The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail
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WELCOME TO THE BLUEWAY
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail is a 190-mile marked paddlecraft trail that meanders through Lee County, Florida’s, coastal waters and inland tributaries.
Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast is dotted with sugar-sand beaches – slivers of paradise on barrier islands. What’s harbored behind the islands, though, is a maze of mysterious mangroves – leggy, saltwater tolerant trees – and wildlife that rivals destinations North Americans need passports to visit. The trail’s trek through shallow water keeps paddlers safely away from places powerboats travel, and it puts them closer to nature, where blush-colored roseate spoonbills feed at dawn, schools of silver-hued fish dart beneath their boats and lumbering manatees feed on sea grasses.
The trail provides recreational opportunities, cultural and environmental awareness, and boosted safety with a low environmental impact for Lee County’s 2 million annual tourists as well as its 600,000 residents.
It effectively unveils the mystery of the mangroves and estuaries but does so with ease so any newcomer to paddling can explore the waterways once plied by the Calusas, the natives who thrived for centuries in Southwest Florida before the Spaniards’ arrival. Many Calusa landmarks, such as shell mounds, remain and are noted on the trail.
Unlike most U.S. and Canadian paddling trails, the Great Calusa Blueway is marked with signs. Think of them as Hänsel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Further safety is provided with Global Positioning System coordinates on this Web site. Free maps are printed with grant money and are available at various locations — outfitters, marinas, retail sites, parks, boat ramps, office buildings, chambers of commerce, airports, visitor centers, etc.
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail was created to help people experience the natural magic of Lee County. Forget The Discovery Channel or National Geographic. Come paddle yourself, one-on-one with nature.
Paddling gets you up close and personal with wildlife of all types. Remember not to feed wild animals and to keep your distance so as not to disturb them. The variety along the Great Calusa Blueway is stellar – read on.
Manatees: Where can I see manatees?
The mammals are sensitive to cold. When the Gulf of Mexico’s temperature is 68 or below, look for them inland along Phase 3/Caloosahatchee, particularly on the Orange River at Lee County Manatee Park. When water is warmer, keep a lookout throughout Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound. Manatees are curious and often approach kayakers and canoeists. Manatees reach an average size of about 10 feet and 1,200 pounds. Their distant relationship to elephants can be seen in their grayish-brown skin and the toenails visible on the edges of their flippers. Like all mammals, manatees have lungs and must surface to breathe, something they do every 5 minutes or so when active. While resting, manatees can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Although they are solitary creatures by nature, it is possible to see groups of manatees swimming or feeding together. These groups are typically small, such as four or five. Larger groups of a dozen or more are sometimes spotted. It’s illegal to chase, feed, and/ or give water to manatees. Watch from a distance so as not to alter their behavior. To report an injured, dead, harassed or orphaned manatee, call: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or on a cellular phone dial *FWC or #FWC
Alligators: Will I encounter gators on the blueway?
Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound are coastal with salt water, so you’re more likely to see a manatee or dolphin than an alligator. Phase 3/Caloosahatchee River has more fresh water, so you may see on. Alligators tend to ignore paddlers or submerge themselves until paddlers have passed.
Dolphins: Will I see dolphins?
Yes. Lee County and Southwest Florida are home to one of the highest concentrations of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the United States. Dolphins are curious and playful, and often come quite close to kayakers. The dolphins here are an average of nine feet long and weigh in at about 500 pounds. They have distinct home ranges – areas of water in which they spend most of their time – so the individuals you see in the bay live here year-round.
Sea turtles: When might I see a sea turtle?
It’s possible to see them year-round, but sea turtle nesting and hatchling season begins May 1 and ends Oct. 31. Five species can be found in the Gulf of Mexico: loggerhead (most common), Kemp’s ridley (most endangered), green (occasional), leatherback (occasional) and hawksbill (occasional). All are protected.
Birds: What birds am I likely to see?
