A half hour east of downtown Bradenton, a wild and serene world opens up to kayakers who follow the Upper Manatee River Paddling Trail.
The folks who live in the Bradenton/Sarasota area are fortunate to have such a beautiful place to paddle so close to the urban center.
The Manatee River is a mile wide where it meets the Gulf, but upstream, it is narrower, a twisting river with clear tannic water and pure white sandbars along the shore.
The Upper Manatee River Paddling Trail is a 4.5 miles starting from a great Old Florida place, Ray’s Canoe Hideway, and extending to the dam that creates Lake Manatee, the county’s main source of drinking water. Kayaking the Manatee River is an out-and-back paddle.
You might hear the Manatee River called the “Singing River.” Apparently a Native American legend describes how the river mysteriously makes music on certain moons. While we didn’t hear music, we did hear birdsong. (But then, we paddled during the day.)
Upper Manatee River: Starting at Ray’s Canoe Hideaway
Tucked away in a residential neighborhood on the river, Ray’s Canoe Hideaway looks like it hasn’t changed in decades. You can rent canoes and kayaks here or pay $8 to park and launch your own. Signage to Ray’s is limited, so use your phone’s map or see directions below.
You can use restrooms here and Ray’s has a good map of the river (although you don’t need one). If you have a picnic, you can eat it here. You will also find plenty of places to stop along the river too.
From Ray’s, the most scenic section of the river is upstream. The further you go, the narrower and prettier it gets.
Before going, it’s good to look up the tides on the Manatee River. Even this far east of the Gulf, the Manatee River has a strong tidal flow. Unprepared, on our return, we paddled hard against the tide and wind. Had we known, we would have turned around earlier or allowed more time.
Also be aware that if you hear a warning siren, it means that a dam gate is opening upstream and you are advised to monitor changes in water levels. (This is more likely during the rainy season.)
Directions to Ray’s Canoe Hideway: Located at 1247 Hagle Park Road, Bradenton, Florida. From Sarasota, take I-75 north, Exit 220A (SR 64) east to Upper Manatee River Road, go 4.5 miles to Hagle Park Road, turn north and follow the signs to Ray’s. From Bradenton, head east on SR 64 then north onto Upper Manatee River Road, go 4.5 miles to Hagle Park Road, turn north and follow the signs to Ray’s.
The beauty of kayaking the Manatee River
Despite being surrounded by suburbia, the Manatee River is quiet, natural and beautiful. After a cluster of houses around Ray’s launch site, you never pass a home the rest of the trip. On a weekday, we passed one fishing boat and saw no other paddlers.
There are plenty of birds to see — we were thrilled when a roseate spoonbill flew overhead. Others report spotting manatees and otters.
What impressed me about this river were the pure white sandbars along the shore, perfect places for picnics, wading and fishing. We saw several rope swings, confirming my belief that in summer this is a good place to swim. (I suspect there are alligators, however. We didn’t see any and while I don’t swim in such conditions, I know plenty of folks would and do.)
This is an easy paddle without tight turns or much maneuvering required.
Manatee River: Rye Preserve for a stop or alternative launch site
At 2.5 miles, you go under the only bridge you’ll see. It’s the site of the first bridge built across the Manatee River in 1880.
Just beyond the bridge is Rye Preserve on your left. (Watch for a sandy beach with a set of stairs climbing the steep bank.)
Rye Preserve is named for Erasmus Rye (1834-1889), a Virginia settler and Confederate soldier who is buried in an old cemetery you can reach on a trail here. This was the site of the community of Rye, now long gone. From 1875 to the early 1900s it was a thriving logging and farming settlement of 75 families. Erasmus Rye and his wife Mary Lucebia Williams raised 10 children here. (Here’s more about them.)
Rye Preserve was our turn-around spot and it makes a good destination for a paddle because it has restrooms, water, picnic tables and several hiking trails. Here’s a map of trails.
If you are interested in the old cemetery, the only sign there was once a town here, from the river, walk about a half mile to your right on the main park road to find the start of the green trail, which is .3 miles long through shaded woods.
Along that trail, you also see the narrow Rye branch, a tiny stream with white sandy bottom where we saw families with children playing in the water.
Rye Preserve is listed as an alternative launch site for the Upper Manatee River Paddling Trail. We originally thought we’d launch there because we had read the river is the prettiest upstream from here.
But the launch requires carrying your boat down some narrow stairs with sharp turns. We saw men with small single kayaks manage it. We had brought our old-school canoe, however, and there really is no way to safely get a canoe down to the river here.
We didn’t paddle the Manatee River beyond Rye Preserve, but we could see the narrower river would be shadier and provide a more intimate setting, so if you have an easy-to-handle kayak, you should consider launching at this free site.
Rye Preserve also offers tent camping.
Rye Preserve directions: Located at 905 Rye Wilderness Trail, Parrish, Florida. From Sarasota, take I-75 north, Exit 220A (SR 64) east to Upper Manatee River Road. Turn left at Rye Road, the first right after bridge. From Bradenton, head east on SR 64 to Upper Manatee River Road. The kayak launch is at the first parking lot on the right and down the trail and stairs, 200 yards.
(Note: It’s easy to confuse the Manatee River with another great kayaking trail, the Little Manatee River, which is 25 minutes east of here.)
Kayaking the Upper Manatee River: Links and resources
Paddle Manatee, a county guide to area paddling trails, including the Upper Manatee Paddling Trail. Above map is courtesy Paddle Manatee.
Rye Preserve, 905 Rye Wilderness Trail, Parrish, FL 34219.
Upper Manatee River Paddling Trail Guide from Florida Park Service
Ray’s Canoe Hideaway, 1247 Hagle Park Road, Bradenton
Things to do near the Manatee River
Emerson Point Preserve is an exceptional county park, off the beaten path on the southern end of Tampa Bay. There is excellent hiking and kayaking, and the real gem is the Portavant temple mound. It’s located where the Manatee River meets Tampa Bay.
We love the beaches and overall ambiance of Anna Maria Island, about 45 minutes away. Here’s a guide to things to do on Anna Maria Island.
Near Anna Maria Island, the picturesque fishing village of Cortez is an outstanding place to get fresh seafood and enjoy the ambiance of Old Florida. Here’s a guide to visiting Cortez, including my favorite fish shack there.
At the widest part of the Manatee River across the water from Emerson Point Preserve, you’ll find DeSoto National Memorial Park, 8300 Desoto Memorial Hwy, Bradenton, FL 34209. This is a national park, although quite small and modest. It has a spectacular location on the Manatee River and a well-done three-quarter-mile trail along the water and through the mangroves, telling the story of the indigenous people and the Spanish explorers. There is a small museum, not open during the pandemic. (During normal times, in the winter there is a living history program telling the story of the native Americans.) It’s free.
Kayaking Frog Creek in Palmetto. This is one of the best paddles you’ve never heard of. Your launch point is hidden behind a private campground in Palmetto. You can launch your own kayak ($10 fee) or rent one. What makes this paddle remarkable is that in one trip, it encompasses two completely different environments — a canopied fresh water cypress and oak creek with open water areas flowing into tidal salt water mangrove tunnels. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Frog Creek.
Gamble Mansion for Civil War history. The Gamble Mansion has white columns to rival Tara and was the site of a dramatic Civil War event. It’s the only antebellum mansion left in South Florida, and a good reminder of region’s history. While the grounds are open, the mansion itself is closed because of the pandemic. It’s about 20 minutes away from Ray’s Canoe Hideaway.
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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.