Beyond The Theme Parks/Wild Florida

For Toronto Globe and Mail

Within seconds of putting the kayaks in the water the current whipped one paddler into a fallen tree, sending him into an unintentional Eskimo roll.  Joe, a database programmer from Miami had never been in a kayak before. He surfaced in the current, flailing, coughing, gagging and spitting water. Things were not off to a good start.

I paddled over to help, but got caught by the current and shoved into an overhanging tree. I looked up to find myself face-to-face with a snake, a big snake, wrapped around a branch just above my head.

It was an explosion of chaos, a flurry of paddling, pushing, swearing, glimpses of snake, big snake, sky, river, Joe coughing water, back to snake…whew!…still in the tree but hanging right over the bow. One move and he would drop into the kayak, right between my legs!!!

This wasn’t starting out as the easy little Saturday morning float trip we had planned on one of Central Florida’s quiet paddle streams.  Normally as slow and safe as being rocked in your grandmother’s arms, today the Little Econlackhatchee River, east of Orlando, was like being in the grips of a babysitter who had too many double Latte’s at Starbucks.

For those visiting the Orlando theme parks who are looking for more excitement than the Disney Jungle Cruise, there are still wild places to experience in Florida, on a bike, in a kayak or on a hiking trail. Out beyond the theme parks, Florida still has natural wonders that will leave you muttering “tres bien” at every turn in a twisting stream, every exotic bird sighting along a palm shrouded trail, every sunset on a secluded white sand beach.

You can take off on your own, or you can hook up with numerous organizations in Central Florida that have outdoors excursions every weekend.  Visitors are welcomed and the events are usually free. Clubs can be a good source of information about equipment rentals.

Club members are local, and their native knowledge will guide you to hidden destinations. While fellow snowbirders are standing in line to ride a swan boat around a concrete moat, listening to canned calliope music and recorded bird calls, you can be paddling to a real adventure island and listening to real birds.

If you are into fun on two wheels, the area around Orlando has an ever-growing network of paved bike trails through suburban communities.

The most popular ride is the paved 30-mile long West Orange Trail, which runs through small towns, subdivisions and rolling hills west of Orlando. Small restaurants, antique shops and boutiques line the trail in Winter Garden. There is a bike rental concession at the trailhead in Oakland, just off State Highway 50.

For a more urban ride, the city of Orlando has a maze of bike paths that meander along brick streets through neighborhoods and historic districts. You can download maps from the city web site that will lead you around the area’s many lakes, and right to the front door of many of the trendy restaurants in the city’s toney Thornton Park district.

If the beach beckons you, head for the Canaveral National Seashore, about an hour east of Orlando. It’s uncluttered by the condos, T-shirt shops and fast food stands you find along most Florida beaches.  There are parking areas, rest rooms and boardwalks across the dunes, but not much else. Just you, the sand and the sea.

The National Seashore is a popular surf fishing spot.  Because of the way it juts into the Atlantic, currents bring fish in close to the shore, within easy casting of the long polers who line the beach. As long as you’re standing on shore and fishing in saltwater in Florida, no fishing license is required. On the backside of the seashore, Mosquito Lagoon is a good flat-water kayaking location, where you will likely run into dolphin and manatees. A popular activity in one inlet is for kids to float on air mattresses while manatees swim up beneath them and push them along the surface.  It’s illegal to approach the manatee, but when they approach you, relax, be passive to their inquisitive nudges, and let the fun begin. The dolphins are more curious than friendly.  They circle kayaks, but rarely approach, content with contact from a distance. Bring your binoculars. In the winter the lagoon and bordering Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are dotted with migrating birds. November to April are peak viewing months, with the refuge populated with shorebirds, wading birds, ducks and rare sightings of Bald Eagles, Red-Shouldered Hawks, and the even rarer Pileated Woodpeckers and Great Horned Owls.

Back roads in the Refuge and the National Seashore make for relaxing back-to-nature bike trips. A cool morning ride at dawn in the fall and winter can start in a light fog coming off the water. You hear the birds long before you see them, their calls amplified in the thick, humid air.  As the sun rises over the dunes and the sky warms, the fog clears and the birds take flight. In the distance you see the unmistakable nests of another kind of bird, the Space Shuttle launch towers at the Kennedy Space Center. Much of the refuge and seashore are on NASA land, and closed to the public for four days before each launch.

The north end of the seashore is accessed through New Smyrna Beach. The Wildlife Refuge and the south seashore access is at Titusville.

Two hours west of Orlando some of the best beaches and sea kayaking in Florida are within a long fly ball of the Toronto Blue Jay’s spring training home in Dunedin.

You can drive across the Dunedin Causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park. Across a narrow channel is Caladesi Island, with white sandy beaches and nature trails. There is a ferry from Honeymoon to Caladesi, or it is a relatively short and easy paddle trip. You will find a kayak rental concession on the causeway.

A few miles north is Anclote Key, accessible only by boat, and only for more experienced and adventurous paddlers. It is an open water paddle of several miles, which can be challenging if the weather turns and you have to fight your way through wind and waves. But the effort is worth it; if you go during the week you may have the five-mile beach all to yourself.