More than 300 species can be sighted in Lee County throughout the year. Among those typically seen are:
Heron: yellow-crowned, black-crowned, great blue, little blue, green, Louisiana or tricolored
Egret: reddish, great, snowy
Ibis: white, glossy
Woodpecker: pileated, red-bellied and others
Terns (any and all kinds)
Gulls (any and all kinds)
Pelican (brown year-round, white in winter)
Many blueway locations are also on the Great Florida Birding Trail, http://floridabirdingtrail.com/
Tips for bird-watching and photography from a kayak or canoe
- Take a strap or bungee cord to hold your paddle to your kayak
- Keep your distance from birds; be conscientious
- Bring a towel or shammy to wipe your lens
- Take a small anchor or a stake to keep your boat in place
- Carry a dry bag; keep your camera in it close by while you paddle
- Consider purchasing a monopod to mount and make your camera more steady
Other: What else might I see?
River otters, stingrays, sponges, starfish, sand dollars, fish (tarpon, mullet, snook, redfish, seatrout), crabs (horseshoe, hermit, decorator, spider, blue), mollusks (lightning whelk, kings crown and fighting conchs, and many others)
Help wildlife: What can I do?
- Dispose of trash and food items properly.
- Observe all wildlife from a safe distance. When on board a vessel, use binoculars or a telephoto lens to get a good view.
- Don’t feed wildlife purposefully or inadvertently. It is illegal and causes animals to lose their natural fear of humans and increases their vulnerability to injuries and death.
- Use caution around seagrass beds at low tide. Seagrasses are a valuable part of Florida’s marine environment and are essentially marine life nurseries.
- Pick up fishing line and debris – leave the scene cleaner than when you found it. Fish, birds, sea turtles, dolphins and manatees frequently suffer from encounters with monofilament line.
Where can I rent a kayak or canoe?
Lee County has more than 20 places to rent paddlecraft. See our list — organized by geographic location — at http://www.calusablueway.com/articles/outfitters
Lee County Parks & Recreation sites that feature paddlecraft include Manatee Park, Caloosahatchee Regional Park and Lakes Regional Park. See www.leeparks.org
Are there guided trips or can I just rent and go?
Both options exist. Two- to three-hour guided tours are common offerings as are half- and whole-day rentals or hourly rentals. Some outfitters also offer multi-day and weeklong rentals. Guided moonlight paddles and sunset tours also are available around the full moon.
How much does it cost?
Guided tours range from $25 to $75
Half- and whole-day rentals range $20 to $100
Check with individual outfitters. Their Web sites are provided at http://www.calusablueway.com/articles/outfitters
Does the gear come with the rental? Where do I get a life vest?
Any outfitter who rents a boat also provides a life vest. State law does not require you to wear it if you are over the age of 6, but some outfitters will require it and The Great Calusa Blueway and Lee County Parks & Recreation strongly recommend paddlers wear them.
Where can I get information on kayak fishing?
For a local fishing report from Southwest Florida fishing expert Byron Stout, check the Friday Fort Myers News-Press at www.news-press.com
Many outfitters have kayak fishing knowledge. Find a complete list at http://www.calusablueway.com/articles/outfitters
Where can I find fishing regulations?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at www.MyFWC.com or (239) 332-6966 locally.
Is there camping along the Great Calusa Blueway?
Yes, and it ranges from primitive tent sites to rustic cottages. Public campgrounds include:
Cayo Costa State Park, www.floridastateparks.org
Koreshan State Historic Site, www.floridastateparks.org
Caloosahatchee Regional Park, www.leeparks.org
Picnic Island, www.calusalandtrust.org
Several private campgrounds exist as well, www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
Another source of camping/lodging ideas for paddlers is at the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, http://www.floridadep.org/gwt/paddling/saltwater.htm
How do I find paddlecraft-friendly hotels and motels?
Many Lee County waterfront lodging establishments can accommodate canoeists and kayakers. Check out www.fortmyers-sanibel.com Many also are partners in the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival and have listings on the festival’s accommodations site, www.calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com/ai_accomodations.html
Where can I get a comprehensive lodging overview and help?
Receive a Visitors Guide by clicking on “send me a map” and selecting it. Or go to www.fortmyers-sanibel.com
When is it good?
Warm summers and mild winters make the Great Calusa Blueway an ideal year-round paddling destination. Sunscreen and hats are a must because the sun is quite strong for most of the year.
