My bright blue kayak bobbed on the waves. The wind picked up and the knot in my stomach tightened. To my left yawned the gaping mouth of the Weeki Wachee and Mud Rivers, and to my right stretched the endless Gulf of Mexico. I was but a speck in the great wide open sea.
My first time paddling in open waters, my worry-wart mom-brain raced through the worst scenarios: swept out to sea, eaten by a shark, or even worse- facing a gator alone- were there even gators out here?
I dipped my paddle into the water. Each stroke put distance between me and my mom-head. And then that sweet unexpected moment came- like an elusive green-flash at sunset– all I could see was the sky and earth in their infinite embrace, surrounding me…
Located on Florida’s Adventure Coast, the Coastal Paddling Trail stretches 1.7 miles from Bayport Park on the Gulf of Mexico to Linda Pedersen Park, with an additional side trail through a tidal salt marsh to Redfish Bayou. Opened in 2017, the Bayport-Linda Pedersen Paddling Trail was created to give paddlers an alternative to the overcrowding on the Weeki Wachee River. Considered an intermediate paddle trail, the weather and tides must be taken into consideration before tackling this paddle trip.
Tackling Florida’s Coastal Paddling Trail
I pushed off at Bayport with a small group of outdoor writers. The day prior we had floated down the Weeki Wachee River. This morning, all but a handful of us rolled out of bed for our early adventure. I had heard stories about paddlers getting stuck in the mud on the Redfish Bayou side trail during low tide. I heeded the warnings and dutifully checked the tide times for Bayport. I checked the NOAA weather map too- as a friend of mine told me she once had to turn back because it was too windy. But it promised to be a beautiful day.
Two of the more experienced paddlers raced ahead. I confess, I tried to keep up with them, but found myself alone in the wide open waters between the mouth of the Weeki Wachee River and the Gulf of Mexico. I have a fear of not being near swimming distance to land- but with each stroke of the paddle, my fears and worries slid away, along with civilization. There’s something about being immersed in nature that brings peace.
The signs on the paddle trail were easy to follow- except at marker #4- that’s when the sun cut across the water at such an angle that I couldn’t spot the next marker, but I watched as the two lead-paddlers cut back across the river’s mouth and disappeared from view. I almost followed them–almost, but I wasn’t sure if they were headed in the right direction (call it mom-instinct). Instead, I hovered at the marker #4 and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.
A local paddler, Cole Kolasa, had joined our expedition, and I guessed he might know the right direction (yes, I’m not afraid to ask for directions- even out at sea). My instincts paid off, and Cole pointed out the next marker, farther to the right. (Thanks Cole!) And off I headed with the others up Jenkins Creek, as our lead paddlers back-tracked to the trail.
Not Your Ordinary Paddler At 19, Cole Kolasa undertook a 788 paddle along Florida’s West Coast from Pensacola to Key West in an effort to raise money for reef conservation. He raised over $3,ooo, which went towards purchasing reef molds to create artificial reef balls that provide healthy habitats for marine life on Florida’s Adventure Coast.
Due to the tide going out, tackling the side trail to Redfish Bayou proved to be a challenge, but traveling the winding maze of paths through high saw-grass in this brackish backwater estuary made this side-paddle worth the effort. I’ve boated through salt marshes before, but have always wondered what it would be like to paddle eye-level with them.
The grasses folded in around the narrow waterway, their burnt amber tips bowing in the breeze like a crowd wave at a football game. But instead of half-time, the creek spilled into Redfish Bayou, tall palm trees flanking the southern edge of this backwater pond.
The trail signs were a definite help for navigating the side trail- otherwise I would still be out there…lost in the marsh and mud. The current ran strong and steady on the return trip from the bayou. I only needed to steer the twists and turns and enjoy the free-ride back to Jenkins Creek.
Paddling up the creek, the waterway began to narrow. I spotted a sandy stretch of sand on the left. An inviting place to pull up and rest, or a popular local fishing spot. I was not sure which, but it was near enough to the long wooden boardwalk at Jenkins Creek Park for me to suspect the latter.
The creek narrowed up ahead, its spring fed waters funneled through a narrow tunnel under Shoal Line Boulevard. I fought the current again, through the tunnel – it’s fun- but tough. Maybe it would be easier with a high tide? My paddle scraped the sides of the concrete tunnel on my paddle through and when I emerged into the sunlight, I felt a rush of accomplishment, my worry-wart mom-brain laid the rest…at least for now 😉
The end of the trail at Linda Pedersen Park came all too soon, but it was good to finally get up and stretch. This paddle trail was nothing like the covered canopy of the Weeki Wachee River trip from the day before. Two places so close to one another, yet with completely different ecosystems.
Follow the Markers: A Guide to the Coastal Paddle Trail by Numbers
How Trail Signs Work Much like hiking blazes, when you are at a trail sign, you are able to have an unobstructed view of the next sign so that you can navigate your path accordingly.
Keep following the markers and you won’t get lost.
