Florida's Oklawaha River

Take a lazy cruise through exotic scenery, where monkeys swing and eagles soar.
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Take a lazy cruise through exotic scenery, where monkeys swing and eagles soar.

Little-Known Fact: Did you know the Lower Oklawaha River's current is slow enough to allow upstream paddling?

Beyond the bikinis and hotels, there's a Florida most people know little about. Forget the rental car because the only way to get around and appreciate this magical place, otherwise known as the Oklawaha River, is in a canoe.

The Oklawaha hugs the outside edge of the Ocala National Forest in northcentral Florida. Its quiet, slow-moving waters snake through cypress forests and a few medium-size lakes before emptying into the St. John's River north of Lake George, Florida's second-largest freshwater lake. If you start at Moss Bluff and follow the river's looping course north, east, and then south to Lake George, it could take you anywhere from a few days to a week, depending on how much of a rush you're in. But be forewarned, the relaxed pace of the Oklawaha is contagious.

Don't get so lazy that you forego a two-hour side trip west up the Silver River just a few miles from the put-in. The Silver's crystal-clear water shimmers all the way to its sandy white bottom, in contrast to the Oklawaha's tea-colored brew. Four miles upstream, where the river bubbles from vigorous artesian springs, is a resort where glass-bottomed boats far outnumber canoes.

But back on the Oklawaha, solitude is the rule. During one February trip I saw only two other canoes until I reached Lake George.

As you approach the trip's end the river throws you a couple of challenges: a portage and wind. There's a short portage around Rodman Dam, where the course narrows before emptying into Little Lake George. The route then follows the St. John's River to Lake George. The wind shows its might here, so hug the shore rather than head into open water.

A good place to duck out of the wind and end your trip is Salt Springs Run, which ends at state-owned Salt Springs Campground. It's also a pleasant spot to reflect on the fact that some of Florida's wildest spring-break parties happen nowhere near this beach.

Contact Information:

Lake George Ranger District

Rt. 2, Box 701

Silver Springs, FL 32688

352/625-2520

Location:

The Oklawaha is in north central Florida, just east of Ocala. The river borders Ocala National Forest.

Getting There:

From Ocala take SR 464 southeast until passing through Candler, turn east on Rt. 484 for a short distance to the town of Oklawaha, then north on County Road 464 to Moss Bluff, where you can park.

Seasonal Information:

Typically, winter temperatures are in the 70s during the day and the 50s at night. Summer temperatures are generally in the mid-90s with high humidity. Thunderstorms are also a possibility, even in the dry months of winter.

Wildlife:

This is accommodating habitat for wildlife.

It's a place where wildcats still scamper along sandy pathways and exotic birds perch motionless, hanging their feathers out to dry. Wild monkeys, which legend says are escapees from the days when jungle movies were filmed here (they're actually cared for by a local tourism company), swing from branches along the river's edge.

Cormorants, egrets, herons, and other fishing birds will give you plenty of competition for the bream and largemouth bass. On the lakes, ospreys and eagles pluck fish out of the water within yards of paddlers.

The Ocala National Forest supports more than 20,000 whitetail deer, the largest herd in Florida. There are also hawks, owls, woodpeckers, and vinegaroons (scorpions found nowhere else in Florida).

Insects:

There are always mosquitoes in Florida, even in winter months.

Plant Life:

The river flows through moss-draped cypress forests. are accompanied by live oak, holly, magnolia, wild orange, and bay trees. Live oak, holly, magnolia, wild orange, and bay trees line the shores, with Spanish moss dripping from the branches.

Hydrilla, a pervasive water plant, can be annoying between Eureka and Rodman dams.

Facilities:

Camping is permitted anywhere along the river, but campsites are small because high, dry ground is rare.

Limited overnight camping is available at Gores Landing.

Camping is also available in Ocala National Forest and ranges from primitive to developed sites with electricity. Some sites are free; others range from $5 per night to $12 per night (with a maximum of five people). Camping is restricted in Ocala National Forest during hunting season (September through March).

Canoe livery service is available from Oklawaha Outpost, Ft. McCoy, 352/236-4606; or try Orange Springs Inn, Orange Springs, 352/546-2052.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

No permits are required.

Policies:

Contact park office for information.

Hazards:

  • Winds can be a threat.
  • Also, watch out for lightning March through May and snakes and bugs any time of year.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

USGS topo maps of Lake Weir, Lynne, Ocala East, Eureka Dam, Keuka, Rodman, Lake Delancy, Welaka, and Salt Springs quads are available.

Other Trip Options:

The 65-mile Ocala Trail in Ocala National Forest is part of the 1,600-mile Florida Trail. For information about the Florida Trail, contact:

Florida Trail Association

P.O. Box 13708

Gainesville, FL 32604.