We stepped into our rented orange and yellow kayaks respectively and with a gentle push we were off with the advice of “always go left” and “keep an eye out for manatees” lingering in the air. It was clear right from the beginning that paddling down the Weeki Wachee was going to be a unique experience.
Every day a staggering 170 million gallons of crystal clear water emerges from an underground river, which is the deepest naturally occurring spring in the entire United States. The spring water flows for 7.5 miles (12 km) before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Because there are no alligators in the river (they prefer the safety of murky waters), it is safe to swim at any point along the Weeki Wachee, whose name translates into “small spring” from the local Seminole language. UPDATE: Please see local advice on alligators and other animals you in fact do need to watch out for in Weeki Wachee the comments section below.
Due to the pristine water you can see fish and turtles and even diving birds swimming in the river. During our paddle journey one such bird dove into the water just ahead of us and we could watch her/him swim through the blue water only to surface again a few yards upstream. In the quieter sections of the river you can hear large numbers of crickets so be sure to time your bad jokes accordingly. 🙂
A major draw to the Weeki Wachee Springs is the possibility of seeing and even swimming with a manatee, a very unique opportunity as there are so few in the world. Although we did not see any the day we went, we are eager to go back with the hope of experiencing sea cows in the future.
You are most likely to see a manatee when the water in the Gulf of Mexico is cold causing the manatees to seek out warmer waters. Since the water remains a constant 74.2 °F (23.4 °C) year-round, Weeki Wachee Springs is a likely respite for cold manatees.
Our 5.5 mile (9 km) journey down the Weeki Wachee River allowed us the unique opportunity to experience life on the water. Given that we went on a Sunday, there were many locals out enjoying what is essentially their backyard.
Locals are usually the ones traveling upstream in silver motorboats and may be drinking beer and/or fishing. They have also set up rope swings in select areas where the water is deep enough to jump and made ladders up the side of trees to high jumping points. Everyone is welcome to jump from the high vantage points so climb if you dare! Most of the locals are friendly despite the fact that canoe and kayak renters invade their not-so-secret paradise, so be sure to say hello or wave when you pass them by.
Advice, Rules and Logistics
If you can, avoid weekends which are always more crowded than the weekdays as well as Spring Break (March). And unless you are there to party with the locals and are prepared to deal with major boat traffic jams, do not go on a holiday weekend. It is wise to look this up beforehand if you are not familiar with the local holidays. Also, arrive early (it opens at 8am) to make sure you get a parking spot, especially if you go on a weekend. If you are planning on renting a canoe or kayak we recommend making a reservation ahead of time as to ensure that they do not run out.
Despite the fact that you will see locals drinking beer along the river, Paddling Adventures has a no alcohol policy. In addition, be sure to respect the wildlife at all times and this includes not crowding around a manatee with no way out. If they want to engage with you, let them come to you.
Directions and Prices
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is at the corner of US 19 and Rt 50 so if you are coming from Tampa, take US 19 north and the entrance to the State Park will be on your left. You will find the entrance to Paddling Adventures at the rear of the State Park parking lot.
A single kayak rental costs $30 and a canoe or tandem kayak costs $35. All rentals prices are the same regardless of how long you are on the water, so be sure to spend the day to get the most for your money. The price also includes a free shuttle ride back to your car.