Our year round beautiful weather makes Central Florida a great place for exploring the water by canoe or kayak. We found 15 different amazing locations for canoe and kayak rentals and guided tours within 1-2 hour drive from Lakeland, plus a few options right there in Polk County. Both fresh water paddling trips and salt water kayaking trips are available near Lakeland and in the Tampa Bay area.
If you’ve never tried kayaking, it is easy! Kayaks used for rentals and tours are typically sit on top kayaks or ocean kayaks. They are very stable, and if you do happen to tip over – you simply fall into the water. Tandem (2 person) kayaks and canoes are also available, which means mom or dad (or older brother/sister) can do the paddling while the younger kids enjoy the ride. Kayaking in Florida is a great family activity, especially while social distancing.
Tips for booking a tour:
- Make a few phone calls – most rental places and tours want to be sure you have a great experience and will help you determine the best fit for your family.
- Make a reservation if possible, especially if you’re heading somewhere that isn’t close to home.
- Weekdays are always less crowded than weekends, mornings are always cooler than afternoons.
- Tandem kayaks and canoes are available and encouraged if you have younger children who might not be able to paddle the entire trip.
- Inquire about gloves or take a pair with you, especially for any younger paddlers. When we went recently I didn’t realize until it was too late that my 9 year old son had a blister forming, which made it hard for him to keep paddling.
- Look for other options in the area to extend your canoe or kayak trip into a full day – we’ve included details below on other activities near some of these locations.
What to bring on a kayak tour or canoe tour:
- A sense of adventure
- Dry bag for phone, car remote, etc.
- Bathing suit or outdoor clothing
- Towel & Change of Clothes for the ride home
- Sunscreen & Lip Balm
- Insect repellant
- Water shoes or shoes you don’t mind getting wet
- Paddling gloves (check with rental company to see if they are available)
- Snacks or lunch
- Cash gratuity
Check the requirements for food and drink containers before you go – some rivers are “non-disposable” meaning you can’t take any paper, plastic, glass, or styrofoam on the river.
Canoe and kayak rental locations listed below include an approximate time when mapped from downtown Lakeland, FL. Times may vary from other locations near Lakeland.
Colt Creek State Park (North Lakeland)
Colt Creek State Park is located north of Lakeland off 471. Rent a canoe or kayak to explore Mac Lake with a chance to see wading birds, turtles and alligators. You can also explore 15 miles of multi-use trails by foot, bike, or horseback, that meander through the pine flatwoods and natural creeks and wetlands.
Park admission is $4 per vehicle. Canoe/kayak rental – the first two hours are $8 then an additional $3 (plus tax) for every hour after. First come first served beginning when the park opens at 8am. Canoes and kayaks must be returned one hour before sunset.
Chain of Lakes in Winter Haven
Explore nature from a canoe or kayak right here in Polk County! Off the Chain Kayak offers drop off and pick up kayak equipment rentals on your choice of Winter Haven area Chain of Lakes. Tours are self-guided, but they can help provide you with an itinerary, including options for a sunset paddle, nature paddle, or even a paddle to watch the LEGOLAND ski show from the lake. They also do meet-up events.
Interested in paddleboarding? Paddleboard Winter Haven offers guided tours, rentals, and paddleboard lessons on the Chain of Lakes.
If a boat ride is more your speed, check out Living Water Boat Cruises.
Lake Kissimmee State Park (1 hour)
14248 Camp Mack Rd., Lake Wales FL 33898
(Located in Polk County – 1 hour drive from Lakeland)
Tour the waterways within the park and/or along the shores of Lake Kissimmee, Lake Rosalie and Tiger Lake. View some of the incredible birds and wildlife inhabiting the area known as the “headwaters” to the Everglades. Rent a kayak or canoe at the park marina’s camp store. (CURRENTLY CLOSED FOR RENTALS – call for updates)
Shell Key Preserve (1 hour 15 min)
Kayak in the salt water at Shell Key Preserve a 1,828-acre preserve located in the mouth of Tampa Bay, which includes a 195-acre barrier island known as Shell Key, located in St. Pete, and only accessible by boat. Your trip may include a paddle through a mangrove tunnel, a stop at a sandbar, and plenty of marine life sightings. Guided tours are highly recommended, options include Get Up and Go Kayaking (CLEAR Kayaks!), See Through Adventures (CLEAR Kayaks!), Capt Yak, Coastal Kayak Charters, and Island Kayak Adventures.
Fort DeSoto Park
You could easily spend a full day at Fort DeSoto Park, located on the Gulf of Mexico. Kayak rentals are available from the Topwater Kayak Outpost inside the park, and guided tours in clear kayaks are available from See Through Adventures.
The park also includes 7 miles of waterfront, a historic fort, a bike trail, nature trails, playgrounds, fishing piers, a dog park and dog beach, and more. Parking is $5 per vehicle.
Weedon Island Preserve (1 hour)
If you’re looking for a peaceful paddle through mangrove tunnels, head to Weedon Island Preserve, with 3,700 acres of protected land and waters along the west side of Tampa Bay.
Sweetwater Kayak offers kayak rentals if you prefer to explore on your own, and guided tours are available if you’re interested in learning more about the area wildlife (or just prefer to have someone experienced nearby).
