Paddling Around the Big Bend
Hop into a kayak or canoe and find peaceful adventure on area waterways
Leon County and the surrounding areas from state line to coast are some of the most beautiful in the world — and perfect for exploring from the water.
The specific geologic terrain in and around Tallahassee is part of what renowned naturalist and scientist E.O. Wilson calls the most biodiverse in the Northern Hemisphere. Grab your kayak or canoe and paddle through the incredible scenery that includes more species of flora and fauna than anywhere else above the Equator.
There are five rivers that are easily accessible from Tallahassee and offer a perfect weekend adventure for paddling enthusiasts. From beginner to seasoned paddlers, these day trips offer an amazing array of sights and experiences right in your backyard.
The Florida Park Service provides in-depth information on Florida’s Designated Paddling Trails on its website, including maps, narrative descriptions and photos. The five closest rivers to Tallahassee are also among the most beautiful. Visit: http://goo.gl/qq07lI
This river is 50 miles long and is a beautiful ride through Wakulla and Leon counties along tall limestone banks and unique cypress trees. The route takes you through the Apalachicola National Forest to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, with many white sandbars for resting your arms.
The Sopchoppy is the iconic, tea-colored tannic water of the South, and home to deer and other wildlife. The Florida National Scenic Trail follows portions of this waterway and includes many wild plants such as azaleas and native flowers. This gorgeous river is characterized by canopy oaks, brown-to-black water and interesting wood formations along its route.
The paddling corridor on the Sopchoppy is a breathtaking 15 miles, but it isn’t suitable for beginners or children because of the complex turns and navigation required. In some places, the steep banks make access to the water difficult — making it very important to check the water level at the U.S. Geological Survey’s website (usgs.gov) before you go.
If You Go: There are five access points along the Sopchoppy, and it’s important to check the ever-fluctuating water levels before you plan your trip. Best for experienced paddlers. Use TNT Hide-A-Way as your outfitter for the Sopchoppy: (850) 925-6412.
Ochlockonee River (Upper and Lower)
The 206-mile Ochlockonee River begins in south-central Georgia and flows southwest along western Leon County. The pristine, deep river is the dividing line between Leon and Gadsden counties, and widens into the popular fishing and recreational area Lake Talquin Reservoir before continuing its flow to Ochlockonee Bay.
The narrow, 27-mile upper portion of the Ochlockonee flows into Lake Talquin and twists around cypress stumps, or “knees.” While most of the corridor is undeveloped — and therefore unspoiled and wild — the first 15 miles is a very difficult paddling course filled with many logjams and blockages. The Florida Park Service recommends paddling the 12 miles of river below Old Bainbridge Road, which has fewer challenges and typical south Leon County scenery.
This upper portion of the Ochlockonee is characterized by sometimes shallow water and smaller trees along sandy shores. The lower portion, however, is scenic and winds through the Apalachicola National Forest and conservation lands. This route includes topography such as high pine bluffs and hardwood forests.
The lower Ochlockonee paddling trail isn’t beginner-ready, because it has several areas that are challenging to navigate. Some areas are unpredictable, with numerous twists and turns, but the scenery is first-rate.
The full distance from Lake Talquin State Park to Ochlockonee Bay is 62 miles. There are several campgrounds along the route, but there is a long stretch with no access points in case you need to cut the trip short.
Along the lower Ochlockonee trail, you’ll find the area’s distinctive white squirrels and very little light pollution for stargazing at night. Ochlockonee River State Park, near the opening at Ochlockonee Bay, is an incredible place to enjoy a weekend or longer vacation in the wilderness. Fishing for largemouth bass, bream and other species is excellent in the park, but you’ll contend with motorboats and recreational visitors enjoying the facility’s array of activities.
If You Go: The 206-mile Ochlockonee River has 20 access points in Florida and long stretches of isolated paddling. Best for experienced paddlers. Contact Wilderness Way, (850) 877-7720, for outfitting.
Perhaps the most popular and well-known paddle route in Tallahassee, the Wakulla River never disappoints. Many creatures and plants offer a second-to-none view from your kayak or canoe along this 4-mile route between access points in Wakulla County.
The Wakulla is clear and spring-fed, lined with iconic, moss-draped oak and cypress trees. Manatees are present year-round, and the route is gentle enough for families and beginners alike. Be warned, though, that in summer it can become very crowded with swimmers and motorboats. In fall and winter, the water is serene and perfect for paddling.
You can paddle upstream and downstream between the two access points, making a round trip eight miles. However, if you want to extend your trip, go farther downstream to the St. Marks City Park (2.6 miles more) or the historic San Marcos de Apalachee Historic State Park (3.2 miles on). This is where the Wacissa River joins the St. Mark and forms the channel to the Gulf of Mexico through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.
Exploring the Wakulla Springs State Park Lodge is a must. This area contains one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world and has its own rich history. A popular tourist destination and swimming hole, the state park hosts daily riverboat cruises and photography opportunities. From the water, you can get up close and personal with manatees, but be careful! The curious creatures are known to flip canoes and kayaks as they make their getaway.
If You Go: This beginner-friendly route is the perfect blend of incredible scenery and easygoing paddling. Manatees abound, but so do water tourists of all types. Outfitters include Ray’s Kayaks & Excursions, (850) 508-7593; St. Marks Outfitters, (850) 510-7919; The Wilderness Way, (850) 877-7200; and TNT Hide-A-Way, (850) 925-6412.
This 12-mile river in Jefferson County is among Florida’s most diverse and untouched, with numerous springs and water birds. The Wacissa is good for beginners and families, but the upper portions can become crowded and the current requires a workout on the return trip upstream. The lower river is quieter and less populated. The Wacissa is characterized by a thick, billowing bed of long grasses that brush your watercraft and display deep current along their leaves.
Several freshwater springs hide just off the main waterway inside the forest-filled banks. Paddle into the areas and be rewarded with a spectacular view of deep blue and green views into the springs.
Below Goose Pasture, the Wacissa splits into several smaller waterways in an area known as Hell’s Half Acre and rejoins again before flowing underground into a large sinkhole, the Half Mile Rise. This sinkhole is part of the Aucilla River chain of sinks, and the area was once canaled to connect it with the lower Aucilla River. The failed Wacissa Slave Canal was constructed in the 1850s, but the canal was too shallow for cotton barges. Now the waterway looks completely natural and not an artifact of the slave-holding South.
The Wacissa begins as a swampy, marshy waterway but quickly deepens into the narrow middle stretch. Many forms of wildlife are common, including alligators, wading birds and otters. Look for the limpkin, also called the crying bird, which is a bird that looks like a large rail but is skeletally closer to cranes. Because of poor water quality, it doesn’t frequent many Florida rivers.
Take a break from paddling and walk along a segment of Florida’s National Scenic Trail along the Wacissa. According to the Florida Park Service, the Aucilla Sinks Trail traces the river’s mysterious disappearing act just south of Goose Pasture. You can see the Aucilla River’s underground course through the sinkholes along the corridor.
If You Go: There are three access points for the Wacissa, beginning at Wacissa Springs County Park in Wakulla. The river gets crowded down to Blue Springs, a favorite swimming location. Perfect for beginners and families, the Wacissa can be crowded, especially its upper portions. Outfitters include Wacissa River Canoe & Kayak Rentals at (850) 997-5023.