Special thanks to Betsy Clayton, Waterways Coordinator, Lee County Parks & Recreation - images used with permission.
The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail is a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County, Florida. It's divided into three portions, with miles of white sand beaches. The trail’s route also passes through habitat that varies from mangrove tunnels to banks of cypress, cabbage palms and moss-draped oaks.
Finding a spot to launch your kayak and charting a course on the Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail is made easy by their well-organized, easy to use website at CalusaBlueway.com. You can download the GPS coordinates of the trail markers as well as print beautiful trail maps.
Here is an over-view of the three sections of the Great Calusa Blueway - Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound-Matlacha Pass, and Caloosahatchee River & Tributaries - with a preview of scenery and wildlife to be encountered, and links to more information to get you excited to explore these interesting waterways by kayak.
Estuaries & Wildlife
Kayaking the blueway will expose you to a grand variety of ecosystems. Wildlife is abundant. About 40 percent of Florida's endangered and threatened species are found in its estuaries. More than a dozen species of wading and water birds make their homes and raise their young on the area's islands. Dolphins and manatees are commonly sighted and the fishing is good sport.
Birds & Sea Turtles: There are 300 species of birds living here or migrating through. In a recent survey, more than 190 nests were counted on just four rookery islands, with 16 separate species observed. These include great blue heron, tri-color heron, little blue heron, brown pelican, white ibis, reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, great white heron, great egret, snowy egret, magnificent frigate bird, anhinga, green heron, cattle egret and cormorant. It’s possible to see sea turtles 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.
Manatees & Dolphins: Popular resident of the blueway, the manatee is sensitive to cold so when the Gulf of Mexico’s temperature is 68 or below, look for them inland along Phase 3/Caloosahatchee River, 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. Please read TopKayaker's Manatee Interaction Guide For Kayakers. Fort Myers & Sanibel beaches are home to the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, a type of small, toothed whale that inhabits warm, salt and brackish waters. Coastal bottlenose dolphins can be found in the bay; and farther out in the Gulf you might encounter the larger bottlenose dolphins that represent a distinct population seldom if ever seen near the coastline. Be sure and take note of the excellent information available on the blueway's natural diversity at CalusaBlueway.com: Estuaries & Other Ecosystems - including Tips For Photographing Wildlife.
Alligators: 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 a dolphin than an alligator. Phase 3/Caloosahatchee River has more fresh water, so you may see one. Reportedly, Alligators tend to ignore paddlers or submerge themselves until paddlers have passed. You can read a thorough study of alligators and kayaking here at TopKayaker in one of our most popular articles: Encountering Predators While Kayaking.
Fishing & Sharks: Perhaps the greatest kept secret about the Blueway is the fishing. Light-tackle anglers in kayaks ply its waters every day in search of trout, redfish and snook. Lee County’s estuaries are like a nursery for shark pups. Thirteen species grow up here. Sharks typically are not a danger to paddlers; kayak anglers should be careful when catching and releasing sharks. Pick up fishing line and other debris – leave the scene cleaner than you found it. Fish, birds, sea turtles, dolphins and manatees frequently suffer from encounters with monofilament line. For more on fishing in the Calusa Blueway waters, read this great article by Terry Tomalin at CalusaBlueway.com: Kayak Fishing On The Calusa Blueway.
Always observe wildlife from a safe distance. When kayaking, 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. Related article here at Topkayaker: Rules Of The Wild.
Estero Bay's pristine waters reflect a decision made over 40 years ago to make it the state's first aquatic preserve. The Great Calusa Blueway’s route through the mangrove islands and beaches behind Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach is not just for diehard nature lovers. This is a place you can have a bit of both adventure and relaxation.
Bowditch Point Regional Park, significant for its unspoiled 17 acres of habitat, encompasses the entire tip of Estero Island. It brings paddlers to an accomodating bayside launch site and day dock. The park also has a concessionaire, shade shelters and talcum-like sand.
The mangrove tunnels and backwaters of Hell Peckney Bay are maze-like, yet inviting. Far away from powerboat traffic and human structures, this place is magical, with its clear, shallow waters giving a view of starfish, sponges, lightning whelks, kings crowns and sand dollars. Read more details, wonderful tips and insights on how to best enjoy this segment as well as download a beautiful trail map at CalusaBlueway.com - Estero Bay
Pine Island Sound
Think of this leg of the Great Calusa Blueway as more of a tripod. From San Carlos Bay at the south, one fork travels up the backside of the subtropical and paradisiacal Sanibel and Captiva. Another fork heads up the mangrove-laced Matlacha Pass, and then once north of the fishing village of Matlacha, it forks again. Go left to the tip of Pine Island. Go right to the wilds of the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.
Both Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve and Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve offer towering mangroves, which are elegant trees with chocolate-colored legs firmly planted in saltwater. Crabs scurry on their roots. Birds stalk prey. Small fish hide from big fish. If you see an opening in the mangroves, paddle in. You’ll find yourself moving from creek to saltwater lagoon and back. Some tunnels loop; others dead end. Almost all will feed your thirst for adventure.Tent sites and rustic cabins at Cayo Costa State Park draw hundreds each year, but the sugar-sand-laced barrier island at the top of Phase 2 remains remote. For a more primitive campsites visit Picnic Island on the trail’s south end.
Read more details, wonderful tips and insights on how to best enjoy this segment as well as download a beautiful trail map at CalusaBlueway.com - Pine Island Sound
The Caloosahatchee River
Its meandering tributaries represent the newest leg of the Great Calusa Blueway. This is the segment where blue turns green – as in lush, towering leather ferns, stately oaks dripping with moss and verdant vegetation along every shore. From the Hendry-Lee county line west to the mouth of the river is 38 miles. But when you add in the creeks and feeder rivers, another 52 miles exist for kayakers and canoeists to explore.
The Calusas used this river as a highway. So did early settlers to Fort Myers. Today, powerboats and sailboats traverse the Intracoastal Waterway, which connects Texas to Maine. But the river is wide enough to accommodate everyone – even wildlife. You wouldn’t know you’re paddling in a county of more than a half-million residents.
Unlike the Phase 1/Estero Bay and Phase 2/Pine Island Sound segments of the blueway, this Phase 3 section does not have trail markers. Instead, GPS coordinates for the mouth of each tributary are provided. Read more details, wonderful tips and insights on how to best enjoy this segment as well as download a beautiful trail map at CalusaBlueway.com - Navigating The Caloosahatchee River