Andrew Peloquin August 12, 2022
August 12, 2022
Ahh, Florida: the Sunshine State, home to some of the most beautiful wildlife and nature sights in the country.
In Florida, you can paddle through the Everglades, alongside dolphins, past gators and crocodiles, up the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, among the mangroves, down wild rivers, and around gorgeous lakes.
Best of all, thanks to the above-average temperatures and humidity of Florida, you’ve got a longer kayaking season than anywhere else in the country!
If you’re looking for the best places to go kayaking in Florida, you’re in luck! We’ve put together a complete list of the best kayaking spots in the Sunshine State, along with places you can find kayaking tours. We’ve even got tips that’ll help you be safe when paddling in Florida and a handy-dandy guide to the local laws.
Get ready for some of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring paddling adventures of your life!
15 Best Places to Go Kayaking in Florida
1. Shell Key Preserve in Tampa Bay
This 1,828-acre wildlife preserve is truly a spectacular place to spend a day (or an entire weekend!) paddling. Protected by a 195-acre barrier island, the preserve is so remote that much of it can only be accessed from the water—meaning you’ll be able to kayak to your own pristine, private beach to spend a day in the sun.
In the preserve, you can paddle alongside both manatees and dolphins, and enjoy some of the most gorgeous crystal clear waters around. You can also tackle tough mangrove forests and test your skill in the tight confines of these beautiful trees. Make sure to look down, too: in the water, you’ll find all manner of gorgeous colorful fish, crustaceans, and even starfish.
2. Indian Key in Islamorada
If you want to take your paddling trip offshore, kayak out to Indian Key, an uninhabited island just off the coast of Islamorada (off the Overseas Highway). It can only be accessed by water, and it’s close enough off-shore that it’s a short paddle (just 20-30 minutes) but far enough from the rest of the world that it feels like you’re alone in a tropical paradise.
There is a walking tour of the island available (self-guided) that takes you through the ruins of a village from the 19th century (nearly 200 years old!). Snorkelers will love the marine wildlife around the island, too. The water is shallow and clear, but there’s a chance that if you’re lucky, you might spot a stingray or shark.
3. Winter Park Lakes in Winter Park
The Winter Park chain of lakes isn’t actually a lake at all. It’s a series of man-made canals that wend a sinuous path through the city, cutting through both gorgeous estates and natural wildlife hotspots.
Enjoy paddling down the canal surrounded by lush vegetation, wading birds nesting in the nearby trees, fish swimming alongside you, even turtles sunning on the rocks. All of this while luxuriating in the natural shade and shelter cast by the overhanging trees. It’s a divine escape from the Florida heat and a truly unique way to see this lovely city from a brand new perspective.
4. Suwanee River in Live Oak
In the north of Florida, you’ll find few spots better for kayaking adventures than the Suwanee River. As the only Class III rapids in Florida, it’s the ideal place for whitewater kayakers looking to tackle a true challenge.
But if you’re not that adventurous or skilled yet, don’t worry! Most of the river is Class I (flat and calm), and it’ll be easy to avoid the rapids to enjoy a calm, relaxing day exploring the river.
The river is home to alligators (among other wildlife), making it an excellent adventure for anyone who wants to paddle alongside these Florida natives. You’ll also find plenty of private spots for camping, gorgeous white sand beaches, and some of the most glorious views in north Florida.
Best of all, there are even spots to rent watercraft near the river so you can still get out on the water even if you couldn’t pack your own ‘yak.
5. Tarpon Springs in Tampa Bay
Yet another glorious Tampa Bay kayaking adventure, only this time, you get a unique experience of paddling alongside tarpon. Tarpon can grow up to immense sizes, and you’ll be thrilled to see them slicing through the water, scales aglow and gleaming in the sunlight.
Of course, you can always visit Tarpon Springs in manatee season, and go for a paddle alongside these docile, gentle creatures. You might even be able to get close enough to touch them! And, of course, while you’re out on the water, you can enjoy the view of historic Victorian-styled homes built decades (or even 100+ years) ago. It’s an unforgettable experience on some of the most gorgeous bayous in Florida.
