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Ocklawaha River: Kayak or canoe a river that was saved

The Ocklawaha River almost died, but kayaking one of its pristine sections, you’d barely know it now.

This section of the Ocklawaha River near Ocala forms the western border of Ocala National Forest. Here the Ocklawaha is wild, pristine, profoundly quiet and lined with ancient cypress trees. It’s the sort of the place where in an eight-mile kayak trip, we saw one beer can, two man-made structures and dozens of birds, turtles and gators.

At top, a portion of the Cross Florida Barge Canal that was completed, representing what the Ocklawaha could look like today. Below, what it actually looks like today.
At top, a portion of the Cross Florida Barge Canal that was completed, representing what the Ocklawaha River could look like today. Below, what it actually looks like today. (Photo: FloridaRambler.com.)

This Ocklawaha River could easily be gone, however.

By all rights, it should have been obliterated by the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a construction project that would have turned this lovely wildlife-filled river into a wide, dead, industrialized channel.

Construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a shortcut for ships between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, began in 1964. Its proposed route followed the Ocklawaha River and would have widened and channelized it. It was never finished, though, thanks to opposition from Florida environmentalists.

The only sign of that project on the Oklawaha River are its huge bridges – towering structures that are a strange site in the middle of a forest and over only a small river. The bridges were designed to allow big barges to pass under. The canal project was killed in 1971 after it was almost a third complete.

Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River.
Our picnic site amid cypress trees and knees on the Ocklawaha River. (Photo: David Blasco)

The land along the river, which was purchased for the canal, has become the one-mile wide Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. This corridor allows black bears, deer, bobcats, otters and other wildlife, which is plentiful, to move freely. It’s named in honor of the woman who led the fight to save the river.

Today, there’s a new fight for the Ocklawaha, a movement to return the natural flow of the river reconnecting it to the the St. Johns Rivers by removing or breaching the Rodman’s dam. Here’s more about the “free the Ocklawaha” cause, which has gained support among environmental and other groups over recent years.

Kayaking the wild sections of the Ocklawaha River

When I decided to paddle the Ocklawaha a few years ago, I only vaguely knew the history. I was merely looking for a pretty river near Ocala to explore. The Ocklawaha River delivered, and I recommend it as one of Florida’s less well-known kayaking destinations.

There’s a steady current, so with livery service and a one-way route, it was an easy and relaxing paddle. Fallen trees and limbs have been cut to allow small boats to pass. Much of the Oklawaha’s water comes from the spring-fed Silver River, so lower portions of the river have spring-like clear water with fish visible.

The tall bridge over the Ocklawaha was built as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The construction was stopped, but the strange over-sized bridges remain.
The tall bridge over the Ocklawaha River was built as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The construction was stopped, but the strange over-sized bridge remains. (Photo: David Blasco)

We arranged our trip through Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort, which also rents six cabins that sleep up to six and has spaces for RV and tent camping.

On a December weekday, We took the most popular trip, the four-hour paddle from Gores Landing north to the outpost. You could easily spend more time on this trip if you explored the tributaries and stopped to take photos.

The Ocklawaha (which is unusual in that it flows north) is a long river, so there are many options for paddling trips. The outfitter offers trips of different lengths, including two- and three-day overnight trips with camping at primitive sites along the river. There are also several launch sites that would be good places for an out-and-back paddles not requiring a livery service.

We saw just one other boat the day we visited. We saw uncountable turtles, a dozen alligators and a variety of birds including our favorites that day: kingfishers flitting about with their big heads and rattling call.

Flowers bloomed along the shore of the Ocklawaha River.
Flowers bloomed along the shore of the Ocklawaha River. (Photo: David Blasco)

There are several nearby spring-fed streams that might beat the Ocklawaha for sheer beauty – the Silver River and Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest, for example. But the Ocklawaha River is the only one of the three that lends itself to a multi-day outing with primitive camping; the only one where you can be immersed in nature for several days.

Paddling the eight-mile section of the river, I had the feeling I was far from the commercial world. The space seemed vast, with no telltale highway sounds or power lines to bring me back to daily life.

And the Ocklawaha is worth experiencing because it’s nice to celebrate that it’s still there.

Tips for planning a trip on the Ocklawaha River

Cute cabin at Ocklawaha Outpost near Ocala.
Cute cabin at Ocklawaha Outpost near Ocala. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost Resort, 15260 NE 152nd Place, Fort McCoy, FL 32134. 352-236-4606 or 866-236-4606.
  • Ocklawaha River map from Canoe Outpost
  • The half-day liveried paddle trip I took from Gores Landing can be done in canoes, double kayaks or single kayak.
  • There are also options for a one-night camping trip and a two-night trip with two nights on the river.
  • Cabins at the Ocklawaha Outpost are efficiently designed and cute but very compact. The outpost also offers RV full hook-ups.
  • Oklawaha Outpost will provide livery service if you bring your own canoe or kayak. Call for details: 352-236-4606 or 866-236-4606.
  • A less expensive non-liveried alternative would be to bring your own kayak or canoe and put in at Gores Landing, where primitive camping is available for $5 a night. It’s not to hard to paddle upstream and back for a pretty trip on the Ocklawaha River.
We pulled our canoe onto land on a small off-shoot of the Ocklawaha and walked a ways down this lovely lane through the forest.
We pulled our canoe ashore along the Ocklawaha River and explored a ways down this lovely forest lane. (Photo: David Blasco)

Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest

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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