Surrounded by miles of open water and secluded coves, the city of Bradenton, Florida has no shortage of kayaking opportunities. Bradenton overlooks the mouth of the Manatee River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, where freshwater and saltwater kayakers alike can find numerous places to explore the quiet waters. Bradenton also provides a rare opportunity to kayak in the company of the endangered Florida manatee.
The Big River
From its origin 36 miles inland, the Manatee River winds quietly through rich mangrove forests and wetlands, flowing in and out of 2,400-acre Lake Manatee before opening up into a broad estuary in Bradenton. Manatees swim throughout the river up to the lake, where the Manatee Dam prevents them from reaching farther upstream. From the dam downstream to Bradenton, several spots provide kayak access, including a launch site right below the dam. From here, kayakers can paddle 6.5 miles downstream to the Fort Hamer Boat Ramp, or continue to several additional take-out points around Bradenton. Manatee Lake is accessible through Manatee Lake State Park. Kayakers in both the river and lake can spot a variety of wildlife in addition to their namesake aquatic mammal, including alligators, great blue herons and turtles. Dolphins often enter the lower portion of the estuary, and the upper river provides excellent fishing for largemouth bass, catfish and bream. A current Florida fishing license is required.
The Little River
Like its larger neighbor to the south, the Little Manatee River provides a natural habitat for the Florida manatee, especially in winter, when these creatures enter from Tampa Bay in search of food and warmer waters. Little Manatee River State Park, about 30 minutes north of Bradenton, provides access to the river as well as canoe rentals and hiking trails along the densely-wooded shores. The Canoe Outpost in Wimauma is another commonly used put-in and take-out point on the river, and the Outpost also offers canoe and kayak rentals and guided paddling trips. Like the Manatee River, the Little Manatee River is calm and slow-moving, making it ideal for kayakers who want to quietly explore the river, snap photographs of native wildlife and perhaps catch a few fish. As with all other places where manatees swim in Florida, visitors are not permitted to touch or interact directly with the animals.
Paddling Through the Wetlands
About 15 minutes from Bradenton, the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park encompasses nearly 2,000 acres of maritime hammock forest, mangrove swamp, freshwater marshes and saltwater estuaries between Tampa Bay and Terra Ceia Bay. The preserve provides a habitat for both freshwater and saltwater fish as well as alligators and numerous native birds. You can put a kayak in the water at the launch site on Bishop Harbor Road. From here, the 3-mile Bishop Harbor Blueway Trail provides a marked paddling route around the shore of Bishop Harbor. The trail connects to the Manatee County Terra Ceia paddling trail, a 75-mile network of paddling trails throughout Terra Ceia Preserve, Tampa Bay and the nearby Gulf waters. Kayakers are by no means required to follow the designated trail, but the paddling trails provide an easily-followed route that make it difficult to become lost in the maze of wetlands and estuaries.
Seven miles long and 2 miles across, Anna Maria Island lies in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Accessible from the mainland by the Manatee Avenue Bridge -- a 15-minute drive from Bradenton -- the shoreline of Anna Maria Island is ideal for kayaking, with scenery that ranges from modern beachfront homes to untouched wilderness. Access is available at a launch site just off the bridge, and at the south end of the island at Coquina Beach. Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures provides guided kayak tours and rentals. The waters east of the island are sheltered from prevailing winds, but kayakers should always be cautious when paddling in the Gulf of Mexico. Weather conditions are typically calm, but can change rapidly and unpredictably.