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Kayaking Arbuckle Creek: Unexpected beauty at a bombing range

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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.

This barred owl at Arbunkle Creek FL swiveled his head to follow us as we paddled under his tree.
This barred owl at Arbuckle Creek FL swiveled his head to follow us as we paddled under his tree. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Late afternoon on Arbunkle Creek FL.
Late afternoon on Arbuckle Creek near Avon Park, FL. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.)

Warning signs for Avon Park bombing range lined one side of the Arbunkle Creek.
Warning signs for Avon Park bombing range lined one side of the Arbuckle Creek.

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.

Cypress knees on Arbuckle Creek FL
Cypress knees on Arbuckle Creek FL. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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. 

Launch site for kayaking Arbuckle Creek FL.
Launch site for kayaking Arbuckle Creek near Avon Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.”

Lake Arbuckle dock at Avon Park Air Force Range, our turn-around spot for kayaking Arbuckle Creek.
Lake Arbuckle dock at Avon Park Air Force Range, our turn-around spot for kayaking Arbuckle Creek. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Lake Arbuckle near Avon Park is a lovely, undeveloped lake with a state forest on one side and a bombing range on the other.

Lake Arbuckle near Avon Park is a lovely, undeveloped lake with a state forest on one side and a bombing range on the other. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Arbuckle Creek kayaking resources

Water level at Arbuckle Creek are monitored and reported at this site. 

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.

Airplants decorated the cypress and oak trees while we were kayaking Arbuckle Creek.
Air plants decorated the cypress and oak trees while we were kayaking Arbuckle Creek FL. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Lake Arbuckle County Campground

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
863/ 635-8589

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.

Eastern Indigo snake spotted while kayaking Arbuckle Creek.
Banded water snake spotted while kayaking Arbuckle Creek . (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do near Arbuckle Creek

A note from the editor:

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

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Mark Porteous

Wednesday 8th of January 2020

Great trip, beautiful location and scenery, unfortunately not able to enjoy the south end of Arbuckle lake because it is restricted by the Air Force; toilet rooms locked off , no admittance to the green grass picnic area.

Ben Baker

Saturday 18th of April 2020

Does anyone know current water level conditions? I’m visiting from out of town and wanting to get out there but know it’s been very dry for the last month or so. Thanks in advance!

Bonnie Gross

Wednesday 8th of January 2020

So glad to get a trip report because it's on my list ot revisit this winter to update our story. When we went, the security guy wasn't friendly, but we were able to use the facilities.

Nathan Bartosek

Friday 2nd of February 2018

I am looking forward to finally getting to do this creek.

as an update the number for Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is 8635890545 but camping sites can be reserved through Reserve America.

I see one comment about getting stuck. April 2017 was one of the driest months on record. that low of water level is very unusual even in the dry season.

cant wait.

John Dinger

Friday 1st of September 2017

Excellent description of the trail and launch location. I went in April of 2017, but unfortunately the water level was so low that I could only paddle about one mile towards Lake Arbuckle after repeatedly getting stuck on sandbars. This paddle is probably good during the rainy season. The scenery, as described, is great.

Bonnie Gross

Friday 1st of September 2017

Thanks so much for the additional info.

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