Canoeing & Kayaking

Follow the trail.

Flowing through mangrove tunnels and estuaries, sheltered bays and lush creeks, all 190 miles of the Great Calusa Blueway are a "must-paddle" for anyone able to sit in a canoe or kayak or stand on a paddleboard. The finest paddling trail in the country meanders gently, allowing guests time and energy to spot dolphins and manatee at play or the brilliant roseate spoonbill stomping through the shallows. Launch and rental facilities are plentiful, including at Koreshan State Historic Park on the Estero River, Cayo Costa State Park and on Lovers Key State Park.

Top Stops Along the Blueway

"There are more than 80 highlights and access points along the 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway."

The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail is a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County. Find great parks and attractions along all three phases of the trail by reading the tips below, or go directly to www.calusablueway.com for trail information, maps, photos and more.

PHASE 1 / Estero Bay

Mound Key: When you get a little sweat in your eyes, mangrove islands can all start to look alike. Not this one. Mound Key in Estero is not flat – the native Calusas constructed multiple shell mounds, including one that rises as high as 31 feet. You can see the canopy of its cabbage palms and gumbo limbo trees outlining the mounds from a distance. After you're on the island, which has two paddlecraft landings, be sure to walk the self-guided trail that describes the subtropical vegetation. Plus, you get to stretch your legs.

Bunche Beach and Hurricane Bay: Bunche may look like a typical beach launch site, but it’s teeming with history and wildlife. More than 3,000 people gathered there in 1949 when it was officially dedicated and named for Dr. Ralph Bunche, a notable African American who was a mediator for the United Nations. Paddle along the shore toward Hurricane Bay, where manatees frequently frolic and low-tide offers a happy hour of tidbits for blush-colored roseate spoonbills and other wading birds. This route also showcases the shrimping and charter boat fleet of San Carlos Island.

 

PHASE 2 / Pine Island Sound

Tarpon Bay: This protected body of water within the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has a long-established outfitter and a gentle canoe/kayak launch site. It’s a great place to paddle on a windy day. Try the Commodore Creek Trail, which snakes into the refuge’s mangroves. Tiny crabs scurry along mangrove roots while wading birds stalk them. Branches create tunnels overhead. The 21st century seems miles away.

Matlacha: Launching from this place of eclectic art galleries and vibrant fish markets offers great access to three different routes. Head northwest and explore tidal creeks with corkscrew turns that open up into lagoons loaded with birds and even river otters. Head northeast toward Buzzard Bay for some of the most productive yak fishing on the trail and a building-less horizon. Head south along Little Pine Island, and you’re practically guaranteed a bald eagle sighting.

Picnic Island: This San Carlos Bay island started as a place to dump dredged-up material when they dug the Intracoastal Waterway. Today, it’s a place to tent camp, picnic, swim and boat-watch. It’s accessible from both Tropical Point, a quiet Pine Island park, and Punta Rassa, a bustling south Fort Myers boat ramp. It’s a location well worth the open-water paddle. Watch for dancing reddish egrets in the moon-shaped lagoon.

 

PHASE 3 / Caloosahatchee River

Hickey's Creek: More than 1,200 acres of preserve surround this slender creek’s canoe and kayak landing. The creek is loaded with intricate details from Mother Nature – brightly striped turtles, six-foot-tall lush leather ferns and tiny fish. If you paddle here from the Caloosahatchee, watch for the camel – yes, a camel – in the large yard at the entrance to the creek.

Orange River: Welcome to Old Florida. Moss-draped oaks lean over the river, and people sit on porches and docks overlooking the calm water. In the wintertime, don’t be surprised to see a lumbering sea cow playing near the power plant and Lee County’s Manatee Park.

A first-of-its-kind navigational aid, the Calusa Blueway smart-phone application provides real-time GPS coordinates and navigation, interactive trail map with places of interest identified, boating tips and regulations, a brief history of Mound Key inhabitants and a key to the island's flora, fauna and wildlife.

Paddling with Kids

"When it comes to kayaking or canoeing, kids pick up the skills and excitement as if its second nature."

An osprey rises from the waves clenching a silvery fish in its talons and squawking a warning to would-be thieves. Manatees rise to the surface to snort for air.

Pelicans fly in a V-formation, while two dolphins glide alongside the kayak like unofficial escorts and goodwill ambassadors.

Within its 190 miles, the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail winds through the habitats of hundreds of birds and fascinating sea creatures. There’s no better way to get close to the wildlife of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel than by kayak or canoe.

Here are a few stretches of the Blueway that are best suited to families and wildlife viewing.

Delightful Dolphins
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve at Fort Myers Beach is New York City for dolphins. On a good day, kayakers and canoeists can paddle through the water thick with the intelligent mammals and watch them flip fish to one another, frolic with their babies and perform unsolicited leaps.

For a fun day of family paddling, rent from the Lovers Key State Park concession and launch bayside. Paddle south through New Pass, into the park’s estuary and past Dog Beach, where pets often swim up to greet you. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach at Lovers Key, then head northward to the aquatic preserve and circle back to the launch site.

For the Birds
Big pink birds that look like they eat with spoons and trees that walk on tiptoes: The sights along J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s Tarpon Bay and Commodore Creek Trail on Sanibel Island are wondrous and other-worldly.

Take a two-hour, naturalist-led tour or head out on your own with rentals from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s official recreation concession. The easy, still-water paddle takes you past rookeries and through arching tunnels of mangroves, trees that seem to stand on long legs in estuaries where pink-colored roseate spoonbills often feed.

Holy Sea Cow!
A winter paddling excursion at Manatee Park in east Fort Myers begins with watching the blimp-shaped namesake creatures surface for air with their young in the warm waters of Yankee Canal. By then, the kids are psyched but maybe still a little intimidated to jump in a kayak and ply the waters of the Orange River, where manatees congregate beginning in November.

The guide who leads the kayak clinics, however, points out that sightings are a special treat, and the animals are docile. If you’re lucky, one may swim under your kayak to scratch its back (but no touching is allowed). On-land and in-water lessons teach the basics of the easy sport, and then it’s off upriver to see the birds, fish and, if you’re lucky, manatees that call this waterway home. When there are youngsters along on the clinic, the instructor often incorporates games to assist the teaching process and hands out a kit with nature games and coloring books.

Magic Mullet
Like finned popcorn, the mullet of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve at Pine Island burst from the water in powerful leaps. Several theories try to explain why they do this, and you’ll hear about them on a three-hour guided tour with Gulf Coast Kayak.

You can also rent there and head out on your own, with get-out-and-stretch breaks at the colorful seafood restaurants and art galleries set right on the water. Families with their own kayaks can launch at Matlacha Park, also a good spot for a picnic lunch.

Celebrate Paddling
The annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, held throughout Lee County in early November, is a perfect way to introduce kids to the watery world of paddle sports. Besides demonstrations and clinics, the festival features a photo contest, community festivals with kids’ activities, kayak fishing tournaments and lots more.

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