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Kayaking In Florida In A Sawgrass Marsh Landscape Once We're Out Of The Mangroves

Kayaking in Florida on the Turner River

With dreams of alligators lunging for the warm meat sitting in my kayak cockpit (me), I went ahead and booked a full day trip kayaking in Florida on the Turner River in Florida’s Big Cypress National Reserve.

The goal was to see the area in its most pristine state – well off the very busy and well-trodden tourist trail. I knew the area would be rich not only with alligators but with birds, and that would make my husband very happy. Kayaking in Florida isn’t always appealing if it’s buggy or there’s too much boat traffic. But we really didn’t have to contend with any of that.

Updated April 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The little blue heron in Big Cypress National Preserve
The little blue heron in Big Cypress National Preserve

Kayaking in Florida in the Everglades

To start the kayaking tour, we were to meet in Everglades City at 8 AM for an 8 hour day on the water. Our timing was great! The biggest weekend of the year in Everglades City – the Everglades City Seafood Festival – coincided with our visit and ensured that every room for miles was booked months in advance.

John and I ended up staying in Homestead for the night, about 1 ¾ hour drive away. We were up very early to make the 8 AM rendezvous.

An underwhelming start at the beginning of the Turner River
An underwhelming start at the beginning of the Turner River

The launch site on the Turner River is underwhelming

The day started with a quick shuttle to the Turner River launch site. The start of the Turner River, one that naturally dries up every spring, is underwhelming. Barely a river in my books, I wondered what we were in for.

It turned out – a lot – and within minutes.

The paddle is initially super easy, more a languid float than anything requiring work. But quite literally within two minutes of launching we’d seen a big pair of alligator eyes staring at us. And a few minutes later, another pair. And another. I think you get the idea – 8 pairs of alligator eyes in total – and that’s just the ones we saw.

But considering there are about two million alligators in south Florida, that’s barely a drop in the bucket.

Kayaking in Florida and an aliigator seen within 2 minutes of launching
Our first alligator seen within about 2 minutes of launching
A few water lilies in bloom on the Turner River
A few water lilies in bloom on the Turner River
A beautiful red-shouldered hawk seen early on kayaking in Florida
A beautiful red-shouldered hawk seen early on kayaking in Florida

Kayaking through a tunnel of mangroves

After our initial oohing and awing at all the birds and alligators, we were into a tunnel of mangroves for the better part of a mile – as a rough guess. Tight enough that you had to use only half a kayak paddle, I hoped there were no snakes dripping from above. (There weren’t.)

This part of the trip turned out to be a lot of fun. Using a combination of paddling and pulling we emerged periodically into an environment of sawtooth grass – before heading back into the mangroves. Every so often, we’d see beautiful bromeliads in flower growing out of the crook of a tree.

Kayaking through thick groves of mangroves on the Turner River
Kayaking through thick groves of mangroves on the Turner River
Kayaking in Florida in a sawgrass marsh landscape once we're out of the mangroves
Kayaking in Florida in a sawgrass marsh landscape once we’re out of the mangroves
John paddling through another set of mangrove tunnels
John paddling through another set of mangrove tunnels

After a couple of hours we reached the first dry spot of land where we could take a break. You could actually camp here – no permits are necessary as it’s in Big Cypress National Preserve and not in a national park. But it wouldn’t be my first choice for an overnight camping spot.

One of the two areas on the Turner River where you can get out of the kayak
One of the two areas on the Turner River where you can get out of the kayak

Then it was back into the kayak for another few hours. As the river widened, it offered bigger vistas.

Beautiful bromeliads seen kayaking in Florida
Beautiful bromeliads seen kayaking in Florida
Peaceful easy kayaking on this section of the Turner River
Peaceful easy kayaking on this section of the Turner River

Our last pullout was at the location of a 1500 year old midden – the site of an old Indian camp. Layer upon layer of shells can be seen in the banks up from the river.

Kayaking in Florida past a 1500 year old Indian midden
A 1500 year old Indian midden
Our last stop is on an oyster beach - just before we reach the estuary and 3 miles from Everglades City
Our last stop is on an oyster beach – just before we reach the estuary and 3 miles from Everglades City

Kayaking in Florida to Everglades City

The paddle is definitely a little less interesting and fun in the last three miles. Once you reach civilization the boat traffic picks up considerably. However, with a little luck you might see dolphins (we saw one from a distance) and manatees (no luck).

Into the estuary and mindful of boat traffic
Into the estuary and mindful of boat traffic

The manatees have not adapted to the world nearly as well as the alligators – which have been around for 75 million years. In fact, the manatees tolerate cold water so badly that they’ll die en masse if the temperature drops below 68°F for any length of time.

