Editor's note: Before you embark, be sure to call first. Oscar Scherer State Park is currently closed along with other Florida state parks, and South Lido is closed at least through April 30 by order of Sarasota County government. The other three are open to kayakers.
Do all those kayakers dotting our area’s bays and rivers inspire you to grab a paddle? The nonprofit American Littoral Society chapter offers peaceful guided kayak trips all around the region, led for more than 20 years by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable John Sarkozy. All the equipment is supplied, and Sarkozy starts each trip with a short training session.
Here are Sarkozy’s top picks for paddling, whether you’re a newbie or an experienced kayaker.
Oscar Scherer State Park
Oscar Scherer State Park is a nature lover’s oasis right off bustling Tamiami Trail in Osprey, and the lovely South Creek that runs through it makes for a delightful short paddle. Put your kayak in at the ADA-compliant launch at the South Creek picnic area, or from a primitive launch across from the ranger station. Rentals are available. On Wednesday mornings, rangers and volunteers lead guided 90-minute paddles. “It’s so scenic,” says Sarkozy. “You’ll see lots of native plants; they’ve done a good job of keeping out the Brazilian peppers, and the variety of vegetation is enormous.” South Creek is brackish, a mix of salt and freshwater, but don’t let the freshwater part scare you away. “There’s very little chance of seeing alligators,” Sarkozy says.
South Lido Mangrove Tunnels
If you’re comfortable paddling in a pack, the world-famous South Lido mangrove tunnels off the South Lido Beach Nature Park are right up your alley, so to speak. (We say world-famous because travel magazines around the world have featured the tunnels, and Sarkozy says it’s even rumored that Prince Albert of Monaco paddled them several years ago.) Be prepared; 20 concessionaires guide tours there, so it does get crowded, especially in the spring. The tunnels also are open to anybody as a private person for free. Narrow and low-ceilinged, the tunnels bring you up close to lots of fish and wading birds, and you’ll get glimpses of Bird Key and downtown Sarasota, too. The shallow-water tunnels take less than an hour to traverse; avoid low tide or you might run aground.
Good news for nature lovers: This county park on the site of an old plant nursery in northwest Bradenton recently completed a 150-acre expansion, bringing it to more than 600 acres of beautiful salt marsh and open lowlands. Launch your own kayak, or rent one from a concessionaire like surferbus.com. Three miles of blueway trails lead to the Manatee River, Palma Sola Bay and Perico Sound. Sarkozy says you can kayak a short, comfortable distance or paddle as much as four or five hours; he recommends the inside, protected trails for novices and the outside trails along Tampa Bay for more experienced kayakers. “Watch out for low tides on the outside because you can get stranded; it’s a big sand flat that extends quite a distance into Tampa Bay,” he cautions. “And wind is always a concern.”
Emerson Point Preserve
Right across the Manatee River from Robinson Preserve, the 365-acre county-owned Emerson Point Preserve on Snead Island in Palmetto is set at the mouth of the Manatee River where it meets Lower Tampa Bay. An official kayak launch puts you on a beautiful natural mangrove tunnel leading to Terra Ceia Bay, or more experienced kayakers can launch from the beach at the westernmost point that juts into Tampa Bay. (The payoff: a great view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.) “It’s a good couple-of-hour trip for any level and less crowded than Robinson Preserve,” says Sarkozy, “but watch the tides.”
The wild and scenic Myakka River runs right by Snook Haven, that charming Old Florida restaurant off River Road in Venice, and you can rent a kayak to do a little exploring. The river is tidally influenced right there, so there’s a chance of seeing saltwater and freshwater creatures on any trip—snook, bass, turtles and also dolphins and blue crabs, along with the occasional alligator. “If you go down river, you get into the estuary and the river is wider with a lot of marsh grasses,” says Sarzoky. “If you go upriver, you go through a scenic floodplain forest.” Finish off your kayak trip with some fried gator bites and camp salad, and you’ve got yourself the perfect day.