6. Weeki Wachee River in Spring Hill
The Weeki Wachee River is an eight-mile-long river that starts in the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and travels all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Crystal-clear turquoise waters and a slow-moving river make for a truly spectacular paddling experience. In fact, you can paddle both ways (up- and downriver), exploring the twists and turns of this gorgeous waterway from the comfort of your kayak.
Launch at the state park and get picked up in one of the Spring Hill downtown parks, or launch at the parks and end your trip in the state park. It’s Class I waters that will be an absolute delight to spend your day paddling.
7. Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail
For kayakers who want a multi-day adventure trip, look no farther than the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail! This “trail” spans over a hundred miles of Florida countryside, circumnavigating the state along some of its most gorgeous waterways. Paddle it all in one shot or stop at each of the campsites (located every 10 to 14 miles) designated exclusively for those on the trail.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ensures that only a small handful of paddlers are ever on the trail, so you’re all but guaranteed to have it to your group. Its natural beauty is maintained in pristine condition, and you’ll find some of the most unique natural wildlife in Florida make their home along the trail.
Note: you need a free permit to use the campsites along the trail. For security reasons, permits are not issued to solo canoeists and solo kayakers, so bring along a couple of friends.
8. Fort Pierce
Get ready for an evening/nighttime adventure like no other! Fort Pierce is home to some truly gorgeous creatures that are only visible after dark, including comb jellies that light up the waters at night. Paddling through a school of these bioluminescent jellyfish will be a truly unique experience.
And the night is just begun! Take a lantern or headlamp with you, and you’ll love exploring the mangrove tunnels and visiting the deserted coves. You’ll have the area all to yourself (along with a few other brave nighttime paddlers), and it will be an unforgettable way to explore some of Florida’s most unique nature spots.
9. Indian River Lagoon in Merritt Island
While everyone else is busy enjoying Orlando’s theme parks, head an hour out of town to Merritt Island to enjoy the glorious beauty of Indian River Lagoon. The union of the Indian River and Banana River form this lovely lagoon, which is home to sharks and alligators both, along with dolphins and manatees.
Or, take out your kayak after dark to witness the beauty of the bioluminescent marine creatures and glowing plankton that light up the water as bright as the stars in the sky. Science lovers will delight in taking a paddle around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and nature lovers will find a haven in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
10. Rock Springs in Apopka
Beginners will love this gorgeous paddling trail, a slow-moving, crystal-clear waterway created by a series of connected artesian springs. Here, you can paddle alongside alligators, laugh at the antics of otters, watch the turtles sunning or swimming, spot deer racing on the shore, and marvel at the plethora of colorful fish darting through the water.
It’s a gorgeous watery trek through pine flatwood forests, and an incredibly relaxing tour downriver. Or, if you’re a stubborn paddler who wants to buck the tide, kayak against the current and explore up the slow-moving river for a few extra hours on the water.
11. Coastal Dune Lakes near Panama City
Only a handful of other places in the world have lakes like these, making them an absolute must-visit for kayakers in Florida. The lakes run alongside the coast, separated from the ocean only by sand dunes. However, there are breaks in the dunes that allow you to paddle from the coast into the lakes or vice versa.
There are more than fifteen named lakes to explore, as well as a state park, miles of gorgeous Florida coastline, quiet inlets, and plenty of beaches to stop and set up camp/have a picnic. It’s easy, shallow flat water that beginners will love, but more experienced paddlers will find there are plenty of spots to challenge their skill, too.
12. Crystal River
If you’re visiting Florida between April 1st and November 14th, you have to pay a visit to Crystal River (in the city of Crystal River).
This lovely river flows into three different springs (Jurassic, Hunter, and Three Sisters Springs) located in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The water is naturally warmed, making it the perfect place to enjoy a day of swimming and paddling in the spectacular turquoise water.
However, take note: between November and April, Crystal River is the winter home of manatees, so it’s closed to kayakers during these months.