Average Annual Air Temperatures
74.4 F/23.6 C average annual temperature
84.1 F/28.9 C average annual high temperature
64.7 F/18.2 C average annual low temperature
Monthly Air Temperatures
Click here for current weather conditions.
Average Annual Water Temperatures
77.5 F/25.3 C average annual temperature
70.8 F/21.5 C average fall/winter temperature
84.1 F/28.9 C average spring/summer temperature
66.0 F/18.9 C average winter low temperature
87.0 F/30.6 C average summer high temperature
What do I need to know about summertime paddling?
Plan to go in the morning, keep an eye to the sky and return to shore before afternoon thunderstorms. July, for example, averages a storm every other day.
What about wintertime paddling?
Late fall, winter and spring are great for kayaking and canoeing here. Occasional fronts bring windy days; check for small craft advisories by calling the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Fort Myers Beach, (239) 463-5754. If it’s gusting off the coast, consider selecting a paddling location inland on Phase 3/Caloosahatchee; or go for a hike instead. www.leeparks.org or www.conservation2020.org have many offerings.
How long is it?
The meandering trail is 190 miles (306 kilometers) along backbays, rivers, creeks, flats and mangrove shores. It’s rare for someone to paddle the whole thing in one trip. You can experience much of what the Great Calusa Blueway has to offer in an hour or two.
Why are there three maps?
The trail is divided into three segments:
Phase 1/Estero Bay (blue); Fort Myers Beach, south Fort Myers, Bonita Beach, Estero, San Carlos
Phase 2/Pine Island Sound (maroon); south Fort Myers, Sanibel, Captiva, North Captiva, Useppa, Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa, Pine Island, Matlacha, Cape Coral
Phase 3/Caloosahatchee and tributaries (yellow); Cape Coral, Fort Myers, North Fort Myers, Buckingham, Alva
How do I get a map?
Locally, you can find them at parks, outfitters, welcome centers, some government offices, marinas, and other attractions. Maps can be mailed to those who request them online a http://www.calusablueway.com/forms/order-trail-map
GPS coordinates are available at
How do I know where to launch?
More than 40 marked launch sites are identified on the Great Calusa Blueway maps, and many more sites exist. Check out “highlights” on your trail maps.
How long will it take to paddle from one point to another?
Tick marks on the maps indicate an approximate mile wherever possible. An average paddler travels 3 mph.
Are trail markers visible from one to the next?
Markers are intermittent and sometimes not always visible within your line of sight. Marker numbers and letters do not necessarily run in consecutive order because of forks in the trail.
Are there markers on all three legs of the trail?
Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound have markers on the water. Phase 3/Caloosahatchee follows the linear river and has GPS coordinates for the mouth of each tributary noted on its map; there are no markers on the water.
What’s the difference between a paddlecraft launch site and a paddlecraft landing?
Launch sites are indicated with an icon on the trail maps and show places where you can put in your canoe or kayak. Paddlecraft landings are indicated with text in the highlights on the trail maps and show where you can pull in to get out of your boat for rests or hikes. Examples include Phase 1’s Matanzas Pass Preserve on Estero Island, Phase 2’s Andi Rossi Lane on Captiva, and Phase 3’s Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park in east Fort Myers.
Caloosahatchee Regional Park’s kayak launch site is a distance from the parking lot. Why do I have to walk that far with my boat?
You don’t. Call at least 24 hours ahead to (239) 694-0398 and park staff can assist by opening a gate at a closer entrance so you can launch at the site.
How can I access the Orange River Canoe Park?
This site, which is on Phase 3/Caloosahatchee map, is a gated green space on the Orange River just east of Buckingham Road. Parking is available at Buckingham Community Center. The gate is not open and you cannot drive in to launch. Lee County’s Manatee Park often schedules guided group tours that depart from this site; call (239) 690-5030 for details or go to www.leeparks.org
Where should a beginner go?
Beginners typically prefer to go with a guided nature trip the first time out. Such offerings can be found at www.calusablueway.com
Beginners who go it alone should plan to go out on days when the wind is blowing less than 10 mph and should launch into protected water. Many such places exist along the trail. Among the options:
Lovers Key: Launch from this Fort Myers Beach-based state park and sample the blueway in one hour or less.
