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Withlacoochee River: One of Florida’s longest and most scenic kayak trails

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 at Yankeetown. The state-designated kayak trail from Lacoochee to Dunnellon is 76 miles.

Cypress trees leafing out in spring make the Withlacoochee River a world of intense greens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Cypress trees leafing out in spring make the Withlacoochee River a world of intense greens. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Withlacoochee River is an important part of the the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an effort to preserve and connect wild land from the Everglades to Georgia.

The Withlacoochee ranks as one of Florida’s most scenic rivers, and yet it is uncrowded and unspoiled.

We’ve paddled three segments of the Withlacoochee River over the years: its very southern end, starting at Lacoochee, a middle section starting in Nobleton, and a northern section, in Dunnellon. All three paddle trips were full of natural beauty and wildlife with almost no people or boats.

withlacoochee river withlacoochee river cypress Withlacoochee River: One of Florida's longest and most scenic kayak trails
Withlacoochee River kayak and canoe trail: The southern sections of the trail pass through pristine cypress forests. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

If you’re planning a trip, use the state’s detailed map and its trail guide. Both have extensive information on places to launch and camp as well as shuttle services.

Kayaking the southern-most section of the Withlacoochee River

Within an hour of Orlando and Tampa, the Withlacoochee River trail begins at the Lacoochee boat ramp. On a beautiful January Thursday, the outfitter launched us here, assuring us this section was the most beautiful. She was right.

The current was swift and the river is narrower here with few houses. Perhaps it was the morning hour, but we saw more birds in this section than anywhere else. The river was quiet, like a mirror to the cypress trees, surrounding us in the river’s beauty.

Our most exciting sighting: Otters on two occasions.

Our canoe trip that day was long — 16 miles to Silver Lake Recreation Area — but there was no section that wasn’t stunningly beautiful.

The outfitter we used on this section is listed on the state’s Withlacoochee River Trail guide, but was difficult to contact and communicate with. The people there were very nice in person, but hard for me to recommend. Unfortunately, there are no other oufitters for this section.

The Withlacoochee River is among Florida's most scenic paddles. In this section we spotted otters twice. (Photo: David Blasco)
The Withlacoochee River is among Florida’s most scenic paddles. In this section of the river, we spotted otters twice. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking the middle section of the Withlacoochee

For the middle section, starting in Nobleton, we used a canoe outfitter a few years ago that appears to be closed now, River Ratz, to deliver our canoe eight miles upstream.

But while the restaurant at River Ratz closed several years ago, the outfitter still operates from there and you can arrange canoe and kayak rentals by appointment by phone: Famous Amos Kayak Rentals in Nobleton: 352-232-6116.

This too was a beautiful section of river, where we saw four alligators and no other boats or people in hours of paddling.

As the setting sun cast golden light on the Withlacoochee River, the fall foliage on the cypress trees were ablaze with color. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
As the setting sun cast golden light on the Withlacoochee River, the fall foliage on the cypress trees was ablaze with color. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Out and back kayak trips on the Withlacoochee River

Kayakers with their own boats also might try paddling upstream from a put-in spot and then using the river’s current for an easier return. (Always go upstream first.)

We saw out-and-back paddlers launching and returning to the Silver Lake Recreation Area, which is a wide lake lacking any current. (It’s adjacent to I-75 so traffic noise at the start.)

Withlacoochee River Silver Lake Recreation Area: This widening of the river is a good place to launch a kayak for an out-and-back paddle. The river narrows upstream and is quite beautiful. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Withlacoochee River Silver Lake Recreation Area: This widening of the river is a good place to launch a kayak for an out-and-back paddle. The river narrows upstream and is quite beautiful. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

We also saw kayakers launching from Pasco County Peterson Park,  21705 US-98, Dade City, FL 33523, which as parking but no restrooms.

If we had failed at lining up an outfitter, we were going to go to Hog Island Recreation Area and Campground for an out-and-back because it’s a particularly beautiful stretch of cypress-lined river. After you paddle upstream here, you can vary your return by going around the other side of the half-mile-long island.

Another promising out-and-back base would be Iron Bridge Recreation Area, 11050 SW 60th St. (Forest Road 13), Webster, FL 33597.

In winter 2023, the gorgeous lower section from Lacoochee would be a difficult out-and-back paddle, however, because of its swift current

The Withlacoochee River plays second fiddle to the Rainbow River, but it is exquisite. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Withlacoochee River near Dunnellon in fall colors. (Photo: David Blasco)

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 and scenery.

On our nine-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 nine-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.

Woodstorks along the Withlacoochee River near Dunnellon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Woodstorks along Withlacoochee near Dunnellon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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. Near the middle section of the Withlacoochee, there’s a fascinating place to discover: Chinsegut Hill Historic Site in Brooksville.

Other places nearby:

Dade Battlefield: Lovely spot to reconsider history

Dunnellon as a base for Rainbow River and Withlacoochee

Van Fleet bike trail: 29 miles of solitude in the Green Swamp

Weeki Wachee springs: Paddle 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

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Sonya

Friday 13th of November 2020

I’m new to the area. Thank you soooo much for taking the time to record your trips. It helps me decide where to go next!

Paul Wellen

Monday 8th of June 2020

Where is the best place to swim on the W. River, with easy access?

Calley Wilson

Thursday 10th of January 2019

Thank you so much for writing this. We are doing the same trip for the southern portion and I’ve been trying to find information about that segment of the river. This is extremely helpful- thank you!!

Wes Calhoun

Thursday 4th of October 2018

The 7-mile trail mentioned in this "Kayaking the southern section" is no longer maintained by Florida Trail Association.

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