13. Lido Key Mangroves in Sarasota
If you’re the sort of paddler who loves kayaking narrow inlets and navigating tight waterways, you’ll fall in love with the challenge of tackling the Lido Key Mangroves. The trees form lovely tunnels that you can paddle through, creating a plethora of trails ranging from easy to more challenging.
The waterway is beautifully calm and free of boats, and it’s suited to both beginner and expert paddlers. The waters around the key are also a great place to paddle if you want to watch dolphins or manatees, or you can enjoy the sight of crabs and fish in the clear, shallow waters around the mangroves.
14. The Great Calusa Blueway Trail
Paddlers, get ready for a multi-day adventure trip suited for all experience levels! This trail stretches for 190 miles, starting at Pine Island Sound and heading through Estero Bay and along the Caloosahatchee River. There are signs to not only mark the trail and keep you heading in the right direction but steer you away from motorboat traffic.
It’s easy to spend days (or even weeks) exploring the many beaches and estuaries along the way, navigating mangrove islands, and finding secluded spots only accessible via kayak. Truly, it’s a one-of-a-kind adventure you can’t miss on your next kayaking trip in Florida.
15. St. Johns River in Welaka
As Florida’s longest river, it’s also the longest paddling adventure in the state, with roughly 310 miles of waterways to explore. The paddling trails connect Palatka and Lake George, cut through the Ocala National Forest, and even explore the beauty of Welaka State Forest.
For gator lovers, this is the tour you’ll want to consider. The St. Johns River is home to a huge number of alligators, so you’re all but guaranteed to see one (or more) during the days you spend paddling this river. The waters are easy and calm, though you do share the space with motorized watercraft that can cause a wake. It’s best suited to intermediate and advanced paddlers, though beginners may find it a delightful challenge.
Kayaking Tours in Florida
Let’s be honest: a lot of us kayakers like to do our own thing and go our own way. Half the fun is exploring someplace new the way we want to, seeking out fascinating locales, and discovering secrets that no one else has.
Florida is definitely the place for that sort of kayaking adventures. There are so many places to solo paddle, or to take your crew/family for a trip down/upriver, along the lakes, out to an island, or through a mangrove forest. Whether you’re experienced or brand new to kayaking, there will be plenty of adventures to find on your own.
But sometimes it’s nice to go along with a group, or be led by a tour guide who knows all the coolest spots, the places to see dolphins/manatees/gators/fish/glowing jellyfish, or the sneaky trails that take hidden detours through little-known areas of wildlife parks.
Plus, if you weren’t able to bring your own kayak, they can rent you a watercraft that you know will be in good, serviceable condition.
Kayaking tours can also be the safer choice, especially for beginner paddlers. If you’re heading off-shore/out to sea, it’s always good to have an experienced guide with you in case of any sort of emergency situation.
And yes, if you’re going to be paddling alongside alligators, it might be helpful to have an expert with you to make sure you don’t do anything that could annoy the bitey boys.
Here are a few of the tour services you can contact if you’re thinking about kayaking in Florida. Even if you’re paddling on your own, they can be a great resource to check out/call for information and advice to make your paddling trip safe and enjoyable:
Get Up and Go Kayaking (nearly 20 locations around Florida)
Kayaking Florida (tours located chiefly around Orlando, both kayak and paddleboard options)
Robbies of Islamorada (the best option if you plan to visit Indian Key)
BK Adventure (specializing in “bioluminescent tours”—evening and night kayaking)
Lovers Key Adventures (tours of Lovers Key State Park and Black Island)
Adventures in Florida (kayaking tours located chiefly in and around Orlando)
FL Kayaking Tours (guided eco-tours in Central Florida)
More great resources to check out for more kayak tours in Florida include:
- Trip Advisor – Just search “kayaking in Florida” or “kayaking tours in Florida”, and you’ll get a list with hundreds of options, which you can sort based on location and destination.
- Viator – This website is owned by TripAdvisor, but it can give you access to even more tours and kayaking rental services.
