Kayaking in and Around Tampa: 10 of the Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

By James @ Sea Kayak Explorer

The clear blue waters surrounding Tampa make it an ideal location for all water sports, especially kayaking. From relaxing to exploring, kayaking is an excellent way to view the natural scenery and local wildlife. The area has numerous options for watersports; kayaking is a favorite and family-friendly activity that everyone can enjoy. 

Listed below is a complete guide to the most exciting places to kayak in Tampa, Florida. 

For more nearby kayaking destinations, check out our list of the best kayaking destinations in Florida here.

1. Fort DeSoto Park, FL

Fort DeSoto is over 1,000 acres and offers an array of kayaking options for beginners and those more advanced. For those new to kayaking, the Mulley Key Bayou is an approximately two-mile loop that follows mangrove-covered shores to a beautiful lagoon; the wind is blocked by the tree coverage, allowing novices to test kayaking skills in a safe environment. 

The Mullet Key Bayou offers another, longer path for those seeking a more challenging route – about ten miles. Additionally, Egmont Key provides an excellent kayaking adventure for more experienced paddlers. Parts of both of these routes are more open and exposed to more windy conditions. 

Fort DeSoto Park is excellent for those who have their kayak and those who need to rent equipment. If you have a boat, you may launch into the waterway from inside the park. If renting, park guides can help with paperwork, trail mapping, and launch. 

Fort DeSoto Park is located just off State Hwy 679 toward Pinellas Bayway.

2. Caladesi Island, FL

Caladesi Island, FL by Pinellas County (CC BY 2.0)

Caladesi Island is usually accessible by ferry from Clearwater Beach, but paddlers can skip the line and try kayaking out to the island. At only one mile in length, this locale is an underrepresented option in the Tampa area.

The marine wildlife in the area is active, and if you kayak around the island to the northernmost point, kayakers will likely be able to paddle alongside dolphins. Additionally, those who choose to visit the island will see other wildlife, beautiful seashells, and panoramic views of the surrounding area. 

The island offers additional kayaking via a three-mile water trail that cuts through the island’s forest – an excellent route for exploring the island in-depth. Anyone who visits Caladesi Island can experience the pristine beauty of nature. For those who have their kayak, there are launch points along Clearwater Beach. Also, renting a boat is easy with local businesses, like Sail Honeymoon Inc

3. Hillsborough River, FL

A wild and challenging ride, Hillsborough River boasts both Class II rapids and stretches of flat water, making this kayaking option exciting and adventurous. The river, surrounded by plants and trees, creates a vibrant view of the foliage from the river. 

The Hillsborough River has something for every type of paddler, but it is recommended that those who are more experienced take on the rapids, as alligators tend to lounge on the river banks. The river bank and surrounding area are home to wild hogs and turkeys in addition to the alligators.

Renting kayaking gear is accessible at this location. For instance, Canoe Escape offers rental equipment as well as guided tours down the river. Hillsborough River is a beautiful place for intermediate and advanced kayakers to explore Tampa’s cypress swamps and tree-lined shores. 

4. Weeki Wachee Springs, FL

Weeki Wachee has clear, 70-degree water nearly year-round. Additionally, the springs are home to aquatic wildlife like manatees and other fish. For those who want to bring their equipment, the springs’ entrance is downstream from Rogers Park, but for others, there are options to rent a kayak and use a shuttle service after time on the water. 

This location becomes crowded with adventure goers during the weekend and is best experienced during the week for tourists and locals alike. Specifically, this location limits the number of kayaks allowed on the water simultaneously, so arriving early is best.

Launching your boat from Rogers Park and paddling upstream is early work, but afterward, you can float back to the park where you began. Weeki Wachee allows other small, motor-powered boats and swimming, so it’s a popular water-recreation location for folks looking for several different opportunities. 

5. Cockroach Bay Preserve, FL

Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park is not named after the insect, but rather it is an endearing term for the horseshoe crabs located around the preserve. The Bay looks out over Tampa Bay towards St. Petersburg. While the preserve offers two distinct water trails for kayakers, neither prominent but paddlers can move around all of the waterways at Cockroach Bay Preserve. 

