Here in Florida, only two National Scenic Rivers flow: the Loxahatchee in South Florida and the Wekiva River in Central Florida. Since I grew up in Winter Park, I tend to favor my first wild stomping grounds, Rock Springs and the Wekiva River. Like most places in Florida, not so many years ago the Wekiva river valley was a magical, rural, Cracker paradise. Fish camps were the only construction scene on the banks, sunlight barely made its way through the dense forest canopy, and veterans of the Vietnam War hid themselves and their squatters’ shacks deep in the swamps and sloughs that lead into the river. Nowadays, the magic of the area around the valley is disappearing fast.
Cracker fish camps have been replaced by McMansions owned by people who don’t fish, Hurricane Charlie took a heap of trees down, and the Vets have moved north to the less congested Ocala National Forest. The good news is local and state protection agencies have purchased and protected large tracts of land running the full length of the river, which means that once you are on the water, the magic returns. Few rivers have the power to take you so far away so fast: incredible numbers of people tell me that they felt like they were the first explorers of the area after paddling the Wekiva.
If you only have a day to paddle don’t worry, because there are three possible day trips that make up the entire length of the river. The upper eight-mile stretch, from King’s Landing to Wekiva Marina (Rock Springs Run), is the most popular, so avoid it if you can on weekends. The reason for its popularity will become apparent as soon as your boats hull hits the gin-clear water. The white sandy river bottom winds its way through jungle-like black hammocks, and then opens up to wide expanses of wild rice, spatterdock, and water lettuce; paddlers on this portion of river also pass nine Timucuan Indian middens. These mounds are the remains of over 7500 years of feasting on snails and other shelled animals. The take out is on the right bank, just past the 1957 “Bridge to Nowhere”.
The 11-mile middle section runs from the Wekiva Marina to the old Katie’s Landing near Highway 46; it’s wider, due to the joining of Wekiva Springs and Rock Springs, is a good bit straighter than the upper, and is defined by many little islands. This has always been the best area for spotting the occasional black bear and the frequent alligator, and, if you’re a birder, this is the place to be! There are two choices of take-out: Wilson’s Landing Park on the right, located just before the Highway 46 bridge, or the old Katie’s Landing site, about a mile past the bridge on the right.
The eight-mile lower section, from the old Katie’s Landing to the Highbanks Road ramp, has become my favorite. Paddling this part of the river allows you to pass by or paddle up both Blackwater Creek and the Little Wekiva River; these side trips are well worth the upstream effort. The main river ducks back into the hardwood swamps, the water darkens with the accumulation of tannins, and the air is noticeably cooler. Folks who enjoy kayak fishing flock to this particular stretch of water. Once you reach the St. Johns River, head north, or left, and stay tight on river right to avoid powerboats. The take out is the cement boat ramp on the right beside the incredible Swamp House Grill.
Another reason this has become my favorite piece of river is because of this terrific watering hole. Nothing ends a day of paddling like cold beer and fresh fish served overlooking the river.
If you’re feeling like a little more paddling would be nice, take the time to go a couple more miles up the St. Johns to Blue Spring State Park. The park is on the right, and, if it’s winter-time, you can catch the manatee migration, an experience that cannot be accurately be described with words nor should be missed.
Just a few more miles north and you can visit Hontoon Island State Park on the left, just past Lake Beresford – my absolute favorite place in the world for camping among loud owls!
OUTFITTERS, SERVICES, and REFERENCES
- Adventures in Florida: Canoe and kayak rentals, guide-service, tours, and shuttle service.
- Swamp House Grill: Ice-cold beer, grouper, t-bones, and fried gator done right!
- RIVER OF LAKES, A JOURNEY ON FLORIDA’S ST. JOHNS RIVER, by Bill Belleville – A wonderful book by an excellent local author.
- THE TRAVELS OF WILLIAM BARTRAM, by William Bartram – A must read for anyone in love with wild Florida.