The Peace River was one of the first rivers I canoed on moving to Florida. For at least five decades, it’s where the Scouts, the church groups, families and groups of friends go kayaking or canoeing, often camping on a sandbar.
There’s no question its popularity over the years is a result of the services of Canoe Outpost Peace River, an Arcadia-based outfitter that has operated it since the 1970s and is now on its third generation. Canoe Outpost has a fleet of buses to transport groups and has honed its operation over the years.
It was heartbreaking, then, to see the severe flooding on the Peace River and Canoe Outpost in the days after Hurricane Ian in September, 2022. The river, which is considered at flood stage at 11 feet, reached 28 feet. At Canoe Outpost, water lapped at the rooftop of its buildings. When the water receded, staff worked seven days a week to repair and rebuild, and it still took two months. Canoe Outpost reopened in early December.
So how is the Peace River and the Outpost now?
It all looks great; it is amazing to see how little evidence you see of the flood. The most telltale sign: As you paddle the Peace River, you’ll see occasional debris high in the tree tops and a random appliance or two wedged several feet up a river bank.
If I hadn’t known about the flood, I wouldn’t have given that debris a second thought – because the Peace River is as gorgeous as ever, lined with oak trees hung with Spanish moss and cypress trees and knees.
Kayaking or canoeing the Peace River
The Peace River is a slow-moving tannic stream that stretches from Bartow, traveling about 100 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Punta Gorda. It tends to have high banks and is known for its fossils. (More on that later.)
The section that is most suitable for kayaks and canoes is between Zolfo Springs and Arcadia, a 31.5 mile stretch. Canoe Outpost Peace River runs canoe trips of varying lengths between those two points, including overnight trips. Day trips can be done in 5-, 8- and 12-mile runs.
North of Zolfo Springs, the river often is too shallow and there are more obstructions, but Canoe Outpost does serve that area when conditions allow and by special arrangement.
My family has paddled various sections of the Peace including camping. My most recent trip was the popular 8-mile downstream paddle from Brownville to Arcadia, which is about a three or four hour run that you might stretch out all day by enjoying the sandbars and fossil hunting.
The day we paddled, the Peace River was seven feet below normal, exposing sandbars and river banks.
We had a sunny February Friday with weather in the 70s. The 10 a.m. bus trip to drop people off upstream had 30 or 40 people onboard with the majority planning to camp overnight. About eight other canoes started with us at the day-trip launch site, Brownville Park, but any fear that there might be too many people around was soon eliminated. The canoes spread out and we saw three or four other boats the whole day.
I loved how the Peace River offers just that – peace and quiet. There were no road sounds or manmade sounds of any kind. Most of the way, there are cabins on the banks but most appeared unoccupied this day.
At some points in the river, lovely limestone formations emerge from the banks and bottom of the river. We also believe we saw two or three spots where clear water trickled into the Peace in a little streamlet, and it sure looked like an artesian spring to us. (I was surprised.)
Our constant companions were kingfishers darting along the whole way and a great blue heron around every bend. There were plenty of other birds and birdsong was always in the air, including an owl, hawks and various heron and egrets.
We saw at least a dozen alligators, most on the small side, and a few cows. On previous trips where we paddled a more northern stretch and camped, we saw deer several times and a wild boar.
The Peace River is a popular river with folks who have little paddling experience. It makes a good intro river. There are no obstacles, so steering is minimal. With low-water conditions, common in the winter, there’s a gentle current so paddling is easy. There are alligators, but the river is wide enough that if you’re afraid of them, you can keep your distance.
Peace River camping
The Peace River is popular for canoe campers and kayak campers. It’s the rare place were you can canoe-camp in the area below Orlando. Campers often paddle the Zolfo Springs to Gardner stretch, which is 19.5 miles. It’s easy to find primitive campsites here, as the river has lower banks adjoining grassy meadows. (I also think that makes it a little less scenic.)
When we camped with Canoe Outpost services, we were given good instructions on where to camp. Sites were plentiful and most have fire pits. There are no other facilities, of course, and Canoe Outpost distributes detailed instructions on “making wee-wee in the woods” – we’re talking a full 8 ½ x 11 inch sheet of text.
An especially easy camping option is available on the southern segment about two hours before you would reach Arcadia. Canoe Outpost owns a gorgeous stretch of riverfront atop a bluff with campsites called Oak Hill. You are welcome to stop for lunch here, as we did, but you must reserve a spot with them to camp. There is a single portable toilet for a large camping area.
Canoe Outpost will transport your tent, coolers, camp chairs and other gear and deliver it to your campsite for a $50 fee. (You put your stuff in a trailer and it’s waiting when you arrive. When you go to leave, you pack it back in the trailer and paddle back to your car, where it will await you.)
Peace River fossil hunting
Many paddlers enjoy sifting for fossils, including shark teeth, which are said to be abundant. (We tried but gave up within five minutes; we didn’t have a sifting screen.)The fossils are the remains of ancient marine organisms deposited on the floor of the ocean between 5 million and 26 million years ago.
The general advice on Peace River fossil hunting is to sift through gravel in shallow water. It is against the law to dig in the sandy river banks, because erosion is already a problem. Canoe Outpost sells sifters and laminated fossil-ID guides.
You can collect shark’s teeth – small black triangles generally the size of your pinkie finger. But collecting other fossils, such as teeth of mastodon, three-toed horse or saber-tooth tiger, said to also be scattered in the river, requires a $5 fee and a Florida license. The application form can be downloaded here.
The fossil layers at the Peace River also contain phosphate, which is used in making fertilizer. This part of Florida was mined for phosphates starting in the 1880s and the Peace River and environs were heavily strip-mined with steam shovels. Fortunately, there’s little evidence of the mining left.
Planning your trip to Peace River, Florida
- The Peace River is one of 45 designated by Florida as paddling trails.
- Here’s a PDF of a map of the Peace River Paddling Trail.
- The website for Canoe Outpost is being rebuilt but you can reach the outfitters at (863) 494-1215 or use their Facebook page, which offers extensive information, including times and prices under the “services” section.
- Note: The water level of the Peace River can vary greatly (as the flood attests) and affects your kayak trip. Check Canoe Outfitters’ Facebook page for a daily update on the water level.
- Prices at Canoe Outpost Peace River: As of February, 2023, the prices listed are $55 for a canoe or kayak day trip rental and $90 for an overnight rental.
Things to do nearby when you kayak Peace River
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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.