Now the electrical generation plants in Florida are required by law to discharge warm water whenever it’s cold to keep the manatees alive.

If only the manatees could read the signs
If only the manatees could read the signs

The last mile of the paddle is in a wide but very shallow section of the river. Motorboats could only use the channel to our right, or they’d run aground. It was slightly breezy through here as well and since our kayaks didn’t track that well, it was a battle to keep the boat moving in a straight line.

Kayaking in Florida on the home stretch
Kayaking in Florida on the home stretch
Landing in Everglades City
Landing in Everglades City

How long does it take to kayak the Turner River?

It took us 6.5 hours including breaks to paddle 17 km (10.5 miles).

Our guide Dave says that he has occasionally finished the paddle in the dark. I’d call it a moderate paddle – with the toughest kayaking the last few miles. We used a guide as I really didn’t know what to think about paddling with alligators (no problem at all when they haven’t been habituated to humans) and I figure we’d learn a lot more about the area if we went with a naturalist.

Kayaking in Florida on the Turner River – guide or no guide?

You could rent a kayak and do this trip on your own. Route finding is not particularly difficult but still many people wouldn’t want to attempt it.

We did our trip was with the Everglades Kayak Company – not an inexpensive option, especially as they don’t even provide lunch, but our guide was extremely knowledgeable about the area. Another company to try is Everglades Adventures & Kayak Tours.

By mid-March it’s likely the Turner River will be impassable. It dries up for about six months of the year. Our timing was close to ideal, especially as there wasn’t a bug to be seen.

Map of our route for the day
Map of our route for the day

Where to stay beforehand in Everglades City

For an eco-friendly bed and breakfast check out Ivey House. They also provide canoe and kayak rentals along with tours.

Further reading on things to do in Florida

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Kayaking in Florida on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. I guess I’ll have to say “no” because I wouldn’t be absolutely confident that it was safe. But I’m not brave like you! I’ve been on one of those airboats in the Everglades and saw alligators — that’s enough for me to experience in real life. My greater adventures will be vicariously through you. As always, great pics!

  2. Before the first time I paddled in the Everglades I was petrified of canoeing with them. Then we paddled into Alligator Lake and there were 8 or 9 of them swimming about. They all disappeared under the water as soon as we got close. They reminded me of big turtles, and I soon relaxed and felt at ease. You won’t find me swimming in alligator territory, but I don’t worry about canoeing or kayaking. Looks like a great trip. The Big Cypress is so beautiful. I would like to hike it along the Florida Trail.

  3. Wow, high five for your daredevil adventure! You get to kayak bravely though you already know there are crocodiles there! Bravo!

  4. Loved this post – a totally different side to Florida for me. I spend a portion of my week writing about property in Florida so this was a refreshing change! Looks like a long paddle though

    1. @Jo This was the wildest adventure I’ve had in Florida to date and I found it to be a refreshing change from the soft adventures. Kayaking through mangrove tunnels was incredible and it was just so much fun to see the Florida landscape before development.

  5. Sounds like a fantastic – and a fantastically scary – experience. I think I would prefer being in a bigger boat, just a wee bit further away from these mighty creatures.

  6. That Manatee Speed Zone sign is awesome. Regardless of feeling a person knows an alligator’s behavior or assurances from guides. Unless I have a signed No Attacking Me and Eating Me contract from the gators I would be very hesitant! LOL 🙂 It’s like surfers who lose a leg in waters where they were told that sharks never attack humans. I love your adventures always and the bright warm sunshine of your trip definitely brings warmth to this reader’s day here Leigh! Loved it! 🙂

    1. @Mike So many manatees are killed because of propeller blades but the unfortunate reality is that the manatees – as big as they are, might still be swimming in the channel where the boats motor through at higher speeds. It was a treat to have a really warm day as I’m back to winter tomorrow. I kayaked right over a few 6 foot plus gators and truly felt no fear – though I did sign a waiver and not like the one you’d like to sign.

  7. I would love this kind of adventure, though I’m not very fond of alligators. What is it about their behavoir that prevents them from snapping at kayakers?

    1. @Mette When wild and not habituated to humans they follow their instinct which mostly revolves around warming up or cooling down – and not eating. In fact they can go months without food. If they hiss, that’s a problem and you should leave immediately.

  8. You had quite an adventure, Leigh! In answer to your question, I’d definitely kayak with alligators.
    We have two popular swamp safari tours in Jamaica that I’ve tried to do – both have alligators. Unfortunately, I arrived late twice and never made it back but they’re still on my list.
    Interesting to read that the power company has to warm up the water for the manatees.

  9. I would definitely go kayaking with the alligators! This looks like an awesome place to go for a paddle, I particularly like the idea of going through the mangrove tunnel 🙂

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