Sunset on the Caloosahatche River.

Sunset on the Caloosahatche River.

By Conor Mihell

Florida punches well above its weight when it comes to canoeing and kayaking. With the Everglades and the 10,000 Islands, the Sunshine State is home to two of the most popular paddling destinations in North America. Lesser known are the secret gems nestled in Florida’s 1,500-mile circumnavigational water trail where solitude, abundant wildlife and an intriguing tapestry of coastal waters, mangrove islands and tributaries reign.

Signs of civilization disappear in the watery horizons and verdant green shores of the Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile network of paddling routes on the Gulf of Mexico coastline and the inland tributaries of Lee County, near Fort Myers. The Blueway isn’t so much a linear water trail than three interconnected areas, says Mike Hammond, the coordinator of the Calusa Blueway. Each has unique attributes, all surrounded by the aura the 2,000 years of indigenous occupation, stories of pirates and buried treasure, and hardscrabble fishermen. To paddle here is to experience primeval Florida.

Estero Bay

Despite its proximity to Fort Myers, Estero Bay is a natural oasis home to dolphins, manatees, egrets and roseate spoonbills. The 15-square-mile estuary of Imperial and Estero rivers was recognized as Florida’s first aquatic preserve nearly 50 years ago. Miles-long sand beaches and an island-pocked labyrinth of mangroves beckon paddlers and provide habitat to a variety of wildlife.

“We’re in the subtropics in southwest Florida, so we have a greater diversity of species,” explains Hammond. “If I go paddling and I don’t see a manatee or a dolphin, it’s a little disappointing. We are spoiled with marine mammals and birds.”

It isn’t all wilderness and wildlife on the Blueway, however. There are plenty of family-friendly routes and options to paddle to art galleries and restaurants.

And there’s history. Only four miles from Fort Myers Beach, Mound Island rises out of the calm waters of Estero Bay like a turtle’s back. For 2,000 years, the indigenous Calusa gathered here and, ostensibly, dined on the riches of the sea. The 125-acre island gets its name from 30-foot-tall shell middens—the decomposing remains of countless seafood feasts. Today, Mound Island is a recognized as an archaeological state park; there are two paddler-friendly landings on the island and a self-guided nature trail that will give you a better sense of the rich native culture of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Pine Island Sound

At the northern terminus of the Calusa Blueway, Pine Island Sound can be likened to an easy-access Everglades. Pine Island is remote, with countless undeveloped mangrove islands and big, undeveloped horizons. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for an overnight adventure, with 30 campsites available at Cayo Costa State Park. Cayo Costa’s perimeter is comprised of nearly 10 miles of sand beach. Think of it as a forgotten slice of paradise.

The big draw to Pine Island is Matlacha Pass, a veritable aquatic Garden of Eden popular amongst kayak anglers. But Hammond’s favorite place to paddle on the Calusa Blueway tends to get overlooked. “The ‘Ding’ Darling [National Wildlife Refuge] on Sanibel Island is a no motor zone,” he says. “I rarely see anyone out there. Paddling there is like gliding over an aquarium. You look down and there are crabs, stingrays, snook and redfish. Every time I visit I see something new.”

Caloosahatchee River

With 52 miles of canoe- and kayak-friendly water to explore, the tangle of streams comprising the Caloosahatchee River makes up a good chunk of the Calusa Blueway. In stark contrast to the open water of Pine Island Sound, Caloosahatchee shorelines are predominantly green: Moss-draped live oaks and leather ferns encroach on the water’s edge.

There’s a quirky tradition along the Caloosahatchee for residents to keep exotic pets, including zebras and goats. “You’re expecting to see alligators and herons and there’s a zebra,” laughs Hammond, who references to a favorite day trip on Hickey Creek. “It’s easy to find the mouth of Hickey Creek. When you see the camel, turn left!”

If you go:

The Calusa Blueway website is your one-stop shop for a comprehensive list of outfitters, suggested routes, camping information and wildlife-watching tips. Mike Hammond recommends emailing the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau for personalized route planning. You can also order free Calusa Blueway trail guides and maps online.

The Calusa Blueway has also produced a paddler-friendly app for Android and Apple products.

—   Visit C&K’s TRAVEL MAP for more great paddling destinations.