Big Cypress National Preserve | TURNER RIVER PADDLE TRIP

Passing through a mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

Passing through a mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

TURNER RIVER BASICS

The Turner River runs approximately 8.5 miles from just north of the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) in Big Cypress National Preserve to Chokoloskee Bay in Everglades National Park. Trips from Big Cypress begin at the Turner River Canoe Launch located on the west side of the park.

Big Cypress National Preserve Water Trail map (click to enlarge)

Big Cypress National Preserve Water Trail map (click to enlarge)

Turner River water levels often get too low for paddling by mid-February, and if so, the National Park Service closes the river. When the rains begin again in May or June, you would think it would be a good time to resume paddling trips, but the mosquitoes, gnats, and biting flies are so bad that only a fool would attempt paddling at this time. Also, water levels may get so high that the entire area becomes one, big lake, and the levels must actually recede before distinguishable waterways emerge. Enjoyable paddling usually begins again in November.

While there aren’t many channels that branch off from the Turner River, it is advisable to carry some sort of GPS to help with navigation, be it your phone or a hand-held hiking GPS. The National Park Service normally marks the water trails with white PVC posts, but many of the markers are now missing (as of 2021) due to the numerous storms that have come through in the past few years. For the most part, it’s pretty obvious which way the Turner River is heading, but there are a few areas with multiple turn options that can get confusing.

There are four mangrove tunnels on the Turner River, and most people only go through the first before turning around. Thus, the subsequent tunnels are not as well maintained, and at times it’s hard to believe that you’ll even get through. However, that’s not the problem for most people…it’s spiders. The mangrove branches are covered with spiders and their webs, and spiders are going to fall on you and into your boat by the dozens. If you are afraid of spiders, do not attempt to paddle down the Turner River.

The Turner River gets so narrow that you will not be able to paddle with a traditional kayak paddle. You must break it down and use one half like a canoe paddle, so be sure you have a paddle that can be disassembled. I have also seen recommendations not to take canoes or kayaks over 16 feet long due to the lack of maneuverability in the mangrove tunnels. My kayak is 12 feet, and I had no problem. I can certainly see how longer boats might have difficulty.

The closer to Chokoloskee Bay you get, the more pronounced tidal effects become. I first noticed the river starting to move a little faster in one direction about three miles from the Turner River Canoe Launch in Big Cypress. The water was flowing towards the bay, which was the direction I was heading. During my trip, the current was negligible, and I could have paddled in either direction with ease at any time. However, I was far upriver when the tide was going out, so it may have been moving much faster near the bay. Thus, try to paddle with the tide whenever possible if you plan to venture farther than three miles downriver. See How Tides Affect Your Paddling here on National Park Planner for more information.

If you found this page directly, there’s a lot of other useful information on the Big Cypress National Preserve Paddling web page, so be sure to check it out as well.

TRIP OPTIONS FROM BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE

There are three options for paddling the Turner River if you are starting in Big Cypress.

ONE WAY TRIP

If you plan to paddle the entire Turner River and have arranged for a ride at the end to bring you back to the Turner River Canoe Launch in Big Cypress National Preserve, once you reach the bay you must either paddle to Chokoloskee Island (1 additional mile) or the Gulf Coast Visitor Center run by the National Park Service (3 additional miles). Everything is private property on Chokoloskee Island, so if you plan to land there you’ll need to arrange with some business or know somebody. Chokoloskee Island Park and Marina allows kayak launching for a fee, so that’s probably the best place to call. Anyone can land at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

When you reach the bay, Chokoloskee Island is straight ahead. To get to the Visitor Center, make a right and follow the causeway until coming to the bridge. You’ll need to zig zag under the bridge to get to the Visitor Center. Just keep following the causeway and you can’t miss it. Be sure you have a map or GPS if you don’t know the exact location.

The one-way trip entails paddling on open water in the bay, so things can get dangerous if the wind is blowing strongly. I’ve found that the Rangers in the Everglades are much more up to date on daily wind conditions than anyone at Big Cypress National Preserve, so if you can’t personally stop in at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, be sure to call there before asking anyone at Big Cypress.

Boat ramp at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades National Park

Boat ramp at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades National Park

OUT-AND-BACK TRIP

If you don’t have a ride at the end, then simply paddle as far down the Turner River as you’d like, then turn around and head back. I paddled to the Left Hand Tuner River (7.5 miles in 4 hours, one way).

LOOP PADDLE TRIP

If you don’t like seeing the same things twice, you can paddle the Turner River to Left Hand Turner River and take that over to Halfway Creek. Then paddle back up Halfway Creek to the Seagrape Drive Boat Launch near the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center in Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s about five miles back to the Turner River Canoe Launch, so you still need a ride at the end. If you have a bike, you can drop it at Seagrape (chain it to a tree or something) and then bike back, but keep in mind that there is no road shoulder and vehicles are traveling 60+ MPH along Hwy 41. This was my initial plan for my January 2021 trip, but Halfway Creek was supposedly blocked with debris, plus after thinking about it, riding my bike on a highway didn’t sound like too good of an idea.

