I've paddled dozens of rivers in Florida over the years, but never thought twice about the Manatee River, even though I have driven over it hundreds of times as I have headed south on I-75 on my way to The Everglades.
The Upper Manatee River Paddling Trial is ideal for beginners. The gentle current makes this stretch of river ideal for families as well. There is about 6 miles of navigable water and you can string together a variety of excursions.
For more information, contact Ray's Canoe Hideaway, (941) 747-3909 or go to http://www.rayscanoehideaway.com/RyeWildernessPark.html .
And when you have knocked off that trip, challenge yourself to another one of my favorites:
Just a half-hour drive from downtown Tampa, this is one of the most scenic rivers in Florida. The state's 31-mile designated canoe trail runs from Crystal Springs to the City of Tampa's Rowlett Park, though the upper reaches can be difficult to paddle. The section below the state park, Seventeen Runs, should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers. Canoe Escape, on Fowler Avenue, is one of the state's best outfitters and offers rentals as well as drop-off and pick-up if you bring your own paddlecraft. Call (813) 986-2067 or go to www.canoeescape.com .
Made famous in the song Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster, this river starts in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and twists and turns for 207 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near the town of Suwannee. The river has dozens of access points, which allows for a variety of day or overnight trips. It is possible to wilderness camp, stay in state parks or use one of the state's new "river camps." It is recommended that paddlers, regardless of skill level, portage Big Shoals above White Springs, the only Class III rapids in Florida. Call the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at (800) 868-9914 or go to www.suwanneeriver.com .
With its headwaters located in the Green Swamp east of Brooksville, this river (not to be confused with another Withlacoochee in north Florida) passes through a variety of terrain, including cypress swamps, oak hammocks and pine forests. Camping is available at Silver Lake Recreation Area, part of the state forest system. Technically, the river has 83 miles of trail, but conditions vary with water level. Contact the Nobleton Canoe Outpost, (352) 796-7176 for information and reservations, or visit www.nobletonoutpost.com .
This 31-mile canoe trail near Milton in the Florida Panhandle flows through the unspoiled Blackwater River State Forest. At times, overhanging trees form a canopy over the river. Up the high bluffs, you'll also see some impressive stands of cedar. The only true undeveloped sand river left in the United States, the Blackwater is a must for every paddler's life list. Ideal for beginners and families (plenty of sandbars for picnicking). Call Blackwater Canoe Rental at 1-800-967-6789 or visit www.blackwatercanoe.com .
This river, approximately 110 miles long and flowing along the edge of the Ocala National Forest, was once a major thoroughfare for paddle-wheeled steamboats traveling up the nearby St. Johns. Rich in history and "Cracker" Florida charm, the Ocklawaha still has bobcat, deer and black bear living along the shoreline. To plan your trip on the Ocklawaha or the nearby Silver and Dead rivers or Cedar Creek, contact the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost & Resort in Fort McCoy at (352) 236-4606 or go to www.outpostresort.com