Bayport Park Launch: You are greeted by the first signpost of the trail almost immediately. Each sign is clearly numbered with the trail name. The markers also let you know the distance traveled.
Marker #1: This marker is at the starting point and end of the kayak launch channel. There will be picnic tables to your left on the bank. From here you must traverse the open waters, across the mouth of the Weeki Wachee and Mud River to your left and the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to your right.
Marker #2: You’ve crossed the mouth of the river and now you will pass between two coastal hammocks and paddle across the wide mouth of Jenkins Creek. This can feel like the longest stretch. Be aware of power boats in this area.
Marker #3: You are now on the right hand side of Jenkins Creek with the Gulf of Mexico at your back. Marker 4 is straight ahead up river. Keep an eye out for manatees.
Marker #4: You are on Jenkins Creek and will not need to cross over the river again. Marker #5 was hard to spot from here- but it may have been due to the sunlight. Stay on the right and head upriver.
Marker #5: You’ll be passing red mangroves stretching their roots into the water. Keep right. The Redfish Bayou Trail is coming up on your right. It’s a marked trail too.
Redfish Bayou Trail
This side paddle trail takes you .75 miles winding through the saw-grass. It can be a challenge if the tide is going out, as you’ll be fighting it on your paddle to the bayou, but then you can ride with the current on your way back to Jenkins Creek. Do not attempt if you are too near the height of low tide, as you can get stranded in the mud. There are many oyster beds, so be aware.
Redfish Bayou Trail is 1.5 mile round trip and with clearly marked signs, alphabetically from A to E. The trail opens up to a large bayou in the end. You may even see eagles nesting in the hammock trees. This is not a loop. Follow the same signs to return to Jenkins Creek and the main trail the way you came.
Marker #6: You will be back on Jenkins Creek. Follow the creek upriver to Marker 7. Stay to the right.
Marker #7: You’re getting closer to the end. The creek begins to narrow.
Marker #8: From here you may see some pull-offs on the left side of the creek, depending on tide times. This was the only ‘wild’ stopping point noted. These are probably fishing areas. From Marker 8 you will also see a long boardwalk to the left. This is Jenkins Creek Boat Ramp. You can get out for a leg stretch, but you are almost at the end of the trail.
Marker #9: By far the coolest marker point, this is the tunnel beneath Shoal Line Boulevard. You have to paddle through the tunnel and it will only fit one paddler at a time. During low tide the current through the tunnel can get strong, but the tunnel is short. When you get out the other side, you’ll see the wooden viewing tower of Linda Pedersen Park to your right.
Marker#10: Takes you on a right turn down the channel to the exit. You will pass under a steel footbridge- part of the Linda Pedersen Park complex.
Marker #11: This marker is located on the left side of the river once you go under the footbridge. This is the paddle launch of Linda Pedersen park & the exit ramp. The ramps are steep and very slippery when wet. Take caution.
You can end your trip here if you have a waiting shuttle or car, or you can turn around and follow the markers back to Bayport Park.
Paddling the Coastal Paddling Trail on Florida’s Adventure Coast. Have you tackled it yet?
Things to Know Before You Go:
- Check the tide times and weather before tackling this paddle trail.
- Dress appropriately. Bring sunscreen/sun protection. There is no shade on this paddle.
- Bring water and stay hydrated.
- Be smart, stay safe, respect the wildlife, and always carry out any trash that you bring.
- Bayport Park is located at 4140 Cortez Blvd, Spring Hill, FL 34607. You’ll find restrooms, picnic tables, boat ramps, fishing pier & concessions. Parking fee.
- Linda Pedersen Park is located at 6300 Shoal Line Blvd. (CR595) Spring Hill, FL 34607. There you will find restrooms, picnic tables, a 40-foot observation tower (over the footbridge), a playground, sandy beach and seasonal swimming area. No fee.
- Jenkins Creek Park & Boat Ramp is located at 6401 Shoal Line Blvd, Spring Hill, FL 34607. There is a fishing pier, rest rooms & picnic tables. Parking fee.
Staying in Weeki Wachee?
There are many hotels located in nearby Spring Hill. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, located 5 minutes south of Weeki Wachee State Park -3528 Commercial Way – (US 19) Spring Hill, Florida 34606. Clean hotel, friendly staff, and hot breakfast included.
If you prefer a more laid-back style, Mary’s Fish Camp is located just up the Mud River. It has fully-furnished rental cabins, RV sites, tent camping…and fishing, of course 😉 You can find the fish camp on Mary’s Fish Camp Rd in
Weeki Wachee, Florida 34607.
What about those Gators? This is Florida and there are gators. This co-existence is a fact of life in the sunshine state and although Bayport is on the saltier Gulf of Mexico, alligators will swim into the salty waters to feed before returning to the fresh water. Be alligator-aware when paddling and with all water sports in Florida and the Southeastern United States.
My paddle adventure on Florida’s Coastal Paddling Trail was courtesy of Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitors Bureau and Kayaks & Attractions Rentals, but the opinions and thoughts in this article are all my own.
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