Updated May 2020
It’s easy to get caught up in the restaurant scene and theme parks here in Orlando, but some days you just need to get away from it all and experience nature. Luckily, finding a little peace and quiet is surprisingly easy. Just hop in the car for a short drive in almost any direction and you’ll soon find yourself in a scenic, quiet paradise.
While there are plenty of ways to get active and enjoy Mother Nature, kayaking is ideal for discovering Central Florida’s diverse lakes, rivers, bays, and springs all while spotting local wildlife. We’ve listed five ideas for your next kayaking adventure below – all a reasonable drive from Orlando.
1. Merritt Island Refuge Bioluminescence
Kayaking will never be the same after you’ve experienced this nighttime kayaking adventure under the stars. Even the tiniest disturbances in the water activate the bioluminescence making the water around you come alive with blue light. While you can stir up the water yourself, seeing a dolphin or fish light up the water while swimming is a surreal sight. To add to the excitement, schools of flying mullet fish congregate in certain areas and may just jump into your kayak to hitch a ride.
This is a leisurely trip led by a guide, and you’ll have plenty of time to paddle around at your own pace. When you’re not admiring the bioluminescent organisms, known as dinoflagellates, drift with the current while looking up at the night sky. One of my favorite kayaking tour companies for this is A Day Away Kayak Tours.
Drive time to the Merritt Island Refuge is about 1 hour from Orlando. Leave early to allow a little extra time to locate the launch site. Details will be provided in your confirmation email. While bioluminescent tours are offered almost year-round, June-early October is the best time to visit.
2. Lido Key Mangroves
If you’re looking for a day trip and don’t mind a bit of a drive, make the 2.5-hour road trip to Lido Key, south of Longboat Key. South Lido County Park is home to a series of mangrove tunnels facing Sarasota Bay.
While kayaking in the shallow mangroves may at first seem a bit intimidating (and you may be worried about the likelihood of getting lost, I know I was) the tunnels are surprisingly well marked and easy to navigate. The currents will do most of the work for you, making this an easy paddle even for beginners. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a manatee.
3. Crystal River/Kings Bay
Spotting a manatee in the wild is exciting in its own right, but imagine seeing one in the water right next to you. The Crystal River area, a 1.5-hour drive from Orlando, offers your best chance at doing just that, as it's home to manatees year round. The warmer water temperatures bring hundreds of manatees to the area in the winter, but even when the Gulf waters have warmed in the summer, some manatees remain.
The best time to visit is in the cooler fall and winter months, but manatees can potentially be spotted year round. Opt for a guided tour with a reputable company instead of attempting to find manatees on your own.
4. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Less than a 2-hour drive from Orlando, the clear, winding waters of the Weeki Wachee River are ripe for exploring and wildlife viewing. Weeki Wachee State Park is also home to the famous Mermaid Show.
After renting single or tandem kayaks, the journey begins in the state park and is a self-guided, 5.5-mile trip that will take about 3 hours without stopping. Make sure to bring along water and a picnic lunch if you’d like to travel at a slower pace. The clear water makes wildlife sightings easy, and you may see manatees, otters, turtles, and more.
Kayak rentals are available in the state park along with a shuttle service to take you back to the park after you reach the designated stopping point on the river. Make sure to stick around for the Mermaid Show. Park admission is $13.00 and includes shows.
5. Wekiwa Springs State Park
If you want to stay close to home, make the 25 minute drive to Wekiwa Springs State Park for a day of kayaking the river and cooling off in the cold spring.
As you make your way down the Wekiva River, keep your eyes out for alligators sunning themselves on the riverbank. During certain times of the year, you can hear them, even if you can’t see them. You’ll also spot many of Florida’s native birds, turtles, and maybe even otters.
Single and tandem kayak rentals are available within the park at Wekiwa Springs State Park Nature Adventures. The cost for a tandem kayak is $30/hour. Two hours is plenty of time for a peaceful paddle down the Wekiva River. After your paddle and cool down in the springs, celebrate with a drink at nearby Wekiva Island, where you can also rent kayaks and swanky river cabanas.
Wikewa Springs gets especially busy on hot days and weekends, so arrive early in the morning to kayak and beat the crowds. Make sure to bring along plenty of water.
Read our list of kayaking adventures to try for more tandem date night fun.
About the Author
Stephanie Patterson is the editor of Orlando Date Night Guide. She’s a talented professional food and travel photographer and writer with a passion for creativity, the beach and great eats. When she’s not taking photos or writing, you can find her exploring the state for her Florida travel blog, Travel Taste Click. Find her online at www.spattersonphotography.com and www.traveltasteclick.com.