Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve | PADDLING

Paddling in the salt marshes of the Timucuan Preserve

Paddling in the salt marshes of the Timucuan Preserve

Two-thirds of Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is salt marsh, so there is no lack of paddling opportunities. By using the major waterways in the park such as Sisters Creek (aka the Intercoastal Waterway, aka Clapboard Creek), you can branch off onto the smaller creeks that weave in and out of the grass covered islands. There are no specific water trails or “must see” destinations, and since everything pretty much looks the same, you can go anywhere and find adventure. Keep in mind that you are exposed to the sun for the entire trip, so wear a hat and apply sunscreen if avoiding the sun is important to you.

The easiest access points for hand-launched watercraft are either from the Cedar Point or Kayak Amelia boat ramps, though I recommend the Cedar Point ramp because it puts you into the midst of more waterways. If you don’t have a kayak or canoe, you can rent one at Kayak Amelia, an authorized concessionaire at Big Talbot Island State Park. See the Boat Launches web page for ramp locations.

I launched from Cedar Point, the only boat ramp owned by the National Park Service. With no actual trail to review, I will simply post a list of paddling tips for the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Waterways in the salt marsh at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Waterways in the salt marsh at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

BEST IDEA FOR A PADDLING TRIP

I find that hiking or paddling in some sort of a loop, versus an out-and-back excursion, is always the best route to take because I don’t want to see the same things twice, particularly in the salt marsh where everything looks the same to begin with. In the Timucuan Preserve there are plenty of loop configurations that you can paddle, all of which involve using one of the main waterways (e. g. Sisters Creek, Fort George River, etc.). To do this, paddle out to the main waterway closest to your launch point and head either up- or downriver, then at some point cut into the salt marsh and work your way back in the opposite direction. Eventually you will connect back to the main waterway somewhere close to your starting point. No matter where you launch from, you should be able to make a loop between the main waterway and the small, backwater creeks of the salt marsh.

Bird watchers will delight on a trip into the salt marsh at the Timucuan Preserve

Bird watchers will delight on a trip into the salt marsh at the Timucuan Preserve

CEDAR POINT BOAT RAMP

If you launch from Cedar Point, you have two ways to reach Sisters Creek. One option is to paddle straight ahead, and depending on the tide, there may not be much water this way. The muck at the bottom is at least a foot deep, so if you get stuck it’s not like you can get out and pull your boat to deeper water. This is the way I departed and returned, and I barely made it back. Thus, do yourself a favor and veer off to the right as soon as you depart the ramp. This is the way the motorboats go because it is much deeper.

Dock at Cedar Point, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Dock at Cedar Point, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

TIDES

I never did figure out the tide system at the Timucuan Preserve, but I did not have any tide-related problems as far as paddling against the current was concerned. Sisters Creek runs north to south between the St. Johns River and Nassau River with the Fort George River connecting to it in the middle. During low tide the water in the salt marsh must drain out via these three rivers. I assume that if you are on Sisters Creek near the St. Johns River that the current will flow south at low tide (north at high tide) and vice versa if you are near Nassau River. What happens in the middle, I have no idea. However, since it ultimately doesn’t matter where you go—everything looks the same—once you get out to Sisters Creek, go with the current. If the water is flowing north, explore the northern salt marshes. If it is flowing south, explore the southern end of the park. You will have a similar paddling experience no matter where you go. As long as you spend a few hours back in the marsh, by the time you return to Sisters Creek the tide will either be slack or reversing so you can easily get back to your starting point.

The main concern about the tides is that the salt marshes will empty out at low tide, and you might get stuck in the mud. Thus, paddle as close to high tide as possible. There should be plenty of water from three hours before high tide to three hours after.

Dead jellyfish washed inland from the ocean

Dead jellyfish washed inland from the ocean

NAVIGATION

I highly suggest using a GPS with some sort of software that tracks your route. Your cell phone GPS along with a hiking or exercise app should work fine as long as you can get a cell signal (the park is close to Jacksonville so this should not be a problem). A phone’s GPS does not use a cell signal per se, but you need a signal to get the maps from a source such as Google, otherwise your GPS just shows your position on a blank screen.

Civilization is never far away when paddling in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Civilization is never far away when paddling in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

No matter what sort of device you use, be sure that you have enough battery power. Consider purchasing an external battery pack if you frequently make long hiking or paddling trips. I now have one that can keep my cell phone going all day long, but I had not yet purchased it at the time of my backcountry trip at Timucuan Preserve. If you want some real excitement, try finding your way out of the marsh before your battery completely discharges!

If using your phone and something like Google Maps, switch to the satellite view, not the road map view. The road map only shows the largest channels, and everything looks like a dead end, whereas the satellite view shows the actual waterways, and you can see whether or not the small creek you are on actually connects to another creek or river. Keep in mind that if you must zoom in to see the connection that the water may be very shallow in this area. I can’t tell you how many times I came around a bend only to find what looked like a nearly-dry creek bed. You can plot your course and make it 95% of the way only to find that there is not enough water to connect back to the main waterway. (If your GPS battery is on 5% at this point, good luck paddling all the way back from where you came before it goes dead.) I always found a way through every shallow channel, though the paths were sometimes no wider than my boat and just deep enough to avoid running aground.

Street map view of my route

Street map view of my route

Satellite view of my route

Satellite view of my route

The other thing you need to remember is a landmark on the main waterway that lets you know when to cut back into the marsh to get to your boat ramp. When traveling up and down the main waterways there are plenty of small creeks and streams that lead into the marsh, so you better know which one to take. With a GPS this is no problem because you can see where you came from using the breadcrumb trail.

GETTING OUT OF YOUR BOAT

Before getting out of your boat to rest, have a snack, or explore, stick a paddle into the river bottom to see if it is hard or mucky. I stepped out on one island and immediately sunk up to my knees in mud. I also explored another island that was solid, so there are plenty of both. Keep in mind that during high tide the water may reach all the way up to the vegetation area, so there may not be any shore to get out on.

INFLATABLES

I used an inflatable kayak and had no problems, but the bottoms of the waterways are often covered with oyster beds and these can rip an inflatable to shreds if you bottom out in low water. When paddling in the small creeks, stay in the middle, for this is usually the deepest part. There are a lot of oyster beds when leaving from the Cedar Point boat ramp if you head straight, which I have already warned you against doing.

PADDLE TIMES

Not counting getting out of the boat to explore or to take an extended break, you should be able to cover 2 miles per hour. My trip was 9.5 miles and it took me about 4 hours.

SAFETY ON THE MAIN WATERWAYS

A lot of big boats—and I’m talking ship-size boats as well as yachts, sailboats, and motorboats—travel on the Intercoastal Waterway. Just stay near the shore when you see one coming and you will not have any problems.

Sailboat on Sisters Creek (aka Intercoastal Waterway)

Sailboat on Sisters Creek (aka Intercoastal Waterway)

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Last updated on April 15, 2022
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