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Loxahatchee River: Kayak a wild, scenic river in South Florida

It’s federally protected with a “wild and scenic river” designation, and, wow, does the Loxahatchee River ever earn those adjectives.

The scenery is spectacular. The alligators, turtles and birds that thrive here are as wild as they come.

Located in Jupiter, the northern-most city of populous Palm Beach County, the Loxahatchee River is located within an hour’s drive of much of the urban tangle of South Florida. It may be South Florida’s best kayaking river and makes a great place for a variety of canoe and paddling outings.

Loxahatchee River kayaking and turtle: Its name means "river of turtles." (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Loxahatchee River kayaking: Its name means “river of turtles.” (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are only two nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida – the Loxahatchee and the Wekiva near Orlando.

The “wild and scenic” part is the 7.6 mile stretch from the river’s headwaters at Riverbend Park, 9060 W. Indiantown Road in Jupiter, downstream to Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound.

The Loxahatchee River offers several alternative kayaking trips, ranging from one- or two-hour trips to an all-day adventure. You can bring or rent canoes or kayaks from the Riverbend concession, Jupiter Outdoor Center.

At the other end, at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, you can also rent kayaks, SUPs and canoes and we recommend a trip from there lower in this article.

loxahatchee river Loxahatchee sign small Loxahatchee River: Kayak a wild, scenic river in South Florida
Map from Jupiter Outdoor Center shows the upper section of the Loxahatchee River to Trapper Nelson’s.

Here’s a rundown of the Loxahatchee River kayaking options:

A two-hour kayak trip through the cypress forest

This is the most common and popular kayak trip on the Loxahatchee River.

This trip takes in the best scenery on the Loxahatchee River, from Riverbend Park to Masten Dam in about two to three hours roundtrip.

Kayaking the Loxahatchee River: Wild and scenic yet close to population centers in South Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Loxahatchee River: Wild and scenic yet close to population centers in South Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

In this section, the water is clear and tannic orange color. The river bottom is mostly white sand and so visibility is good. You see many fish and turtles, with an occasional alligator.

There is one gorgeous cypress tree after another, with knobby knees poking up, airplants covering the branches, strangler figs wrapping around trees and ferns filling the banks.  The river is narrow enough here that you are in shade under a canopy of green.

It is paradise.

This section has two dams. It’s good to discuss with the kayak outfitters the wisdom of paddling over the first dam, Lainhart, which you reach in about 20 minutes. Many people paddle over this dam for a little thrill. Both dams have extensive wooden ramps that allow you to portage around them easily.

For the short trip, you turn around before reaching the second dam, 1.8 miles downstream.

For this outing, you begin at Riverbend Park, kayak as far as you want, and then paddle back, upstream, to where you started. Although the Loxahatchee River has a bit of a current, it is not that difficult to kayak back. The outfitters recommend that for each hour downstream, you allow one hour and 15 minutes upstream.

The eggs of the apple snail looked like bubblegum stuck to the cypress knees along the Loxahatchee River kayak trip in March
The eggs of the apple snail looked like bubblegum stuck to the cypress knees along the Loxahatchee River kayak trip in March . (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When we paddled this section a few years ago, we found the scenery so stunning, we were happy to see it again more slowly on the upstream leg.

Riverbend Park, which charges no admission fee, has a separate launch area for people who bring their own canoes and kayaks.

Note: If you’d be more comfortable with a guide, Jupiter Outdoors Center also offers guided kayak trips on this section of the Loxahatchee.

For the adventurous: The all-day one-way Loxahatchee River kayak trip

When I first started paddling the Loxahatchee (I think my first trip was in 1979!) the most popular outing was the eight-mile route from Riverbend Park to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, with livery service back to Riverbend. In recent years, the shuttle service was not available, but now it’s an option regularly offered through Jupiter Outdoor Center. (At this writing, it is not on the website, but can be arranged with a phone call.)

Loxahatchee River kayak trip: This gator seemed to be guarding this log. To proceed, you had to paddle right next to "his" log. Finally, he budged. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Loxahatchee River kayak trip: The gator seemed to be guarding this log. To proceed, you had to paddle right next to “his” log. Finally, he budged. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The longer trip all the way down the river is best for moderately experienced kayakers who are agile enough to scramble over logs to portage their kayaks. In April 2022, we had to make three portages. In each case, we could push our canoe under a log while we clambered over it. Varying water levels will make for easier or harder portages.

The twistiness, the obstacle course of logs and the length of this paddle can make it a challenge. It took us five and a half hours to do the 8.3 mile trip. And the last hour and a half was tough — we were exhausted and paddling against a stiff breeze.