South of St. Petersburg, at the northern entrance to Tampa Bay, is Fort DeSoto Park, one of the prettiest tree-shrouded RV campgrounds in Florida. During the winter it’s a tough ticket as reservations can only be made in person, and not more than 30 days in advance. The campground is usually packed, but perseverance will eventually get you in, and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular sunsets in the Gulf of Mexico, and some of the best fishing in Florida.

If mountain biking or backpacking is your thing, the Cross Florida Greenway near Ocala is your place. An hour north of Orlando, off Interstate 75, the Greenway has miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

The most popular trails cross the interstate via the “Land Bridge”, which was specifically built with a base of soil and native vegetation to be consistent with the rest of the trail environment. Trailheads are located on the east side of the Land Bridge along Route 475A, and on the west side at 49thAvenue. A round trip hike between them covers about 5 miles. The mountain bike and equestrian trails wander a little more and probably cover about 10 miles.

The bike trails have diverse personalities.  East of the Land Bridge the ride is twisty, flat, easy, and well marked.  But cross over the bridge to the west side and you’re literally in the Wild West, with steep climbs and treacherous downhills. Trail markers suddenly disappear and few riders emerge without spending a little time wandering lost in the woods, and coming away at least mildly bloodied and bruised.

Two of Florida’s most scenic paddle trips, the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers, are located in the Ocala area. You can access both from Wayside Park, a parking area and boat launch site on State Road 40, east of Silver Springs.

The boat launch is in a sheltered lagoon and you follow a short channel to the Silver River.  Turn right and you can paddle about 5 miles to the famous Silver Springs, which you can experience for free from the vantage point of your boat instead of paying a hefty admission fee like the tourists who crowd the shore.

The Silver River has a formidable current, and the upstream paddle can be tiring. You can take some comfort in thinking how relaxing the downstream return trip will be. You may spot a colony of monkeys, descendants of Hollywood outcasts.  The area was used for location filming back in the Tarzan days, and when work was done the monkeys were simply released into the woods.

Turn left coming out of the Wayside Park channel and you soon arrive at the confluence of the Silver and Ocklawaha rivers.  The waters put on an amazing show as they come together.  The Ocklawaha is a typical Florida “blackwater” river, with water stained with tannin from leaves and muck. The Silver River is spring fed and flows clean and clear. Where they merge the river currents seem like contrasting ribbons for a short distance before they intermingle, one side dark and foreboding, the other clear and transparent with an unobstructed view of the sandy bottom.

The Ocklawaha River runs north and has lots of primitive camping areas along the bank in the Ocala National Forest.  The Gore’s Landing campground is located on the west bank of the river about seven miles from the Wayside put-in point. It has restrooms and fresh water. If you go far enough you will see the locks that were built to turn this river into a barge canal, a plan that was abandoned 30 years ago.

From December to March manatees school together in warm water locations like Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, an hour east of Orlando, off Interstate 4. The herd population in the spring has grown to more than 100, where water temperatures stay about 24 degrees (Celsius) year round. Swimming isn’t allowed in the manatee area, but the park has canoes you can rent to get a closer look.

The heavy tree canopy is open enough to allow the sun to focus like a spotlight on the spring below. It is a place of such idyllic beauty that you can’t help but wonder if this was Ponce DeLeon’s mythical “Fountain of Youth”.

The fall and winter are great times to get outside and enjoy an unplugged Florida adventure. The Roaring 90’s of summer (90 degrees and 90% humidity) are replaced with cool nights and warm, comfortable days. Bird populations are at their peaks. Manatees are crowded into their winter homes. And you can actually find a parking space at the beach because only Canadians go in the ocean in the winter. Tres bien.

Oh, about Joe.  He survived…saved himself just by standing up. Did I mention the Little Econ is pretty shallow. As for the snake…if you want to include him in your Florida adventure you’re going to have to get your own. I think mine died laughing.


Fred Mays writes on environmental and Eco travel topics, and lives in Winter Park, Florida.  More information on Florida adventure travel can be found on his web site:



Every weekend the Florida Freewheelers bike club hosts at least six rides in the Orlando area. The trips range from racing pace road rides to leisurely tours around town, and usually cover 20 to 50 miles.

Florida Freewheelers

(407) 788-2453

The Tampa Bay Sea Kayak Club regularly has trips to the islands and on rivers in the Dunedin and St. Petersburg area

Tampa Bay Sea Kayak Club

Beverly Paddock, Trip Coordinator

Things are never dull with the Wilderness Trekkers club in Orlando. If you can do it outdoors, they are into it…hiking, paddle trips, camping, mountain biking, and bird watching. The club has over 1,000 members and runs outings all over the state every weekend.

Wilderness Trekkers

Dennis Gonzalez, Activities Director


The Florida Trail Association oversees and maintains the 1,300-mile long Florida National Trail, which criss-crosses the state from the Everglades to North Florida.  There are groups leading local hikes in many areas along the trail almost daily.

Florida Trail Association


Other Links

Orange County Parks & Recreation, West Orange Trail

(407) 654-1108

City of Orlando Bikeway maps



Fort DeSoto, Pinellas County Parks

Canaveral National Seashore

Cross Florida Greenway


Blue Spring State Park
D3 – 2100 West French Avenue, Orange City, FL 32763;

(386) 775-3663

Caladesi, Honeymoon Island, and Anclote Key State Parks

D4 – # 1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, FL 34698;

(727) 469-5918


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