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How to spend the day on this spring-fed river outside Tampa

10Best logo 10Best 10/3/2020 Skye Rodgers, Special to USA TODAY 10Best

Note from 10Best: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park may be closed, but the kayak rental and launch points remain open as of this writing.

There is no denying the beauty or fun of Tampa Bay’s numerous white sand beaches, but if you can drag yourself away for a day, you can explore another of Florida’s sparkling attractions: miles and miles of crystal clear, spring-fed rivers. Emerging as a result of the Florida peninsula’s limestone geology, the state boasts an extensive network of dramatic and beautiful caves, sinkholes and springs.

Just an hour north of downtown Tampa is one of Florida’s 33 first-magnitude springs and most established tourist draws, Weeki Wachee Springs. Named by the Seminole tribe, this spring bubbles up over 100 million gallons of freshwater each day for the scenic 5.5-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Those near Tampa who are interested in an adventure can experience this journey for themselves by renting a kayak or paddleboard to explore this meandering waterway.

The river journey

a man standing next to a body of water: The crystal clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River invite paddlers to linger © Skye Rodgers The crystal clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River invite paddlers to linger

A one-way trip downriver will take about 3 hours and can be divided into 3 main sections. Upriver, and closest to the springs, the water seems impossibly clear and blue. Lush greenery lines the narrow, slow-moving waterway that time has shaped into tight twists and turns.

This is also the least crowded and most peaceful section of the river, perfect for communing with nature and watching the fish swim by.

Further downriver in the mid-section of the journey, you'll see a few signs of civilization, a house here or there, or a park. You'll also see more paddlers. Once outside the marked park boundary, paddlers are free to stop.

At almost every turn, you'll find an expansive sandy area with very shallow water or an exposed beach. It's the perfect place to pull off for lunch, a rest and to play in the refreshing 74-degree water for a while.

As you travel the section of the river closest to Roger's Park, you'll see many more travelers and houses. While not pristine wilderness, this section can be just as fun.

There are a few natural congregating spots where you may find groups of locals climbing trees to rope swings or diving into the deeper pools. Near the end, there's sometimes a concession boat that sells hot dogs and ice cream.

Before you go

a group of colorful flowers: Both kayak and paddleboard rental companies feature comparable equipment © Skye Rodgers Both kayak and paddleboard rental companies feature comparable equipment

Kayak/paddleboard rentals

There are two main ways to get out on the river. The most important thing is to make your reservation as soon as possible. This is a very popular activity and only a certain number of paddlers can get out at one time.

The first option is to rent from the vendor inside Weeki Wachee State Park, Weeki Fresh Water Adventures, and take a relaxing downriver paddle to Roger's Park, where you disembark and take a shuttle back. The second and more physically demanding option is to rent from the vendor outside the park, The Kayak Shack, across from Roger's Park, and paddle both upriver and downriver.

The quality of equipment offered by both vendors is comparable. Renting from the vendor inside the park is definitely the easier option and guarantees the opportunity to spend time exploring the river closest to the springs where the water is the clearest and wildlife is most abundant.

The vendor outside the park offers longer rental periods and slightly reduced rates, so that may be a good option for those on a budget or those who want to be able to stop for lunch or swim along the way.

The rules

No alcohol or drugs on the river. The river is patrolled throughout the day by Sheriff’s Officers on personal watercraft. Do not litter! Pack-in and pack-out. The park vendor is very strict and may check your bags for anything disposable; this includes plastic water bottles, plastic bags, plastic wrap, and so on.

How to get there

A car is the only practical method to get there and the quickest route is to take the Veterans Expressway, FL-589 toll road. You can avoid the tolls by taking FL-60 across the Courtney Campbell Causeway to US Hwy 19 north to Cortez Boulevard.

Where to eat

a group of people sitting at a table in front of a window: The Upper Deck offers tasty regional dishes and a great river view © Skye Rodgers The Upper Deck offers tasty regional dishes and a great river view Breakfast: Located less than a mile down US Hwy 19 from Weeki Wachee Park is the Breakfast Station, a perfect spot to fuel up with a delicious breakfast before a day on the river. Despite its nondescript, strip mall location, the inside is bright and airy, the staff are friendly and cheerful, the service is fast, and the prices are reasonable. Picnic lunch: If you’re planning on packing a lunch to enjoy on the river, there are several grocery stores with in-store delis located nearby, including a Winn Dixie, just north of Cortez Boulevard. Late lunch/early dinner: If you plan on stopping after your excursions before heading back to Tampa, there's casual, waterfront dining at the Upper Deck. Located next door to the Kayak Shack and across the road from Roger's Park, the restaurant has a large outdoor patio with views over the river. The menu offers several regional specialties including fried grouper cheeks and grouper sandwiches, smoked fish spread, shrimp and fish po' boys, conch fritters and steamed clams.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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