Bunche Beach: This south Fort Myers preserve keeps you away from the traffic of the Sanibel Causeway. Try looping around the mangroves behind the beach for protected water; or take two hours and head to Hell Peckney Bay.
Manatee Park: The east Fort Myers park’s launch site is on a protected canal that leads to the Orange River, a tame slender tributary of the Caloosahatchee. You can entertain yourself by going upstream an hour and back and never know you were gone that long.
Tarpon Bay: Part of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, this body of water is relatively protected from wind. It also features the Commodore Creek Canoe Trail that takes paddlers on a gentle two-hour adventure.
Where should intermediate and advanced paddlers go?
If the world is your oyster, then the Great Calusa Blueway is the best oyster of all for intermediate and advanced paddlers. Try any leg of the trail. Among the offerings:
Pine Island: Drop off a car in Bokeelia then shuttle back to Matlacha, where you can launch and paddle northwest via Indian Field and Smokehouse Bay, then cut in at Jug Creek. Allow five to six hours.
Do you have other route suggestions?
Another source of day-trip ideas for paddlers is at the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, http://www.floridadep.org/gwt/paddling/saltwater.htm Click on Segment 12/Pine Island Sound-Estero Bay for a narrative of point-to-point paddles.
Is the trail OK for beginners, kids and the elderly?
Yes. Lee County’s waterways are an average of 4 feet deep; most of the Great Calusa Blueway is protected from wind, and none of it is in the Gulf. Please contact us or an outfitter if you questions.
Will I need to know how to roll over in my kayak like you see on TV?
Greenland rolls are not a necessary skill in Lee County’s calm waters.
Aren’t kayaks tippy?
Kayaks are made to keep your center of gravity low in the boat. Most rental kayaks are manufactured to be very stable.
Will I feel trapped in a kayak?
In addition to “sit-in” kayaks, many outfitters and parks offer “sit-on-top” kayaks that alleviate such feelings. Kayak anglers in particular like sit-on-tops so they can readily access their gear and easily get in and out to wade fish.
What if I capsize?
Stand up. Average water depth is 4 feet. It’s easy to get back into a canoe or kayak. Please always paddle with shoes on to avoid injuries from oyster bars or shells.
What are some safety recommendations?
State law requires you have aboard a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device; it must be readily accessible. Life vests must be worn by all paddlers under age 6. The Great Calusa Blueway and Lee County Parks & Recreation recommend paddlers always wear life vests. A noise making device (whistle) is also mandatory.
Take along water, an extra paddle if available, line for the bow or stern, first-aid kit, whistle, flashlight, insect repellant, sunglasses, sunscreen, cell phone, water shoes, and a map or chart.
Safety and navigation tips can be found on the inside flap of your trail maps. Among them are:
- Select a route that suits your ability.
- Check tides and wind; paddle with them.
- Keep an eye to the sky and be aware of changing weather.
- Leave a note with family, friends or your hotel about where you’re going and when you expect to return. Avoid paddling alone.
- Be cautious of changing currents around passes.
- Wear a life vest and carry a whistle and cell phone.
- Bring a flashlight for moonlight/sunset paddles.
- Point your bow into approaching powerboat wakes. Don’t assume powerboaters can see you.
- Don’t drink alcohol and paddle.
- Avoid inadvertently harassing wildlife; stay a distance away from nests and don’t chase sea mammals; listen and watch for signs of distress.
Why is the trail named the Great Calusa Blueway?
The Calusas were seafaring natives who lived in Southwest Florida for years before the Spanish explorers arrived.
How can I find more accessibility information for those with special needs?
Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau:
Lee County Parks & Recreation:
How can I become a blueway volunteer?
Go to our Volunteer Services page or click HERE for the registration form
On the sheet where it asks you to check your interests and skills, just write in “blueway”
Return to Volunteer Services Coordinator Kathy Cahill, by email or fax at 239-432-2030
If I have other questions, who can I contact?
E-mail Lee County Parks & Recreation waterways coordinator Michael Hammond Here
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