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Peace River: Canoeing here is a special Florida adventure

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.

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.

Cypress trees along Peace River in Florida only six months after extreme flooding. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Cypress trees along Peace River in Florida only six months after extreme flooding. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s also popular because it is an easy, tranquil paddle and because it is outright gorgeous. It is lined with oak trees hung with Spanish moss and cypress trees and knees. Campers can do multi-day paddles and feel they’re in the wild (though civilization is not far away.)

The Peace River is an archaeological treasure trove, too. Fossil hunters frequent its banks, seeking prehistoric shark teeth and other remnants from eras long past.

Canoeing on the Peace River in Florida just below Brownville Park in Arcadia. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Canoeing on the Peace River in Florida just below Brownville Park in Arcadia. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

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.

An alligator on a sandbar while canoeing the  Peace River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
An alligator, one of a dozen we saw while canoeing, suns on a sandbar on the Peace River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Peace River limestone and spring peace river Peace River: Canoeing here is a special Florida adventure
Limestone outcropping along the Peace River, with water trickling out that suggests it is an artesian spring. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Cows take a dip in the Peace river, unbothered by kayaks passing by. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Cows take a dip in the Peace river, unbothered by kayaks passing by. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 south of 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 this section 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 lagoon oak hill on peace river Peace River: Canoeing here is a special Florida adventure
About two hours upstream from the Canoe Outpost in Arcadia, the company owns a beautiful expanse of land called Oak Hill. The land wraps around a small bay that is called the lagoon. Individual or groups can reserve a campsite here and paddle to it on the 8 or 12 mile trip. Campsites have picnic tables, fire rings and share a porta-potty. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are also camping facilities near the river for both car campers with tents and RVs. These include:

Peace River Campground, 2998 N.W. Highway 70 Arcadia, Florida 34266, 863-494-9693. This campground is adjacent to the Peace River Canoe Outpost.

Thousand Trails, 2555 River Road, Wauchula, FL 33873, 863-735-8888. This is about 20 miles upstream from the Peace River Canoe Outpost.

Peace River fossil hunting

Many paddlers enjoy sifting for fossils, including shark teeth, which are said to be abundant. (We tried but gave up quickly; 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.

Debris stuck in the tree tops is one of the few tipoffs to the fact that flood waters reached that high a few months ago. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Debris stuck in the tree tops is one of the few tipoffs to the fact that flood waters from Hurricane Ian in 2022 reached that high. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 dock at Canoe Outpost Peace River in Arcadia. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The dock at Canoe Outpost Peace River in Arcadia. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Peace River’s flooding after Hurricane Ian

Canoe Outpost Peace River was severely flooded after Hurricane Ian. The red arrow shows how high the water reached on the outfitter's office. (Photo courtesy Canoe Outpost Peace River.)
Canoe Outpost Peace River was severely flooded after Hurricane Ian in 2022. The red arrow shows how high the water reached on the outfitter’s office. (Photo courtesy Canoe Outpost Peace River.)

It was heartbreaking 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.

Since then, the Peace River has recovered; it’s hard to tell there ever was a 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.

Planning your trip to Peace River, Florida

  • 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.
  • 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

Lake Placid charms with murals, clowns and some good eatin

Myakka River State Park: 10 reasons to visit this big, wild state park

Punta Gorda: 11 things to do in an Old Florida riverfront town

U-pick farms in Florida: Blueberries to figs; fresh & fun


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James Jordan

Saturday 6th of April 2024

4.5.24: Loved our kayak trip from Brownsville Park: great ramp, nice shade in the park (but not on the river), fantastic (& relatively clean) old school restrooms -- with a shower! River level was quite low: 21" below (check Outpost website); had to walk our kayak past several limestone "reefs" and sunken logs, so keep an eye out for passable channels. Upstream route, 2 miles, very secluded for the most part. Fairly strong current; 4 curious gators (check before beaching anywhere), grey heron, hawks and vultures high in a cloudless blue sky.

Post-trip tip: Brownsville is surrounded by Old Florida: cattle, veggie fields, abandoned farms, a couple of farmers' markets, and citrus groves. Check your map for the backroads and take every little jig-jog twist and turn -- it's worth a slow trip home.

Mi

Monday 1st of May 2023

Is the canoeing peaceful and away from the Air boats and off road vehicles?

Bonnie Gross

Monday 1st of May 2023

Yes. Very much so.

James Jordan

Sunday 12th of March 2023

Question, re post-Ian conditions: we run inflatable, heavy duty kayaks, but are obviously concerned about debris (trees, etc) in the water. Any trip reports on this specific topic would be appreciated, as we are going to give it a try in the last week of March 2023 to patronize the Outpost and locals. Thanks very much. James

Bonnie Gross

Sunday 12th of March 2023

James, we did not experience mush debris in the water (it was mostly in the trees!) during our Peace River paddle in mid-February. Water levels are unquestionably lower now (wow has it been dry) so you might be hitting shallow sections. But I don't think your issues will be with debris.

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