Two weeks after a heavy rain storm, the current was swift kayaking the Loxahatchee River.
Two weeks after a heavy rain storm, the current was swift kayaking the Loxahatchee River. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)

The short out-and-back trip ends at Masten Dam, but through-paddlers will continue. This dam had about a 2 1/2 to 3 foot drop when we visited. I’m sure some very experienced paddlers and daredevils paddle  over it. But I wouldn’t, and we didn’t.

The next two or three hours of paddling are just as beautiful as the first section.  The river is sometimes narrow and twisty. It continues through a shady cypress forest and this is where we spotted the three alligators on this trip.

One gator had installed himself comfortably on a sunny log and was reluctant to budge. The only way over an underwater obstacle was to paddle as close to that gator’s log as possible, so we slowly edged closer and closer until the gator finally slipped into the water. Folks who were 15 minutes behind us later told us he was back by the time they got there, and again left his post grudgingly.

After two or three hours of Loxahatchee Rivre kayaking, you reach Trapper Nelsons, home of the legendary "wildman" who was actually a pretty canny businessman. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
After two or three hours of Loxahatchee River kayaking, you reach Trapper Nelson’s, home of the legendary “wildman” who was actually a pretty canny businessman. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

One pleasure of the full river trip is the opportunity to stop at Trapper Nelson‘s. This historic site in Jonathan Dickinson State Park was the home of an eccentric backwoodsman who caught and displayed wild animals in a makeshift private zoo in the 1930s and ‘40s.

His hand built rustic buildings and animal cages are all preserved and it’s an interesting, atmospheric spot. There are shaded tables for a relaxing picnic. We spent 45 minutes here and joined a volunteer docent’s tour of the place, which we have visited in the past. We recommend Trapper Nelson’s as a good place to take a break.

Loxahatchee River kayaking: An alligator skull at Trapper Nelson's. (Photo: David Blasco)
Loxahatchee River kayaking: An alligator skull at Trapper Nelson’s. (Photo: David Blasco)

Right up to Trapper Nelson‘s, the Loxahatchee River is a pristine, shady cypress swamp.  As soon as you leave Trapper Nelson‘s, however, you see your first mangrove tree and soon the river has changed character and is fully lined with mangroves. Soon the only cypresses you see are the bleached white snags of ones that have succumbed to salt water.

The river you see in the last 3.5 miles is completely different – wide, sunny, saltier, windier and lined with mangroves.

If you plan to paddle the longer trip, be sure to bring a picnic, sunscreen, hats, lots of water and possibly rain ponchos. (We once paddled the last two hours in the rain and wish we’d been prepared.)

The trip ends at the boat ramp in Jonathan Dickinson, where Jupiter Outdoor Center staff pick you up.

Note: The shuttle service from Jupiter Outdoor Center is not inexpensive. For my husband and I in April 2022, the all-day canoe rental was $85 and the shuttle service was $50. With our own boat, the shuttle would have been $45 per person. Rates and reservations: Riverbend concession, Jupiter Outdoor Center.

A deer along Kitching Creek, a tributary of the Loxahatchee River with Jonathan Dickinson State Park..
A deer along Kitching Creek, a tributary of the Loxahatchee River within Jonathan Dickinson State Park. It’s a good kayaking destination. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A second easy option: Canoe upstream from Jonathon Dickinson State Park

On this kayak or canoe trip, you experience a broad and tidal section of the Loxahatchee. Paddlers often see wading birds and occasionally manatees, ospreys and bald eagles.

Upstream a short distance there is a tributary of the Loxahatchee River, Kitching Creek, that is winding and narrow with overhanging trees and Spanish moss. Kayakers often see alligators here. We paddled right up to a deer munching on mangrove leaves. (To find Kitching Creek, look for a water-measurement installation at its mouth.)

Kayaking the Loxahatchee River: Alligators are part of the scenery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Loxahatchee River: Alligators are part of the scenery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

You can launch your own canoe or kayak at the Jonathan Dickinson State Park boat ramp or rent one at the concession stand.  More information, visit the Jonathan Dickinson concessionaire website or call (561) 746-1466 or here.

Kayak outings beginning near Jupiter Inlet

The Jupiter Outdoor Center,1000 A1A, Jupiter, rents kayaks and standup paddleboards from their dock as well as operating various area tours. From the outdoor center, you can paddle around mangrove islands and explore Jupiter Inlet. More information: Jupiter Outdoor Center, 561-747-0063.

Note: It is easy to be confused by the various places called Loxahatchee. About 45 minutes south, you will find the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach, an Everglades experience with a nice kayaking trail through a sawgrass marsh. It has no connection to the Loxahatchee River, however.

Loxahatchee River kayak and canoe details

More things to do in Jupiter and nearby:

The Loxahatchee River is located in an area filled with fantastic outdoor opportunities. It’s a great base for kayaking, hiking, biking, snorkeling, beaches, history and even terrific bars and restaurants. Here are some of our favorite outings:

Notes from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.

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