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Spruce Creek paddle: A diamond in the rough

Spruce Creek at Strickland Bay
Spruce Creek at Strickland Bay

The railroad bridge is your landmark. It spans the mouth of Spruce Creek as it flows into Strickland Bay.

Beyond the bridge is a 7-mile snake known as Spruce Creek, once a pristine waterway lined with live oaks, sable palms and majestic hardwoods as it wound through the wilderness west of Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach.

Strickland Bay from Spruce Creek Park
Strickland Bay from Spruce Creek Park

Just 15 years ago, the only nearby development I can remember was the Spruce Creek Fly-In, once a lonely landing strip deep in the woods on a lonely road with a dozen or so houses where you could land your plane and taxi to your front door.

Today, the area is overflowing with new subdivisions and new schools, suburban sprawl from nearby Daytona Beach, and more houses than ever are encroaching on the creek. But there’s still plenty left to enjoy with portions of the creek set aside as a preserve.

It’s a pleasant, peaceful paddle, and beautiful stretches remain. Indeed, it could be argued that much of the development to date has been respectful of the eco-system, and aside from the docks jutting out into the waterway, most of the homes have attractive landscaping with tall legacy trees with dense vegetation.

Commentary: New I-95 interchange could add to Spruce Creek’s woes

Spruce Creek Lower Creek Access Points

Strickland Bay bridge launch
Strickland Bay Bridge launch site

Access Point 1 — Strickland Bay Bridge ramp – This is a unimproved access point on the east side of U.S. 1, just before the bridge crossing the Strickland Bay wetlands (2.2 miles north of the entrance road to the New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport). An easy pull-off with some parking, this is a popular launch for small boats, kayaks and canoes. The one thing I don’t like about it is your parked vehicle is in full view of a busy highway. This is where I launched my yak. Even at low tide, the water is deep enough for a shallow draft boat to weave through the oyster bars, under U.S. 1 and out into Strickland Bay.  This launch site is open 24/7.

Access Point 2 — Divito Road launch – Almost directly across U.S. 1 from Access Point 1, you’ll see a sign for “Divito Street,”  a hard-pack sand road that seems to disappear into the woods. There is no sign signaling that there is a public park back there, but there is! When you drive back there, you’ll come to a T and a split rail fence along the water. Just below the fence is a narrow, long beach that is ideal for launching a kayak. This park is unmarked, but the parks department garbage can is a dead giveaway. I really like this spot and will launch there next time. There is a gate at U.S. 1 that closes off access to Divito Street after 7:30 p.m.

Kayak launch at Spruce Creek Park
Spruce Creek Park launch

Access Point 3Spruce Creek ParkHigh Tide Only! On the north side of the twin U.S. 1 Spruce Creek/Strickland Bay bridges is this well-marked passive Volusia County park with parking, hiking trails, a kayak/canoe launch and a long fishing pier. I really like this park, especially the fishing pier, but you should not launch or take out here near low tide. The narrow channel that goes out through the grass is very muddy, and you’ll sink to your knees if you have to get out of your boat. But the view of Strickland Bay, marshes and grass savannah from the pier is absolutely stunning. Worth a stop, even if you don’t launch here. It’s a great place to pause to view the abundant wildlife, especially in early morning. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Spruce Creek Upper Creek Access Points

The upper portion of Spruce Creek was once accessible to kayaks and canoes from a dirt pull-off alongside the South Williamson Blvd. bridge. That access is long gone, and I searched hard for a public ramp. But the only place to launch your kayak on the upper creek is at Cracker Creek Canoeing, a private livery that offers a boat ramp, kayak and canoe rentals, pontoon boat tours, group camping and shady grounds for weekend outings.

Launch at Cracker Creek Canoeing
Cracker Creek Canoeing

Access Point 4Cracker Creek Canoeing. This privately owned, well-shaded park is at 1795 Taylor Road, Port Orange, west of I-95. (Taylor Road is the western extension of Dunlawton Blvd.) There is a $5 launch fee for your own boat, and you can rent kayaks or canoes at a reasonable rate. Kayaks are $18 for one hour, $24 for two hours. Similarly, canoes are $24 for one hour, $36 for two hours. This section of Spruce Creek is gorgeous with little development (although I could hear the pounding of hammers through the woods). I found owner Jill Williams to be very friendly.

Paddling through Strickland Bay and up Spruce Creek

I launched from the Strickland Bay bridge ramp in mid-morning with the tide going out, but despite the low levels I didn’t have any problem paddling around visible oyster bars to the bridge, then up into Strickland Bay.

You can see the railroad bridge from the highway, and although it disappears behind the saltwater marsh when you are sitting at water level in a yak, it’s fairly easy to get your bearings before you launch.

Railroad bridge at Spruce Creek
Railroad bridge marks entrance to Spruce Creek from Strickland Bay

There are oyster bars everywhere, so work around them to the left after going under U.S. 1 and follow the deeper water into the open bay, which grows to great expanse to the south and north. You’ll notice some markers that define leaseholds for oyster beds. If you choose to harvest oysters along the way, stay outside the markers that define the leases. The oystermen pay for those leases, and they work hard for their living, so give their leaseholds wide berth.