The preserve is full of flatwater and mangroves. Many locals enjoy fishing from this place, so while it might be crowded, there is no significant influx of motorboats. The aquatic and land-based wildlife is diverse, and kayakers can see dolphins, crabs, and various birds. Because of its location adjacent to Tampa Bay, the preserve has calm water and choppier coastal water. 

6. Alafia River, FL

Alafia River, FL by Mwanner (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kayaking on the Alafia River is a fun and easy experience, especially for people renting their gear. An excellent option at the Alafia River is renting equipment and using a shuttle back to the launch point. Weather shifts and heavy rain can impact how successful your kayak trip is here. Fortunately, If a kayaker calls before arriving, the workers and businesses that offer gear and shuttling can usually update them about the water conditions. 

Launching from either Alderman’s Ford or Lithia Springs are good choices, and from that area, the kayaking is all downstream. The distance traverses just over 10 miles depending on your specific launch point. The Alafia River is serene and peaceful – so many animals make this location their home, including turtles and alligators. 

7. Rainbow River, FL

With very clear water and high visibility, Rainbow River is a stunning kayaking location. Development has been built on one side of the waterway, but surprisingly, there are few locations to stop for food or coffee. The best time to travel the Rainbow River is during the week because it is a popular location for boaters, tubers, and others during the weekend. 

While kayaking, many people decide to pause during their tour and enjoy some time snorkeling. Because the water is so clear, it is easy to see all the aquatic creatures and structures underwater. Specifically, Indian Creek and Gissy Spring Run are great places within the Rainbow River that are good for kayaking and snorkeling. 

Notably, Rainbow Spring State Park has various animals living in the area, like otters and alligators. However, this kayaking option is likely the furthermost drive for many from the Tampa area, but it has many benefits, which is why it remains on the top ten list! 

8. Little Manatee River, FL

The Little Manatee River is divided into upper and lower sections, which are distinct. The upper section of the river is challenging and should be traversed with care; however, other areas are more appropriate for kayakers with varying skill levels. Alongside the river are steep banks with some vegetation but few opportunities to get out of the kayak and explore. 

The lower section of the Little Manatee River boasts more wildlife than the upper and is more comprehensive, allowing for more successful kayaking on certain days.

There are few locations to access the waterway. The first is near a guide called the Canoe Outpost by the US 301 Bridge. Kayakers can park at the bridge or the nearby Canoe Outpost for a small fee. The second launch option is within the Little Manatee River State Park, where staff can direct paddlers to entrance points.

9. Myakka River, FL

The Myakka River is an excellent option for a more extended kayaking trip since the river is over sixty miles long. Additionally, for those interested in observing alligators in their natural habitat, the Myakka River is filled with these indigenous reptiles.

The nearby state park offers canoes and kayak rentals. The park rangers will note kayakers who enter the park and can share critical information about alligators in the area. Furthermore, some parts of the river, the portion that is south of State Road 72, require a permit from a park ranger because that is a limited access area. 

10. Tarpon Springs Bayou, FL

The Tarpon Springs Bayou offers kayaking for all ages and experience levels. The bayou is the home to many manatees and large mangrove trees. Manatees enjoy consistent warm weather and have historically enjoyed spending time in the Spring Bayou during the winter months. The spring water temperature maintains a constant of 72 degrees. Using a transparent kayak provides the best views of these magnificent underwater animals. 

Craig Park is located along Tarpon Spring Bayou and offers kayakers a boat ramp for canoe and kayak launching. They also grant tours; some focus on providing children the opportunity to see the manatees from a safe and controlled distance.

Summing up the Best Places to Kayak Near Tampa

As you can see from the list above, whether you’re a first-time kayaker or an experienced paddler, Tampa offers some of the best places to go for your next river adventure.

From tranquil waterways perfect for beginners and families with children to Class II rapids that will get adrenaline junkies on their feet, there is something here for everyone.

So what are you waiting for? Get out and enjoy one of these 10 beautiful water trails now!