If you think all there is to the Suwannee River is an old song with problematic lyrics, you’re missing out on one of Florida’s best experiences — Suwannee River kayaking and canoeing.
While it’s a long drive from some parts of Florida, if you can spare a couple of days, the Suwannee River will reward you with tranquility, beauty and a paddling trip that is different from rivers and streams elsewhere in Florida.
The Suwannee is a long river: It snakes 270 miles south and west from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia into the Gulf of Mexico. There are so many great segments to kayak or canoe, you could keep returning and not repeat yourself.
My first visit to the Suwannee was based in White Springs, in the Upper Suwannee River. We stayed in cabins at Stephen Foster Folk Center State Park and paddled a a day trip in a canoe we rented from American Canoe Adventures, which also shuttled us back to our car.
The outfitter offered eight trips, ranging from three miles ($37.50 for a canoe or double kayak) to nine miles ($52.50) and can customize longer and overnight trips, including guides, equipment and food delivery to campsites.
On our second Suwannee River kayaking and canoeing adventure, we returned to camp in the Suwannee River Camps, about which we reported in a separate story here.
For our daytrip, we chose an 8-mile trip starting at the US 41 bridge at White Springs, and every inch of it was unspoiled splendor. (Many consider the Upper Suwannee River between White Springs and Suwannee River State Park in Live Oak the most scenic part.)
The Suwannee River’s water is stained a deep orange from tannins from the vegetation. It has steep banks with occasional rock ledges and outcroppings of limestone. In some places, the water has carved the limestone into sharp blades and edges.
Along its banks, cypress trees, pines and live oaks are full of bird song. We saw cardinals, kingfishers, a lone gator and two deer. There are many sandy banks, ideal for picnics and camping.
On a sunny May Sunday with temperatures in the 70s, we passed only two other boats, both locals fishing. This stretch of Suwannee River is not wilderness, however. We saw an occasional dock or cabin and stopped to stretch our legs at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
One of our favorite stops was the old springhouse in that state park. It’s an odd structure built alongside the river and it’s easy to stop here and get out and walk around.
The springhouse dates from the heyday of White Springs, when White Sulphur Spring was believed to have medicinal or health benefits. (Native Americans considered it sacred and curative too.)
Starting in the mid-1800s, people came to White Springs by stage coach and railroad “to take the waters.” This tall structure on the Suwannee was once full of shops, dressing rooms and doctor’s exam rooms.
White Spring was so popular there were a half dozen hotels and visitors included Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Ford.
Today, the last of the historic hotels, the Telford, is closed and the slightly smelly spring is all that remains of that era.
Resources for Suwannee River kayaking and canoeing
- Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. Florida State Parks offers an exceptional resource for Suwannee paddlers — five river camps, and they’re free. Each camp has five raised, screened sleeping platforms, tent sites, hot showers and restrooms. The camps were built between 2003 and 2010. To make reservations at any of the river camps, call 1-800-868-9914. We had a great experience Suwanne River camping and here’s our report.
- We used American Canoe Adventures as our daytrip outfitter. If you bring your own kayak or canoe, you can arrange shuttle service through them.
- Interested in joining a group outing that provides support, transportation and camaraderie? PaddleFlorida.org organizes Suwannee trips every winter. In the past, the Sierra Club has also run Suwannee trips.
Suwannee River kayaking, camping and cabins
We stayed in terrific cabins in Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, where there are also highly rated campsites.
Here’s our report on Stephen Foster Folk Center State Park, its very odd and dated museum about Stephen Foster and its excellent cabins.
For reservations, call 1-800-326-3521 .
Other state parks along the Suwannee River with camping and/or cabins:
- Suwannee River State Park in Live Oak also has cabins and camping on the river.
- Fanning Springs State Park in Fanning Springs has cabins and primitive camping.
- Lafayette Blue Springs State Park in Mayo has cabins and tent camping.
- Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland has camping.
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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.