- Yelp – The great thing about using Yelp to find “kayaking in Florida” is that you can narrow it down specifically based on your location, and there are lots of great results with real-life user reviews to help you find the best tour service for your paddling trip.
Tips for Safely Kayaking in Florida
Kayaking in Florida can be quite unlike kayaking anywhere else in the country. You’re surrounded by beautiful nature, but it can be wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. The water may be cool but the weather is blisteringly hot and humid (and not just during the summer months). What starts out as a calm river paddle could end up spilling out into a bay or ocean, and you’re stuck trying to navigate your way to safety.
Below, I’ll share a few of my best tips for how to safely kayak in Florida:
Dress for the Weather and Water
Typically, the advice is “dress for the water” because water tends to be colder than the ambient temperature. However, in Florida, you need to balance the high heat and humidity in the air with the temperature of the water. If you bundle up too much in anticipation of cold water, you may pass out from heat stroke or dehydration from sweating so heavily. On the other hand, if you wear only board shorts and a T-shirt to match the humidity/heat, you could end up in trouble if you land in cold water.
That’s why you have to take both into account. Look for clothing that is breathable, well-ventilated, quick-drying, and moisture-wicking enough to keep you cool in the heat of the day, but which offers enough warmth to protect you against the chill in the water (including ocean or river spray).
And especially make sure to wear a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen!
Bring Lots of Water
It’s always a good idea to have plenty of water on any paddling trip, even just a short few-hour jaunt around a lake. But when you’re in high-heat and high-humidity environments like Florida, it becomes absolutely essential for survival.
Already, the average adult fails to drink enough water during the day to properly stave off low-grade dehydration. Add onto that a high rate of perspiration and moisture loss (via sweat) during the heat of Florida summer, and you’re at risk of more serious dehydration. You need to make sure to pack around 1 liter of water per person for every hour you’re going to be paddling.
Bring a Map
Physical maps can still come in very handy when paddling around the coast of Florida, especially if you head to an offshore island or a bay where you’re out of range of land-based cell service. GPS devices are practical (and highly recommended), but always make sure to have a back-up map handy, too. That way, if you get lost or dragged away by a current, you’ll still be able to find your way back to safety.
Follow the rules
A lot of the regulations established at local wildlife parks and paddling trails are there for your protection (and the protection of the wildlife and environment, too). It’s important that you obey the rules whenever you’re kayaking in Florida because they can not only keep you safe from visible dangers (like gators and crocs), but invisible dangers (like quicksand, water snakes, underwater obstacles, etc.) too.
Go With an Experienced Guide
If you’re unfamiliar with a specific route, consider hiring a guide or going on a tour before solo paddling. Florida does have more dangers than many other U.S. states and Canadian provinces (chiefly, the more aggressive predators). An expert will help you steer clear of any dangers and make the experience safer and more enjoyable.
Watch the Weather
Always consult the weather forecast before you head out on any paddling trip, but don’t just trust that because your weather app called for sunny skies, it’ll remain that way all day long.
Keep an eye on the sky and pay attention to any drops in temperature or winds picking up that could signal an approaching storm. Storms can roll in off the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean with little to no warning, and if you’re not prepared, you could find yourself in real trouble.
Stick With What You Know
It’s always best to paddle according to your experience level. Sure, it’s fun to challenge yourself and try something new, but you want to balance safety with enjoyment.
Make sure that you’re up for the lake, river, island, or ocean paddling trip before you head out. And never be afraid to turn back or change plans if you find out your kayaking skills just aren’t up for a particular challenge.
Between the high humidity and blistering heat, you’ll find you can tire out a lot more quickly when kayaking in Florida compared to cooler, drier environments. Make sure to pace yourself, rest whenever you need to, and pause for regular rehydration breaks.
The last thing you want is to accidentally paddle into a nest of water moccasins or drift too close to a sunning gator because you were more focused on taking pictures than watching your surroundings. Always stay alert and aware of any dangers. The beauty around you is breathtaking, but you’ve got to take your personal safety very seriously.
