Can't decide where on the Emerald Coast to visit? The articles on this page should help to  narrow down your choices, unless of course, they wind up giving you even more ideas.  

Kayaking on Ocheesee Pond near Marianna, Fla

 

Water lilies on Ocheesee Pond.

Water lilies on Ocheesee Pond.

Recent rains and perfect weather made a trip to Ocheesee Pond near Grand Ridge, Fla., a must-do for the local kayaking clubs at the November campout at Florida Caverns in Marianna. Located on Arkansas Rd off of 69A and about a half hour’s drive from the caverns lies Ocheesee Pond, a local favorite of fisherman who call the old growth cypress swamp home. Our group wasn’t here for the fish though, but for the fall colors of the cypress.

 

Open water portion on Ocheesee Pond.

Open water portion on Ocheesee Pond.

The launch site is on an open section of the pond, and after a short half-mile paddle kayakers enter a cypress swamp that quickly becomes a maze. For this reason it is strongly recommended that when paddling on Ocheesee Pond, always go with someone that is familiar with the route. There is a marker system, but they can be sporadic and difficult to see. Even veterans can sometimes miss a marker and have to spend time backtracking to find the trail.

Kayakers navigate the cypress maze on Ocheesee Pond.

Kayakers navigate the cypress maze on Ocheesee Pond.

Spread amongst the cypress are aquatic glades of water lily and spatterdock that give the dark water a splash of color. A sharp eye may spot a basking turtle or an elusive alligator on the prowl. Osprey and woodpeckers are a common sight and on this trip we were treated to wood duck sightings.

The trail winds and weaves past seemingly impenetrable cypress stands, some forming walls on either side of the passage. Our group kept pushing forward through the flooded forest, always searching for the next hidden marker. About midway through the six mile trip the group veered off to have lunch at the only dry spot for miles, a small dirt landing in a pasture. As is the habit of most responsible paddlers, we cleaned up after ourselves and left no trace before heading back to our watery trail.

Fall colors make trail markers hard to spot on Ocheesee Pond.

Fall colors make trail markers hard to spot on Ocheesee Pond.

Paddling toward the sun, the gold and red of the cypress glowed making it much harder to see the orange and red markers. A faded white marker was virturally invisible behind the gray Spanish moss. At one deceptive turn our guide asked if any of us could point to the two visible markers that he could see. No one could and after he enlightened us we followed him into the trees past a full set of hidden markers. This would not be a good place to be lost in after dark.

 

Paddlers enjoy a beautiful fall day on Ocheesee Pond.

Paddlers enjoy a beautiful fall day on Ocheesee Pond.

Finally the swamp opened up as we neared the open water of the pond. It was sad to be leaving the beauty of the swamp but it was also a relief to have emerged from the maze. A brief paddle had us back across the pond to the put-in with 6.2 miles under our belts.

To get to Ocheesee Pond, head east from Marianna on Highway 90 and turn right on Highway 69. After crossing the railroad tracks in Grand Ridge take a left onto 69A and follow it to a dirt road on the left marked Arkansas. There should be a boat ramp sign marking the turn. Again, don’t attempt this pond alone if you haven’t done it previously.

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Kayaking at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, Fla

 

A group of kayakers entering the mangroves of St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

A group of kayakers entering the mangroves of St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve is a unique location for paddlers that is entirely dependent on the tides. Kayakers can launch at the end of Cove Rd in Stuart, Fla., and paddle across the Intracoastal Waterway to duck into the mangroves at marker #7. This trip is best made with the assistance of someone experienced with the area as it is easy to miss a turn when paddling mangroves.

As our group of paddlers rounded the first turn we were greeted by a leaping stingray. It wasn’t long after that before we were seeing osprey fishing as well as herons, egrets, pelicans and other shorebirds. I even managed to see my first kingfisher. This location is definitely popular with the birds.

A kayaker glides through the mangrove tunnels at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

A kayaker glides through the mangrove tunnels at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

As we moved through the estuary it seemed that we were in our own personal paradise. Leaping fish abounded, safe from the threat of fisherman in motorboats due to the nature of the estuary and its tides. At low tide the bay we were currently traversing becomes a mudflat crawling with Fiddler crabs. Now, at neap tide, the mangroves were alive with scuttling crabs climbing the branches, the “click, click” of their legs the only sound as we drifted past them in quiet contemplation.

