Central Florida is a mecca for visitors seeking a natural alternative to the theme parks and hotel-lined beaches. In this vast area of forest and swampland live a collection of springs and rivers that make for some of the best paddling the Sunshine State has to offer.
Kayaking in Central Florida pairs perfectly with the many excellent state and national run campgrounds located near the springs and rivers. In fact, all of the best waterways are located near campgrounds. Because there are so many choices for kayaking in central Florida, we’ve made it easy to visit the best by choosing five campgrounds where paddling and camping go hand in hand.
1. Silver Springs State Park
Since the 1870s tourists have flocked to the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs. Located on the edge of the Ocala National Forest, the park is home to dozens of freshwater springs that occur in the headwaters, coves, and along the edges of the Silver River.
Paddlers will enjoy the scenic 4.5-mile Silver River. In addition to the clear water and banks lined with tropical foliage, the river is also teaming with diverse wildlife. A multitude of birds, aquatic life, and even wild but non-native Rhesus monkeys call the park home. It’s easy to enjoy the river at Silver Springs as they offer rental boats, guided tours, and two separate boat ramps where you can launch your own boat.
The campground at Silver Springs State Park offers 59 tent and RV sites along with 10 cabins. Situated among a towering forest of native pines, the sites are well spaced and private. Amenities include water and electric hook-ups, free hot showers, and a convenient dump station. (Read more reviews on Silver Springs State Park here.)
2. Juniper Springs Recreation Area
The Ocala National Forest is home to an impressive 600 lakes, rivers, swamps, and sparkling springs. Juniper Springs is one of the oldest and best-known springs in the forest. The clear, bubbling pool beneath a dense canopy of palms and oaks is an oasis in the heart of the pine scrub forest.
While the spring itself is a popular destination, one of the highlights of Juniper Springs is the Juniper Creek Run. This one-way, seven-mile canoe/kayak trip is a fast paced adventure recommended for experienced paddlers.
No central Florida kayaking trip would be complete without tackling the famed Juniper Creek Run. Imagine a swift, shallow creek bed that snakes through a lush, tropical forest filled with palms, cypress, and southern hardwoods. Add in plentiful wildlife such as red-bellied turtles, wood ducks, great herons, and of course, a few alligators just for fun.
In addition to a fantastic paddling adventure, Juniper Springs also has a full-service campground. Seventy-nine sites are tucked away in the forest within walking distance of the spring. While there are no utility hook-ups, the campground does offer hot showers, potable water, and a dump station. (Read more about the campground at Juniper Springs.)
3. Hillsborough River State Park
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1938, Hillsborough River State Park is one of Florida’s oldest parks. The park includes the Hillsborough River, a mecca for central Florida kayaking featuring abundant birdlife and scenic water views. With easy access from the state park, the Hillsborough River flows for over 50 miles through cypress swamps, pine flatwoods, and marshes to Hillsborough Bay.
The section of river that winds through the park contains the state’s southernmost outcropping of Suwannee limestone. This outcropping creates a small set of rapids that are a rarity in Florida. As a result, the swift moving river is a popular spot for experts and novices alike.
Campers at Hillsborough State Park have their choice of sites. The main campground contains 112 RV or tent sites equipped with power, water, and picnic tables. While more adventurous types might enjoy the primitive camp across the river that is only accessible by footpath. (Take a look at reviews on Hillsborough State Park from past travelers.)
4. Wekiva Springs State Park
As one of only two designated national wild and scenic rivers in Florida, the Wekiva River is a must visit for central Florida kayaking enthusiasts. Beginning at Wekiva Springs State Park and running north to the St. John’s River, this popular paddling trail is one of the best around.
Wildlife here is abundant – from the threatened Florida black bear and the ubiquitous alligator to tortoises and hundreds of birds. Most noteworthy are the cranes, cormorants, herons, eagles, plovers, and sandpipers that make it a prime stop along the Great Florida Birding Trail.
There are numerous access points along the waterway, with Wekiva State Park being the most popular. Offering kayak and canoe rentals along with numerous camping options, the park is an excellent option for exploring one of central Florida’s most pristine and beautiful rivers.
5. Withlacoochee State Forest
The reddish-brown waters of the Withlacoochee River meander through central Florida for 157 miles. Originating in the Green Swamp, Florida’s 4th largest river twists and turns through the Withlacoochee State Forest, before draining into the Gulf of Mexico near the city of Yankeetown.
Withlacoochee State Forest is a wild, natural region with many options for camping and outdoor recreation. Split into multiple sections, or tracts, the Croom Tract includes 13 miles of the river. In addition, it contains both the Silver Lake and Hog Island Recreation Areas. These designated camping areas offer sites suitable for RVs and tents along while retaining a wild and natural feel.