There is an abundance of bird, land, and water wildlife in Florida, some of which is found nowhere else in the world. Bring a pair of binoculars to make it easier to get a closer view of the beauty around you without venturing into a potentially dangerous range.
Never Drink and Paddle
You can’t let anything compromise your safety! Alcohol will dull your wits and slow your reaction times, potentially putting you closer to danger.
Plus, drinking in excess before/while kayaking is illegal (as you’ll see in the next section).
Let Someone Know Where You’re Going
If you’re on a tour, make sure the tour organizer has someone back at base camp/launch point who is aware of their route and the rough timetable of events. If you’re solo paddling or going with a group, it’s imperative that you let someone know your plans. That way, if you don’t return in time because something went wrong, there will be someone who can call emergency services to rescue you.
Stay Inside Your Kayak
A lot of dangers can be avoided by simply staying inside your kayak at all times. Don’t let children dangle their hands or feet into the water—that could attract the attention of nearby predators/dangerous creatures. And as tempting as it may be to jump out of the kayak and into the lake/river/marsh/ocean to cool off, make sure it’s fully safe to do so first. When in doubt, err on the side of safety.
Florida Kayaking Laws
Before you head out for that spectacular Florida kayaking trip, it’s important you understand the laws, rules, and regulations that you have to follow while visiting the state.
Kayaks are not motor-powered vessels
This means you don’t need to register them or get a special license to rent/operate a kayak on Florida waterways. (Note: If you operate your kayak with a trolling motor, you will need to register it.)
There is no minimum age for operating a kayak
Kids of all ages can enjoy getting out on the water in kayaks (or paddleboards or canoes).
Kayakers must have one lifejacket on board per person
A USCG-approved PFD (of the right size and in serviceable condition) is mandatory on all waterways. Children under 6 years old must actually wear the PFD while paddling.
Kayakers must carry lights between sunrise and sunset
During periods of “restricted visibility”, paddlers must have an onboard light, lantern, flashlight, or headlamp.
Kayaks must have some means of producing sound
Typically, this means a whistle or air horn—some way to signal that you’re in trouble in case of emergency.
Kayaks must carry at least three nighttime visual distress signals (VDS)
This can include flares (smoke, meteor, and handheld) and distress lights. They are necessary to signal for help in emergency situations.
Kayakers absolutely can get a BUI
“Boating Under Influence” is the kayaker’s equivalent of a DUI. Even though your watercraft isn’t motorized, you are still required to avoid alcohol, drugs, or any other sort of influence while paddling.
If your breath or blood alcohol level is above 0.08% (typically after 1-2 drinks, depending on your size), you can get a BUI ticket.
(Note: Anyone under the age of 21 who has a blood/breath alcohol level above 0.02% is breaking Florida law and may get a BUI, too.)
The penalties for a BUI are:
- $500-$1000 fine, plus up to 6 months in prison on your first offense
- $1,000-$2,000 fine, plus up to 9 months in prison on your second offense
- Chronic repeat offenders (more than three BUIs) can be subjected to harsher punishments as laid out in the state’s statutes.
Kayaking in Florida FAQs
Do you need a permit to kayak in Florida?
You do not! Because a kayak is not a motorized vehicle, you can kayak without the need for a permit or registering the watercraft. Only kayaks with trolling motors need a permit/registration.
What is required on a kayak in Florida?
Legally, you are required to carry:
- US Coast Guard approved PFD (Type I, II, or III)
- Three Visible Distress signals (flare, flag, and/or distress lights)
- White lights (for paddling after dark)
- Any means of making a sound (whistle, air horn, etc.)
Can you launch a kayak from the beach in Florida?
You certainly can! There are plenty of launch points around the state—specialized docks and jetties designed for canoes and kayaks. However, you can haul your kayak onto any beach, load up, and head out to sea anytime, anywhere. (Just make sure your gear/skill is up to the challenge!)
Do I need to register my kayak with a trolling motor in Florida?
The short answer is yes. Florida requires registration of any watercraft except for non-motor-powered vessels shorter than 16 ft.