 

Following the shaded path to a secluded beach.

Following the shaded path to a secluded beach.

Our trip leader expertly guided us through a hidden mangrove tunnel and led us on to an equally hidden landing where we were able to pull our kayaks on shore. We grabbed our lunches and followed a short shaded path about a hundred feet to a secluded beach on the Atlantic.

After a brief lunch break we packed up and headed back to our kayaks to begin our alternate route out of the mangroves along a man-made cut back to the active channel on the Great Pocket of the Indian River. A stiff wind met us, but persistent paddling finally landed us back at the put-in at Cove Road. The overall length of this trip was 5.5 miles.

A path through sea oats leads to a beach on the Atlantic.

A path through sea oats leads to a beach on the Atlantic.

Cove Road is located off of A1A Highway (Old Dixie Highway) in Stuart, FL. When in the area be sure to check out Jonathan Dickinson State Park on the Loxahatchee River for more scenic views.

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Kayaking on the Loxahatchee River near Jupiter, Fla

 

A group of paddlers set off from River Bend Park on the Loxahatchee River

A group of paddlers sets off from River Bend Park on the Loxahatchee River

The Loxahatchee River has the distinction of being Florida’s first “Wild and Scenic River.” Designated in 1985, the Loxahatchee, a Seminole name meaning “turtle river,” is part of Florida’s Greenways and Trails System and is a favorite of local paddlers due to its wild beauty.

This trip began at Riverbend Park on Indiantown Road in Jupiter, Fla. Riverbend Park is the home of the Loxahatchee River Battlefield, site of the Second Seminole Indian War which includes Powell’s Battle of January 15, 1838 and Jesup’s Battle of January 24, 1838. The canoe launch is a sand area alongside of what appears to be a canal. From this point the river flows as a narrow and twisting ribbon nearly 8.5 miles through a centuries-old cypress forest to a take out location at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

A kayaker glides over a low dam on the upper Loxahatchee River.

A kayaker glides over a low dam on the upper Loxahatchee River.

Along the way are two low dams and a lunch stop at Trapper Nelson’s. These dams have pull-overs for travelers not wishing to attempt the short drop. Running the second dam is completely dependent on water levels so be prepared to portage across the ramp if the river is low. It should be noted, due to the dams and tight turns on the river, boats under 12.5 feet are preferable over longer boats.

Once underway, paddlers will travel under a couple of small bridges before settling in to enjoy the peaceful flow of the river as it seemingly twists back in time and delivers visitors to a primeval place. Giant ferns dot the riverbank as curtains of vines hang from 500 year old cypress trees. Here and there turtles watch on as kayakers navigate past cypress knees. A glance upward reveals Bromeliads and Tillandsia clinging to nearly every branch among the Spanish moss. It doesn’t take much to envision a prehistoric dinosaur moving through the landscape, although realistically an alert eye may be able to spot an alligator moving through the dark waters.

Kayakers float down the Loxahatchee River.

Kayakers float down the Loxahatchee River.

In the upper section the peace is briefly interrupted as paddlers travel beneath the busy I-95 bridge and then reenter the wilderness. The river here narrows and becomes more technical but is still manageable for most intermediate paddlers. Eventually paddlers will round a turn and arrive at Trapper Nelson’s. This is a great lunch stop where visitors can stretch their legs and explore the rustic, hand-built log homes at this historic setting. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy and be prepared to pack out your trash due to the limited amenities available.

Paddlers disembark at Trapper Nelson's.

Paddlers disembark at Trapper Nelson’s.

After leaving Trapper Nelson’s the river widens and meanders toward Jonathan Dickinson State Park where paddlers can explore Kitching Creek, take out at the park boat ramp or continue on to another downstream destination. Tides and wind can make this final leg of the trip on the Loxahatchee challenging so be sure to check conditions before setting out.

 

A paddler does a limbo under a fallen tree on the Loxahatchee River.

A paddler does a limbo under a fallen tree on the Loxahatchee River.

The put-in at Riverbend Park is located at 9060 Indiantown Road, Jupiter, Florida 33478 and take-outs are available at Jonathan Dickinson State Park ,16450 SE Federal Hwy, Hobe Sound, FL 33455 and beyond. Paddlers can also make arrangements with a local outfitter to rent kayaks and arrange for shuttles.

