I am talking to a cashier in the Wekiva Springs State Park canoe rental shop (northwest of downtown Orlando). She is telling me that there are no refunds if I become afraid of alligators and decide to skedaddle back, pronto. She also tells me that it isn’t their fault if you don’t know how to paddle a canoe or if rain ruins your day. But my favorite is that it’s up to me to understand that the river does not run in a circular pattern, so the renter must know enough to turn the vessel around at some point and come back to the shop. I guess some of the guests must have come straight from Disney’s Jungle Cruise to assume that the river was round. Or they’re just a very special kind of stupid.
In any event, I haven’t been to the Magic Kingdom in years, and why would I when such natural treasures are provided right at our doorstep by Mother Nature? Sometimes we forget how spoiled we become living in Florida, where you can enjoy beautiful sandy beaches in the morning and watch manatees play in crystal-clear spring water in the afternoon. If you’re a tourist here and have an extra day to spend, and want to see the “real” Florida, or even if you’re a native that just needs to chill for a day, I can’t recommend this kind of diversion enough. It’s great clean fun for the whole family!
Taking a canoe or kayak down this river, which eventually flows through the very heart of Orlando’s suburban sprawl and connects with the mighty St. John’s, is a trip back into prehistory. It isn’t hard to imagine yourself, as you paddle along under a gorgeous canopy of cypress trees, as a latter-day Ponce De Leon, save for the other few human visitors you see along the way. Here, you are likely to view a variety of turtles, fish, birds, gators, and even snakes, though today the larger reptiles seem to be hiding. No matter. As my son and I cruise along placidly under the hanging vines and arched palms along the lush banks, the dark river waters take us back to an earlier time when people enjoyed life’s simpler pleasures. It’s still a perfectly relaxing, perfectly healthy, perfectly natural way to enjoy God’s creation.
There are several places where you can rent a canoe in the river basin. I have been to all of them (and camped at some) on multiple occasions. Here’s the best of the best:
If you want to see manatees-
You are guaranteed to see these gentle giants at Blue Springs State Park if you come during the winter months of November to March. In addition, this is a great place for SCUBA cave diving (advanced reservations required). There’s also a historic house to explore, river cruises, picnic grounds, kayaking and canoeing, camping…in fact, this park has it all, and if I only had time for one park, this would be it. The bad news that it is the furthest away from the Orlando area hotels.
If you want to go tubing-
Go to Kelly Park and ride down the Ichetucknee River. You can rent the inner tubes just outside the park. This is arguably the park with the most fun for the kids and adults as well. Just throw your tube in the cool, clear spring water and go with the flow. Jump from the banks into perfectly crystalline swimming holes. Get out at one of the many trails or bridges along your route, and repeat until exhausted. Trust me, this will be a huge hit!
If you’re on a tight schedule-
Wekiva Springs State Park on the Wekiva River is closest to the Orlando attractions. It has canoeing and kayaking, hiking, camping, dining, picnic areas, and swimming areas.
If you like water parks-
Wekiva Falls RV Resort has a spring-fed swimming hole as the central attraction, with a couple of water slides and fountains to up the fun factor. It’s very crowded in the summer time, but you can escape the madness by opting for a canoe/kayak trip instead. Campgrounds, dining, and meeting facilities on site.
CAUTION!!! A WORD ABOUT GATORS
Inevitably, when I tell people overseas that I’m from Florida, one of the first things they ask me is about the danger of the gators. The short answer is they’re easy to avoid if you take simple precautions. On the very few times you hear of a fatal encounter with people, there’s usually alcohol involved, and the last words of the human were, “Hey, watch me wrestle this ol’ boy!”
Generally speaking, only swim in designated swimming areas. Most of these will have a barrier set up to keep stray gators out. All of them will be marked. When in a canoe, do not glide directly over the top of an 11-footer just to get a good picture, like I did 20 years ago. My son and I were close enough to touch the tile-sized scales on his wide back when he submerged under us. Did I mention “special kind of stupid” elsewhere in this article? I was talking about me.