As a scenic attraction, one does not expect much from a bombing range. Yet we found one of the most beautiful, untouched areas in Florida while kayaking Arbuckle Creek, which serves as the border for the Avon Park Air Force Range.
The bombing range, in fact, is why you can paddle for hours on Arbuckle Creek with the only sign of man being barbed wire and “WARNING!” signs.
Located in the hilly Lake Wales Ridge area about 90 minutes due south of Orlando, Arbuckle Creek barely gets mentioned in kayak and canoe books and guides. We love the Lake Wales Ridge area and read a few trip reports online that convinced us it was worth exploring. Two years later, we returned for a second trip and were awestruck by how lovely this stream is.
It’s one of my favorite Florida hidden gems, and here’s why:
- Arbuckle Creek is a gorgeous wild river through an ancient cypress forest.
- It is convenient to both South and Central Florida population centers.
- Arbuckle Creek is full of wildlife and magnificent scenery — on two visits, we saw owls, feral hogs and otters.
- It makes a great three or four hour paddle, or paddling can be extended.
- An added bonus: This region has excellent little-known hiking and camping options too.
Kayaking Arbuckle Creek
All reports agree the most scenic section is the northern 2.5 miles, which borders Avon Park Air Force Range. There is an excellent launch site about 20 minutes east of Avon Park amidst cattle ranches and orange groves. At the ramp, there’s ample parking and a shady dock with benches that serve as a good picnic site, too. (Details on launch site are below.)
From there, you paddle upstream for 2.5 miles to Lake Arbuckle and then paddle back with the current. Depending on both the water level and your energy level, this is a three or four hour paddle. At points, paddling against the current took a little effort, but for most of the way, it was quite easy.
Want a longer kayak trail? The scenery continues to be beautiful downstream and Lake Arbuckle is lovely too. Some kayak campers reports multi-day trips the length of Arbuckle Creek.
We were awed by the beauty of Arbuckle Creek. It is completely quiet – no road noise, no buildings and just one boat passed us in four hours. We heard lots of bird calls and on our each of our two trips, we spotted wildlife.
The first time, we heard loud grunting and saw two big black feral hogs that quickly melted into the forest. We also were thrilled with a closeup view of a barred owl and a banded water snake lolling creekside. We saw limpkins, kingfishers, dazzling cardinals, egrets, heron and alligators.
On our second paddle on Arbuckle Creek we were rewarded with quick glimpses of playful otters on three occasions, with one otter scampering along the shore ahead of us for a few minutes.
The highlights of the Arbuckle Creek kayak trail, though, are the majestic, ancient cypress trees rising from the clear, tea-colored water. Their broad bases and distinctive knees give each tree its own personality – I wanted to photograph each one. They also provide shade over much of the narrow creek, which is lush with ferns.
On two trips on Arbuckle Creek, we saw few boats, but one was a memorable experience. An airboat, whose engine was audible long before we saw it, emerged around a bend in the creek, roaring like a monster towering over us. It slowed as it passed uncomfortably close, but the contrast to the previous solitude was dramatic.
Continuing up river, our destination was Lake Arbuckle, a large lily-pad filled lake, with a state forest on one side and a bombing range on the other. I like kayaking trails to a destination, and Lake Arbuckle is a good one — it’s about five miles long and there are no buildings visible. (On the far end is the very nice Lake Arbuckle County Campground.)
When you reach the lake, there’s a boat ramp and a guard shack for the entrance to the Avon Park Air Force Range. You are not invited to explore. The guard smiled when he said it, but told me: “You’re trespassing on federal property right now, ma’am.”
Avon Park Air Force Range
When I told people we were kayaking at a bombing range, they all assumed it used to be a bombing range. Nope. Still is, though its name has been updated to “air force range.” It is described as an “air-to-ground training facility.” The guard at the security post told us about quietly fishing on Arbuckle Creek one day and having C-130 planes roar just overhead.
Avon Park Air Force Range is huge – 106,000 acres – and when they’re not practicing shooting bad guys, it’s open for lots of recreational use including hiking and camping.
Arbuckle Creek kayaking resources
Put in at Arbuckle Creek – Burnt Out Bridge Public Boat Ramp , 7600 East Arbuckle Road, Avon Park, 33825. Lattitude 27° 38.3514′ Longitude 81° 21.8778. The boat ramp has shaded benches. (Be careful when Google-mapping this boat ramp; Google kept mapping the wrong location.)
To reach the boat ramp, take County Rd 64 (an extension of SR 64) from Avon Park to East Arbuckle Road. The boat ramp is at the end of the road.
There are no restrooms at the boat ramp. There are facilities at the boat ramp at Lake Arbuckle, our half-way point. We were allowed to use them on one visit, but other kayakers have told us they were not. .
Just before the bridge and Lake Arbuckle, there is a open bank on the right that would lend itself to a picnic. The banks are pretty swampy, so there aren’t a lot of other picnic options.
No canoe or kayak? Contact Sebring Kayak Tours about rentals and trips.
Camping and lodging nearby Arbuckle Creek
There is an attractive little-known county campground located on the northern end of Lake Arbuckle next to the state forest. It has a picnic shelter and tables, restrooms and a boat ramp. The camping sites are widely spaced and shaded, some overlooking the lake. Rates for RVs are $23 per night for up to four persons with electric and water. Tents with up to four persons (without electric and water hookup) are $10.
2600 Lake Arbuckle Road
Frostproof, FL 33843
(863) 534-6911 (reservations taken by phone)
Within the state forest, there are several areas designated for primitive camping. You need to bring water and register in advance.
For camping permits, visit the forest office:
Florida Forest Service
851 County Road 630 East
Frostproof, FL 33843
Not a camper? There’s a nearby vintage hotel that is affordable and full of character, although not quite up to current standards: The 1926 Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park.
Things to do near Arbuckle Creek
- 7 fun and funky things to do in Lake Wales
- Bok Tower Gardens: Beautiful oasis atop Florida ‘mountain’
- Lake Wales Ridge area offers hiking, paddling, history and more
- Lake Placid charms with clowns, caladiums, good eatin’ and great stories
- Lake Wales Ridge State Forest for hiking, camping, exploring
- Lake Kissimmee State Park: Where Old Florida lives on
- Highland Hammocks State Park: Forest canopy shades trails and camping,
- Tiger Creek Preserve: Nature Conservancy preserve hikers’ heaven
- Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: Camp under starry dark skies
- Drive the Cracker Trail: Scenic route through cow country
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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.