 

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Kayaking on Kitching Creek at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, FL

 

Kayakers paddling on Kitching Creek

Kayakers paddling on Kitching Creek

Kitching Creek is a small tributary that flows into the Loxahatchee River at Jonathan Dickinson State Park near Hobe Sound, Fla. Visitors can rent a canoe or kayak from the camp store or launch their own vessel at the park boat ramp and paddle a short distance (about 1 mile) up the Loxahatchee River to the mouth of Kitching Creek.

The Loxahatchee, a Seminole name meaning “turtle river,” is a tidally influenced river as evidenced by the numerous mangroves lining the river banks. As paddlers enter Kitching Creek, the banks give way to giant ferns, cabbage palms, towering cypress and Spanish moss. Osprey and wading birds are also a common sight along the river and creek.

Giant fern on Kitching Creek

Giant fern on Kitching Creek

It’s generally an easy paddle upstream. Visitors will pass a wooden observation deck extending from Kitching Creek Trail within the park at about .04 miles in. Past this point the creek begins to narrow, forcing paddlers to travel single file until eventually they must turn back roughly less than a 2/10ths of a mile upstream and then enjoy a leisurely float back downstream.

 

Cabbage palm on Kitching Creek

Cabbage palm on Kitching Creek

Although short, Kitching Creek offers unspoiled views of the local flora and fauna and provides an excellent opportunity for beginning kayakers to practice paddling without overdoing it. For those desiring a longer paddle, head approximately 2 miles upstream (or 3 miles from the swimming beach at the state park) on the Loxahatchee River and aim for Trapper Nelson’s historic homestead for a taste of the real “old” Florida.

Kayaking on Kitching Creek

Kayaking on Kitching Creek

Jonathan Dickinson State Park is located at 16450 S.E. Federal Highway, Hobe Sound, Florida 33455. For more information and current admission fees please visit the park website.

 

 

 

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Exploring Big Lagoon State Park in Perdido Key, Fla

 

Kayaker's at Big Lagoon State Park

Kayaker’s at Big Lagoon State Park

Fall is the perfect time of year to plan a trip to Big Lagoon State Park, located just 10 miles southwest of Pensacola, Fl near Perdido Key. This 655 acre park has just about something for everyone; camping, hiking, fishing, bird-watching, canoeing, swimming, biking, and sightseeing. Take in the view with a climb of the three-story observation tower perched on the edge of the intracoastal waterway or explore Big Lagoon by kayak. This park doesn’t disappoint.

White-tail deer at Big Lagoon State Park

White-tail deer at Big Lagoon State Park

Because there’s so many different things to do it might be difficult to decide on what to do first, and in fact it might be a good idea to plan to spend a couple of days exploring. If time is limited however, plan on hiking or cycling early in the morning when its cooler and save other activities for later in the afternoon. Make sure to pack a picnic lunch or something for the grill.

The distances between some of the activities, such as campground to tower or amphitheater, may be a bit far for some to tackle, but a leisurely bike or car ride will cover the distance and provide an opportunity to spot some of the park’s other inhabitants such as white-tail deer, marsh rabbits or armadillo. A side-trip to Long Pond might even reward nature buffs with an alligator sighting but tread quietly because this gator spooks easily.

Fisherman on the Intracoastal Waterway at Big Lagoon

Fisherman on the Intracoastal Waterway at Big Lagoon

Big Lagoon’s proximity to Gulf access is an added bonus and makes it a popular destination with fishermen. Anglers can choose to fish the grass flats for trout, flounder and redfish or venture out into the Gulf through the pass to try for larger gamefish. There is ample parking at both the boat ramp and kayak launch to accommodate even the busiest fishing day.

Hiking is another popular activity at the park and there are multiple trails to explore. Be sure to wear proper footwear and carry plenty of water. The terrain is a combination of coastal scrub, marsh and pine flatwoods. Temperatures during the summer months can get quite uncomfortable so its best to hike during the cooler parts of the day. Watch for signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration and respond accordingly. Florida’s heat and humidity can tax even the most experienced hiker.

Observation Tower at Big Lagoon.

Observation Tower at Big Lagoon.

Big Lagoon State Park is located at 12301 Gulf Beach Highway, Pensacola, Florida 32507 and is open from 8 a.m. to sundown year-round. Admission at time of publication is $4 for single occupant vehicle or $6 for vehicles with 2-6 passengers. Visit the park’s website for information regarding boat launch fees and camping information.

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