Hillsborough River (40 minutes)
The Hillsborough River meanders 54 miles through Central Florida, from the Green Swamp to Tampa Bay. In some places the water is stained reddish-brown by the tannic acid from the decaying leaves and other vegetation in the swamp. Both state and county parks are located on the river’s banks. Access points include the Hillsborough River State Park, Lettuce Lake Park, and The Wilderness Park, along with some smaller neighborhood parks. *As of 6/25/20, the Hillsborough River is not open for canoe or kayaking.*
E.G. Simmons Conservation Park (1 hour)
Located directly on Tampa Bay, the park includes 200 acres of mangrove swamp that has been especially reserved for a bird and wildlife sanctuary, where bird watchers can gaze at endangered species, such as the Roseate Spoonbill and the Bald Eagle. Canoes and kayaks can be rented on site at the park’s entry station. Park also includes a beach and swimming area, pier, campsites, and two playgrounds.
Edward Medard Conservation Park (30 minutes)
Among its main attractions is a 700-acre reservoir used for canoeing, boating, and fishing. Also included is a 3-mile trail that offers equestrians, hikers, and bird watchers a pleasant trip through pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks. Edward Medard Park also offers picnic shelters, a boardwalk, a playground for the kids, and an observation platform overlooking the reservoir. Canoes and kayaks can be rented on site at the park’s entry station.
Little Manatee River (1 hour)
This freshwater river makes many twists and turns through a shaded hammock of oaks, bays, ash and hickory in the narrow upstream portion. Heading downstream, the river becomes more brackish, and the main channel is wide, open and sunny before leaving the park to complete its journey to Cockroach Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Very limited rentals are available from the ranger station in Little Manatee River State Park. We recommend booking a trip with Canoe Outpost, you can call them for the most current river conditions report and to discuss which trip is right for your experience level and interests. (TIP: they also host moonlight paddles that include a campfire with live music and s’mores!)
Weeki Wachee River (1 hour 30 minutes)
Kayak with the manatees on the Weeki Wachee River. Manatee season is November – March, which is the best time to try and see a manatee, but the Weeki Wachee River is a beautiful kayaking spot year round. On your trip you might also see otters, shore birds and a variety of fish. Swimming is permitted in the river except in the section of Weeki Wachee State Park. The Weeki Wachee River is a non-disposable river.
During Summer 2020, Buccaneer Bay Water Park and some other state park amenities will be closed.
Canoe & Kayak Rental options in Weeki Wachee include Weeki Fresh Water Adventures (Official Provider located in the State Park), The Kayak Shack, Weeki Wachee Marina, and Weeki Wachee Kayaking. Be sure to ask whether you are booking a one way paddle or round trip, as well as age minimums.
Silver Springs State Park (2 hours)
Often called Florida’s first tourist attraction, glass bottom boat tours have been running at Silver Springs for over 100 years! (Random trivia – Over 20 movies have also been filmed here including Creature from the Black Lagoon, and six Tarzan movies).
Area wildlife includes birds, alligators, and monkeys (although we have read the monkeys are going to be removed from the State Park). The monkeys can be aggressive and should be observed from a distance.
Rainbow River & Rainbow Springs State Park (2 hours)
The crystal clear water of the Rainbow River is what makes it such a popular destination for kayaking and tubing. Wildlife is abundant and at a 1 MPH flow, you can enjoy a leisurely float or paddle down the river. While you’re in the area you can also check out Rainbow Springs State Park.
Kayak, clear canoe, and tube rentals are available from Rainbow River Kayak Adventures, Aquatic Wilderness Adventures, and Rainbow River Canoe & Kayak. Rentals are also available in the State Park but seem to be first come first serve.
Cocoa Beach, Indian River, Merritt Island Refuge (1 hour 45 min)
Located on Florida’s East Coast, a night time bioluminescence tour in the Merritt Island Refuge is a one of a kind experience. Bioluminescence is created by organisms in the water that emit light and glow. A Day Away Kayak Tours, Calypso Kayaking, Cocoa Kayaking, and Get Up and Go Kayaking offer these night time tours – some of them in a glass bottom kayak. Note that bioluminescence tours are in the dark, ideal for older children and adults.
Daytime tours and rentals from these companies are also available to experience the variety of wildlife in the Merritt Island Refuge.
Wekiwa Springs & Wekiwa River (1 hour 15 min)
A popular natural attraction near Orlando, at Wekiwa Springs State Park you can swim in crystal-clear Wekiwa Springs where the water is a refreshing 72 degrees year-round. The springs feed the Wekiwa River and lush tropical hammocks where you can canoe or kayak the Wekiwa River. Rentals within the park are available from Wekiwa Springs State Park Nature Adventures – 407-884-4311.
Note that if you’re planning to visit Wekiwa Springs State Park, go on a weekday – they have very high visitation on weekends and holidays, and the park will close when it reaches capacity (150 cars).
Wekiwa Outfitters also provides guided tours and rentals on the Wekiwa River.
Crystal River (1 hour 45 min)
The Crystal River area includes an abundance of options for canoeing or kayaking, including Kings Bay, Crystal River, the Chassahowitzka River (The Chaz), Three Sisters Springs, Jurassic Springs, Hunter Springs.