I never could find anyone at the National Park Service who knew exactly how long the loop paddle is, but the Turner River portion is 7.5 miles and the Left Hand Turner River portion is approximately 3.5 miles, so that’s 11 miles. The National Park Service’s Gulf Coast Paddling Guide claims that Halfway Creek runs 7.3 miles from the Seagrape Drive Boat Ramp to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, and I’d estimate that 3 miles are knocked off by going no farther than Left Hand Turner River. That leaves about 4.5 miles on Halfway Creek, a total of approximately 15.5 miles. You should be able to do that in 8-9 hours.

TURNER RIVER PADDLING TRIP DETAILS

Since I had no ride at the end, I opted to paddle to Left Hand Turner River and back, and total distance of approximately 15 miles. I made the trip in a two-man inflatable kayak with my assistant in about 8 hours. I did not venture all the way to Chokoloskee Bay because 1) I didn’t want to deal with tidal effects, and 2), the Turner River gets very wide beyond Left Hand Turner River (a tenth of a mile or more), and to me that’s a bore. I like the narrow stretches with mangrove tunnels. It feels more like an adventure, like I’m making my way down some jungle river. However, I now wish I’d gone to the end if for no other reason than to write about it.

Upon departing from the Turner River Canoe Launch, you are actually paddling on a canal that runs southeast along the Tamiami Trail. In just a hundred yards is a bridge that you must go under in order to paddle south. You may actually have to “limbo” under the bridge when the water is high. If you head in the opposite direction, the river ends at a small pond after .3 mile.

Once under the bridge, it’s about a half mile to the first of four mangrove tunnels on the Turner River. If there is a crowd, this will be the busiest section, and you may even have to wait your turn to enter. Paddling trips given by the National Park Service and many outfitters cover this tunnel and then turn around in a small pond at the end, so there are people coming and going, and the tunnel is only wide enough for one-way traffic.

Ranger-led canoe trip on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

Ranger-led canoe trip on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

The first mangrove tunnel takes about fifteen minutes to get through. Since just about everyone paddling the Turner River covers this section, it is well maintained. Even so, you’ll need to break down your full-length kayak paddle, and in many spots, grab the mangrove branches and roots and pull yourself through. If there was no ground below you, it would be like swinging on vines through the jungle.

Pull yourself through the mangrove tunnels on Turner River by grabbing branches and roots, Big Cypress National Preserve

Pull yourself through the mangrove tunnels on Turner River by grabbing branches and roots, Big Cypress National Preserve

When you emerge into the pond at the end of the tunnel, you will have traveled one mile. It took us 40 minutes to get this far, so suffice to say, progress within the mangrove tunnels slows to a crawl. Most tour groups turn around at this point, so you may find many paddlers taking a break at the pond while they listen to tour guides talk about the ecology of the area.

Paddlers congregate at the pond at the end of the first mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

Paddlers congregate at the pond at the end of the first mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

To continue down the Turner River, head to the right. The second tunnel begins immediately.

Entering the second mangrove tunnel on Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

Entering the second mangrove tunnel on Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

The second mangrove tunnel is .6 mile long and takes about a half hour to get through. It is much denser, and there are submerged branches and downed mangroves throughout. It’s a wonder that it simply doesn’t fill in completely and become impassable. When I did the trip in January 2021, much of the park was still flooded due to what one park Ranger told me was the wettest winter since 1978. With high water levels, even in a kayak I had to constantly duck to get underneath the mangrove branches, so I can’t imagine anyone in a canoe—where you sit much higher up—getting through any of the mangrove tunnels without much difficulty.

You often have to lift branches to get under them, but be very aware that once you let go, they will drag across the back of your boat and can hook onto exposed gear stored in the rear. As you proceed ahead, they may pull gear out of your boat and into the water. I had this happen on multiple occasions with the half of the paddle that I didn’t have in my hand. Light gear may slip silently into the water, and later in the day you’ll be wondering where it went.

Inside the second mangrove tunnel on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

Inside the second mangrove tunnel on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

And here’s where the spiders begin. There were three guys traveling ahead of us, so you’d think they’d clear the way, and if they did, I’d hate to see how many spiders they encountered because there were still plenty left for us. Luckily I was in the back of the kayak, so my assistant took the brunt of the webs. The good news is that the spiders are not poisonous, and as hard as it is to believe, they are probably more afraid of you than you of them since you have the power to squish them. I do not know what species they are, but the most common resemble daddy longlegs, except that they are small. You can grab them by the legs and toss them out of the boat. Don’t worry about drowning them, because they walk on water. In fact, if you don’t toss them far enough, they will just run and jump back into the boat. It’s crazy. Spiders that manage to remain in the boat just want to find a dark place to hide. As I mentioned earlier, there will be dozens and dozens and dozens of spiders falling into your boat as you pass through the mangrove tunnels that don’t see much traffic.

