things to do in Bonita Springs

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  • John Dinger says:

    Depot Park, which is across the tracks from riverside park, is an ideal kayak launch site. Nice shady parking, excellent rest rooms, and a really good launch to the Imperial River.

  • Marina says:

    We visited the Wonder Gardens couple weeks ago. The building is not open, yet. Several outdoor exhibits are still in progress. The ones that are open are very attractive and engaging. The garden hosts several beautiful large birds, small alligators, tortoises, flamingos and several other small animals and reptiles. Half of the areas were wheelchair accessible. But the areas with gravel paths were not easily accessible. We spent over an hour and had an enjoyable time. Plan to visit again. It is worth to spend $10

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      Thanks for the trip report. Now that Wonder Gardens has made so much progress, Florida Rambler needs to visit and write an article. We love Old Florida attractions that somehow have survived.

  • James says:

    12.28.22, post Ian: rented hardshell kayaks from CGT at Riverside Park, not wanting to use our inflatable in case of debris. CGT was great. Paddled upriver amongst numerous friendly manatees. No debris encountered & had, as usual a fun trip.

    Also toured the nearby Wonder Gardens, to patronize a local attraction trying hard to rebuild after Ian. Takes about an hour if you dawdle and it’s worth $10 (& helps them out).

    Have fun!

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      Thanks so much! Am so happy to hear the Imperial River is still in good shape. And numerous friendly manatee, too! Really appreciate your trip report.

  • Kelli Liles says:

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