As I crossed the bay towards the railroad bridge, now clearly visible, I paused several times to take in the wildlife that thrives in this environment – tailing redfish near the oyster bars, mullet leaping to cleanse their skin by slapping back to the surface, hawks gliding on the breeze, egrets pecking at oysters while other shorebirds and waders work through their morning rituals.

Rambler Tip: Water shoes are essential gear. Mosquito repellent is advisable near dusk or dawn, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

You could spend an entire day exploring and fishing in Strickland Bay, and many do. I easily saw a dozen fishing kayaks slowly working their way into little cuts in the marsh and along the shoreline, sidling up alongside the oyster bars in hopes of catching the elusive drum or sea trout.

It’s a testament to the strong sun bearing down on these waters that all were wearing face and neck coverings to protect themselves from the rays. If you spend more than an hour out here, you should consider the same.

Spruce Creek, Strickland Bay and Turnbull Bay.

Off to the south spreads Turnbull Bay, which widens out into a New Smyrna Beach neighborhood of waterfront homes and docks. To the north spreads Strickland Bay, and that’s where I headed.

Strickland Bay is where the freshwater from Spruce Creek flows into the saltwater tidal areas, creating a brackish water that feeds on biodiversity. Although I did not fish on this trip, others familiar with the estuary say it is flush with both fresh and saltwater species.

I paused when I reached the railroad bridge to gauge the water flow to the outgoing tide, identifying the deepest points and more manageable currents. Even so, I found myself dragging along an oyster bar on the other side and had to get out of the yak to walk it over to deeper water.

The next time I’ll stay farther to the right of the sign that seemed to mark a channel. (Not so.)

As you paddle up the creek, you witness a remarkable change in the vegetation as the mangrove and grasses in the bay give way to live oaks and palms along a shoreline pockmarked with long docks that extend from houses hidden in the trees.

This is pretty much standard along much of the lower creek, which winds another 6 miles west to Cracker Creek Canoeing’s launch and take-out. I paddled about a mile, then turned back so that I could drive up to Cracker Creek and check out the other end.

It’s worth noting that the return trip to Strickland Bay required extra effort against an easterly breeze on the bay’s open water, even though I was on an outgoing tide. Open-water paddlers know that drill.

Cracker Creek and Gamble Place

Once my kayak was loaded back onto my truck rack, I headed down U.S. 1 to Nova Road, then over to Dunlawton, where I turned west towards I-95.  From there, Cracker Creek is a straight shot. 

Once you drive under I-95, Dunlawton changes to Taylor Road.  From this point, Cracker Creek is another 1.5 miles on the left.  (If you are going to Cracker Creek directly from I-95, use Exit 256 to State Road 421 West, which is Taylor Road.)

Access to Cracker Creek is a shellrock road through the woods off Taylor. You’ll first come to Gamble Place, 175-acre historic property built in 1907 by James N. Gamble (Procter & Gamble) for a winter retreat.

Gamble Place. (Photo courtesy Cracker Creek)

Gamble Place no longer offers self-guided tours, but group tours of 10 people or more are available. The cracker-style home and outlying buildings were built in 1907 as a winter retreat for James N. Gamble (Procter and Gamble) and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Call Cracker Creek for tour information: (386)304-0778

Just past the gates to the Gamble Place is the entrance to Cracker Creek Canoeing.

Unfortunately, my plans to paddle the upper Spruce Creek were spoiled because I was visiting on a Monday, and Cracker Creek is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

But owner Jill Williams was there to cater a birthday luncheon, so she allowed me to wander the grounds, view the launch ramp and slip down a few trails through the woods.

If you are bringing your own kayak, canoe or paddle board, there is a nominal fee. And while the ramp is 100 yards or so from the parking area, Jill says you can drive down to the ramp and drop off your boat unless the sandy road is too dry, lest you get stuck.

The creek here is narrow and well-shaded, and like most slow-flowing Florida creeks and rivers, curvy. I really wish I could have gotten into the water for a better look. Next time.

Cracker Creek is designed for weekend or summer outings with the family. They have an outdoor café, group camping and a motorized pontoon boat that gives tours of the creek, and plenty of canoes and kayaks to rent.

Pontoon Boat Eco-History Tours: Explore diverse habitats and eco-systems associated with this blackwater cypress swamp. Learn about the earliest visitors and settlers. Tour Cost: $12 per adult  |  $10 per senior adult (age 65 and older)  | $8 per child (age 12 and under). Reservations required. Call (386)304-0778

There are five group camping sites that can accommodate 20 to 30 tents each, but by the looks of the sites, I think they would be too crowded with 30 tents. Jill said the smallest group size would be 10 people. Recreational vehicles are OK, she said, but there is only one water tap and one electric box per group site.

There is also a picnic pavilion with a grill and campfire, and the café serves breakfast and lunches, but only days the property is open (Wednesday through Sunday).

For more information, call Jill at 386-304-0778 or visit their web site.

What about a Spruce Creek shuttle?

To me, the ideal paddle would be to start at Cracker Creek and paddle the 7 miles downstream to the U.S. 1 access points around Strickland Bay, so I asked Jill if they provide a shuttle service.

“Very few do that,” she said. “Most people just come for a couple of hours.”

She suggested two vehicles. Keep one on Strickland Bay and launch from Cracker Creek.

Useful Links for Spruce Creek

More things to see and do near Spruce 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 by following the applicable links in this article.

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