I also noticed that there were sections here and there where mosquitoes liked to cling to the mangrove leaves. When you disturbed them, they fluttered about, but oddly enough they seemed more interested in the leaves than people. I may have gotten a few bites, but I never considered them much of a problem, and certainly nothing that made me want to apply insect repellant.

The Turner River opens back up at the end of the second tunnel, and it’s back to normal paddling for another .75 mile before hitting the third tunnel, which is only 100 yards long. However, before reaching it there are two confusing areas with multiple intersections. You can’t depend on navigational markers, and the paper maps are not detailed enough, so without a GPS it is hard to figure out which way to go.

Open water on the Turner River after the second mangrove tunnel at Big Cypress National Preserve

Open water on the Turner River after the second mangrove tunnel at Big Cypress National Preserve

Just before the third tunnel is a tiny picnic area that doubles as a restroom, as evidenced by numerous wads of toilet paper on the ground once you get out of eyesight of the river. This is the only pit stop you’ll find on this trip. It comes 2.4 miles from the start.

Picnic area on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

Picnic area on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

It takes about five minutes to get through the third tunnel and back onto open water. A little less than .2 mile later, the river comes to a T-intersection. Take a left to continue, then a right about 25 yards farther. There was a PVC marker at this turn, otherwise I might have kept going straight. This is the start of the fourth mangrove tunnel.

Navigational marker at the start of the fourth mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

Navigational marker at the start of the fourth mangrove tunnel on the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

The fourth mangrove tunnel begins at 2.8 miles from the start and lasts for .6 mile. It was at this point that I noticed the water being influenced by the tide, and luckily it was going in the same direction as I was (look at a mangrove root and you can see which way the water is flowing around it). However, at no point on this journey did I notice any tidal effects that would prohibit me from paddling in any direction, though paddling against the tide would certainly slow things up a bit.

I’ve paddled many water trails in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, so mangrove tunnels are nothing new to me. What I’m about to say, I knew all along, but I’ll now let first-timers in on a secret: a little mangrove tunnel goes a long way. What at first seemed pretty cool now begins to grate on your nerves, and you’ll soon find yourself asking, “When does this madness end?”

Fourth mangrove tunnel on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

Fourth mangrove tunnel on the Turner River at Big Cypress National Preserve

A half hour after entering the fourth tunnel, you will emerge onto a small lake 3.5 miles from the Turner River Canoe Launch. I was averaging 1.7 miles per hour, down from a typical 3 miles per hour on open water. Thankfully that’s the last tunnel, and it’s easy going the rest of the way. Of course this statement applies to those on a one-way trip. My assistant and I had a duplicate journey ahead of us when we returned back upriver.

Typical terrain on the Turner River south of the fourth mangrove tunnel, Big Cypress National Preserve

Typical terrain on the Turner River south of the fourth mangrove tunnel, Big Cypress National Preserve

The Turner River widens multiple times to form small lakes (or ponds) on the way south. When you first enter a lake and look to the other side, it is sometimes hard to figure out where the exit is. My advice is to keep paddling straight ahead until the exit becomes obvious. You might not be paddling in an optimal straight line from entrance to exit, but you can’t get lost.

Lake on the Turner River at Everglades National Park

Lake on the Turner River at Everglades National Park

At 5.4 miles into the trip a dolphin came swimming by. I tasted the water to see if it was salty, but it tasted fresh, not brackish as might be expected when you see a dolphin swimming around. Just a few minutes early something else popped up next to the boat and scared the hell out of me—probably a manatee, but I never did get a look at it.

Dolphin on the lower half of Turner River at Everglades National Park

Dolphin on the lower half of Turner River at Everglades National Park

I mentioned earlier that the picnic area was the only place to get out of the boat on the entire Turner River (at least to Left Hand Turner River). You may see other spots that look inviting, but beware of very deep mud.

Knee-deep mud on the banks of the Turner River, Everglades National Park

Knee-deep mud on the banks of the Turner River, Everglades National Park

Left Hand Turner River is hard to miss, but if you have a GPS, you can verify you’ve reached it when you have traveled somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5 miles. You’ll come to a huge lake and what amounts to a four-way intersection. Left Hand Turner River is to your right; Hurddles Creek is to the left; and the Turner River itself continues straight ahead. It is approximately one mile to Chokoloskee Bay from here. It took us four hours to reach this point.

Junction of the Turner River, Left Hand Turner River, and Hurddles Creek, Everglades National Park

Junction of the Turner River, Left Hand Turner River, and Hurddles Creek, Everglades National Park

Not wanting to travel farther on a very wide river, we turned around and headed back. I don’t know when high or low tide was, but I was guessing that it was now slack tide, because the water wasn’t moving much at all. Tidal effects become much more of a factor at this point, being so close to the bay. Also keep in mind that due to the length of the river, the tide may be slack near the bay, but still moving swiftly farther upriver. Water just doesn’t reverse flow in an instant. However, on the way back I never noticed the water flowing rapidly in any direction, and the trip upriver took the same amount of paddling effort as the trip down.

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Last updated on June 14, 2023
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