Picture of kayakers exploring the Saltwater Appalachian Trail on the panhandle of Florida

Kayakers with Journey’s St. George Island explore the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, the state's longest sea kayaking trail.

Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, or CT, is the state's longest sea kayaking trail. Referred to as the saltwater version of the Appalachian Trail, the 1,515-mile route is divided into 26 segments. Experienced, long-distance kayakers can thru-paddle the entire trail in four or five months. Others conquer the CT over several months or years, or kayak a single segment.

Segment 1: Pensacola/Fort Pickens

This opening segment is where thru-paddlers typically start or end their journeys, yet it's also an ideal stretch to sample what the CT is all about, says Doug Alderson, assistant bureau chief for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Greenways and Trails. "Besides the pristine nature of Big Lagoon State Park and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, what strikes me about this segment is the history," he adds. "You pass between Fort Barrancas on the mainland and Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, where you can stop and walk through the fort." And if you encounter trouble crossing Pensacola Bay here, you'll want to improve your open-water paddling skills before attempting more segments of the CT.

Segment 14: Everglades/Florida Bay

One of the CT's two wilderness segments (the other is Segment 6, Big Bend Coast) the Everglades/Florida Bay section offers two options: an island route along Florida Bay and a more sheltered inland route along the Wilderness Waterway. "The island route is highly scenic and generally less buggy," says Alderson. "And once you pop out of the maze of mangroves from Everglades City, navigation is fairly easy with a GPS and map." As you paddle, what may be most surprising is what you don't see. "Except for some porta-potties and a couple of camping shelters, there are no structures—no houses or condos—for a hundred miles of coast," says Alderson. "How many places can you do that along the Gulf of Mexico?"

Segment 26: Timucuan Trails/Fort Clinch

It's fitting that this history-rich section of the CT begins, or ends, at Fort Clinch, one of the nation's best preserved 19th-century forts. Spend at least three days paddling the route to allow ample time to stop and tour places such as Kingsley Plantation and the Ribault Club. "Near the end of the trail, Old Fernandina is a must-stop," says Alderson. "This place may have changed hands more than any other Florida city, with eight flags once flying along its harbor. Stop here to learn about the somewhat obscure East Florida Patriot War of 1812."

TRAVEL TIPS

When to Go: October through April

What to Bring: Pack for a wilderness sea kayaking experience using the "Recommended Gear and Safety Equipment for Extended Trips" list prepared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Office of Greenways and Trails.

Where to Go: Review the route segment guide to choose a portion of the CT that fits your kayaking abilities and interests and to learn about safety precautions related to tides, rocks, boat traffic, and other potential hazards in that segment.

Practical Tip: Long-distance sea kayaking is strenuous and presents many challenges. Before tackling any section of the CT, gradually build strength, fitness, and skills by taking shorter sea kayaking trips.

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