Photograph by Mark J. Barrett, Alamy
Florida's wilderness canoe and kayaking trails provide access to unspoiled areas: primeval forests, mangrove hammocks, and swamps and rivers teeming with life. Relax and recharge by spending a day paddling to the natural rhythms of the wild.
Ochlockonee River State Park, Sopchoppy
Launch a canoe or kayak (rentals available) from Ochlockonee River State Park to explore miles and miles of tidal marsh and swale, freshwater rivers and streams, brackish ecosystems, or the Ochlockonee Bay and Gulf of Mexico. Surrounded by the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the park is located in an underdeveloped area of Florida's northern Gulf Coast. "Ochlockonee is special because of what it does not have and what it represents," says Ochlockonee River State Park manager Robert Steele. "You can escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with nature in a setting that appears to be from a description written by the first European explorers who visited this area." For a half-day adventure, follow the 7.5-mile Bear Creek Paddling Trail, a loop beginning and ending at the park's swimming area.
Juniper Run, Ocala National Forest, Ocala
Only canoes are permitted on Juniper Run, a seven-mile, serpentine paddling trail through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area to a take-out point off state road 19. A tightly packed canopy of old-growth forest shades the run, where you're likely to see alligators, turtles, and other wildlife. While the primeval setting offers a glimpse of old Florida, the trip is "not for the faint of heart," says Antoinette "Tonee" Davis, a U.S. Forest Service natural resource specialist. "Due to the designation of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area, maintenance of the run is limited to nonmechanically operated devices," she explains. "Often, logs and hanging tree limbs are left in and above the run, making it difficult, at times, to navigate." The most popular times to paddle the run are fall and winter, when temperatures are cooler and biting insects are less common. If you do make a spring or summer canoe trek, cool off first with a swim in the clear, azure waters of Juniper Spring. The swimming hole is conveniently located at the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, the starting point for the Juniper Run.
How to Get Around: At Juniper Springs Recreation Area, the canoe launch opens at 8 a.m. and canoe rentals ($33.00 plus tax and including shuttle) are available until 11:30 a.m. With a rented canoe, you must begin your trip by 11:45 a.m. to arrive at the take-out point in time for the day's last shuttle. At Ochlockonee River State Park, ask about kayak rentals at the entrance gate.
What Not to Bring: In an effort to maintain the integrity of the Juniper Springs Wilderness Area, disposable containers, take-out trays, foil, plastic cups, wrappers, etc., are not permitted on the canoe run.
Practical Tip: When launching a canoe or kayak from Ochlockonee River State Park, it's important to note that posted tide charts for the area are projected tides for the mouth of the Ochlockonee Bay. The actual tides in and around the park lag behind the posted times by about 90 minutes.
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