Weaving through mangrove-lined estuaries, around ancient shell islands and across open Gulf waters, the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail offers a 190-mile tour of Southwest Florida’s intricate shoreline. Named for the Native Americans who once populated the region, this kayak and canoe trail brings paddlers face-to-face with the indigenous wildlife and nature of the region.
The Calusa Blueway’s clearly marked paths and guides along the way make it a great place for inexperienced paddlers to get comfortable on the water. Yet because of the trail’s staggering size, simply deciding where to start can be a daunting feat in and of itself.
Luckily, the Blueway is broken down into three distinct and manageable sections. Phase one covers the pristine waters of Estero Bay. Phase two encompasses the mangrove tunnels and barrier islands of Pine Island Sound. While phase three, the newest leg of the Blueway, navigates the meandering tributaries of the Caloosahatchee River.
Each section of the Great Calusa Blueway offers a distinct and unique view of Florida’s southwestern shores. Getting truly acquainted with even a single leg of the Blueway requires several day-long excursions, but for those who can only afford one afternoon of paddling, there are a handful of must-see stops.
If you’re interested in exploring tangible evidence of the area’s long and storied history, look no further than the protected waters of Estero Bay. More than four decades ago, this bay became the state’s first aquatic preserve, and today, the area’s unspoiled beauty reflects those conservation efforts.
Despite Estero Bay’s abundance of natural wonder, one of the most interesting sights in these fabled waters is manmade. Thanks to the Calusa people – the area’s ancient Native American settlers – one islet in the bay literally rises above the rest. On Mound Key you’ll find a cluster of large shell mounds reaching heights of up to 31 feet. With two paddlecraft landings and a self-guided trail that circles the island, Mound Key is a fantastic stop for an afternoon stroll through history.
Further south in the Pine Island Sound lies a colorful landmass, home to some of the area’s more recent and certainly more vibrant residents. On Matlacha, a tiny midpoint between the mainland and Pine Island, you’ll find cozy coffee shops, vividly painted art galleries and, more importantly, waters teeming with sea life just offshore. All of this makes Matlacha a must-see for anyone who wants to explore one of the area’s most unique communities during their day on the water.
For a change of pace from the open waters of Estero and Pine Island Sound, make your way upriver to discover one of the Caloosahatchee River’s best-kept secrets. Hickey’s Creek lazily snakes through a 1,200-acre nature preserve and feels truly removed from the bustle of society. The creek is slender and winding, making for some fun paddling. It will take you by brightly striped turtles; under lush, six-foot-tall leather ferns; and over tiny fish.
Now that you’re familiar with just a small handful of the Great Calusa Blueway’s treasures, it’s time to explore for yourself. Find in-depth maps of each phase of the Blueway as well as information on fishing, camping and bird-watching, and begin planning your own paddling excursion today.
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