Not only is the Withlacoochee River wild and gorgeous, but it is also so long that you can return again and again to paddle different segments.
The Withlacoochee River, Florida’s fourth largest, is designated a Florida Outstanding Waterway and is unusual in that it flows north. It starts in the Green Swamp near Orlando and meanders largely through state forest and undeveloped land for 141 miles to empty into the Gulf in Yankeetown. The state-designated trail from Lacoochee to Dunnellon is 76 miles.
It ranks as one of Florida’s most scenic rivers, and yet the The Withlacoochee River is uncrowded and unspoiled.
We’ve paddled two segments of the Withlacoochee River, at its southern end starting in Nobleton, and at its northern end, with a base in Dunnellon. Both paddles were full of natural beauty and wildlife with almost no people or boats.
Kayaking the southern section of the Withlacoochee River
Within an hour of Orlando and Tampa, the Withlacoochee River meanders through an unspoiled cypress forest. On a sunny winter weekend when I visited, an 8-mile paddle involved seeing only one canoe. The count for alligators? Four.
This section winds through the Withlacoochee State Forest, a wild, natural region with many options for campgrounds and picnics.
We used canoe outfitters that are now closed (River Ratz, in case you see references to them elsewhere) to deliver our canoe eight miles upstream. Another outfitter, Withlacoochee River RV Park and Canoe Rental, appears to be serving this southern segment of the Withlacoochee and offering similar trips, as well as camping, both tent and RV.
The scenic Florida river is rich in history. Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto visited here — a mass grave near the river on the McGregor Smith Scout Reservation in evidence — and Seminole warrior Osceola frequented the region.
Kayaking the northern section of the Withlacoochee River
The outfitter we used in Dunellen, Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak, runs trips on both the Rainbow River and the Withlacoochee, and thanks to the dazzling clarity of the spring-fed Rainbow River, few people opt for the dark waters of the tannin-stained Withlacoochee River. To me, that’s a feature, not a bug. We loved the solitude.
On our 9-mile paddle on the Withlacoochee back to Dunnellon, we passed four or five smallish alligators, a tree full of woodstorks, and so many beautiful vistas with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss that we had to make ourselves stop taking pictures.
With shores lined by cypress swamp and knees, there are few places to stop for a picnic. If you use Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak, they’ll tell you about a great place to stop that is not a public facility but where they have permission to land.
About a half hour into the 9-mile trip, there is a nice stop on the left at Oxbow Recreation Area. It’s early for a picnic stop, but worth taking to stretch your legs. There is a loop hiking trail you can walk there too.
This section of Withlacoochee has only a few houses along the way, so the sights and sounds are of natural Florida at its best.
Things to do around the Withlacoochee River:
If you’re considering a weekend, bring your bike and pedal the nearby Withlacoochee bike trail. It’s a gem, and parallels the river much of the way. Here’s a Florida Rambler report on the Withlacoochee bike trail.
- Dunnellon as a base for Rainbow River and Withlacoochee
- Van Fleet bike trail: 29 miles of solitude in the Gree Swamp
- Dade Battlefield: Lovely spot to reconsider history
- Weeki Wachee springs: Canoe with manatees, see the mermaids.
- Rainbow River: Paddling a clear spring-fed river
- Best camping near Tampa: Lithia Springs
- Best camping near Orlando: Kelly Park
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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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.