Any fervent kayaker or paddleboarder who cruises to this particular gem of Florida will tell you: There are endless opportunities to get salty and wet. The coastal playland of Southwest Florida invites visitors year-round to spend time in/on/around its welcoming waters—from crystal-blue bathwater of the Gulf of Mexico, to mysterious, brackish riverbeds of State Parks.
And one of the easiest, most enjoyable and explorative ways to see this beaut of a locale is on a paddleboard or in a kayak.
If you’ve already got a watercraft in your arsenal of watersport vessels, great! If you’re in the market of buying something, check out Vanhunks’ Stand Up Paddleboard Buying Guide and The Kayak Shop Guide to help you choose the best option for you.
While Vanhunks’ headquarters is proudly located in Cape Town, SA, the abundance of tropical beaches, coves, bays, creeks and mangroves led to Sarasota. Vanhunks’ Boarding USA’s warehouse and retail showroom—equipped with a kegerator to have a cold one while shopping around for a board and chatting up US owner Tyrone Cochrane—it’ll soon become clear why Vanhunks chose Sarasota as its second home.
There is A LOT of water to be had here.
Venturing to Sarasota County’s shorelines and many nature reserves means not only discovering hundreds of different species of palm trees and 300+ days of liquid sunshine, but discovering a bounty of Florida wildlife—from egrets and osprey, to dolphins, turtles, rays, and aloof manatees. Meandering silently and slowly, in ultimate stealth mode like an ocean-dwelling ninja, notice the fish won’t dart, the birds won’t fly away, and the sea mammals come say hi.
For a day out on the water, here are some items while packing to check off the list:
A shade-bearing hat, a pair of sunglasses you’ll probably end up losing, reef safe SPF 30+ sunscreen, a Go-Pro if you have one to catch the sea creatures likely to make an appearance, a watertight storage bag to hold your phone, car keys and some endurance snacks, perhaps a fishing pole and bait to take a break from paddling for some casting and chilling, oh and, your paddle, of course.
Wherever you end up going in Sarasota County to SUP or kayak, planning your route beforehand is usually advantageous.
You can also visit Sarasota County’s Blueways Paddling Guide for reference maps, city history, safety precautions, nature notes and find designated access points/trails.
For beginner and veterans alike, welcome to the club of Floridian aquaphiles. Unlike Fight Club, there are no rules. Share the stoke, wrangle a group of fellow adventurers and start exploring Sarasota’s strangely diverse waterways, soak in some Vitamin D and dive into the habitat of exciting wildlife.
Off to the races we go. Here’s a breakdown of the most sought-after, accessible and navigable bodies of water in the area to launch from:
Turtle Beach/ Blind Pass
Pull in to Turtle Beach (just south of the Siesta Key Public Beach) and find yourself a spot in the public parking lot with various access points leading out to the open beach–often riddled with protected turtle nests during nesting season. It can get pretty overcrowded and busy here during high tourist season, but so worth the launch once you’re on the salty sea. Venture past Point of Rocks and paddle far from the crowds, piled up along the lifeguard stands of Siesta Beach. Since it is the open water, you may hit a few harmless waves from a passing boat stirring up the channel or if the Gulf is getting a bit of love from the wind, but that’s why you’re in a bathing suit, right? For a calmer, more private paddle, jump back on Midnight Pass Road and find a discrete spot to hop out and into Blind Pass, a quaint canal showing off Siesta’s impressive waterfront real estate and leads out to the mangroves of Jim Neville Marine Preserve.
North Shell Road
Another Siesta Key option is North Shell Road. This little side street off the busy Higel Ave. is easy to miss, and almost never has a spot, with only limited street parking available. But, it is always worth the shot to check to see. It truly is a local favorite and hidden oasis. You can pull up close to the tranquil water’s edge, unload with ease and hop in with few spectators around. With just a short sliver of rustic beach available to the public, this modest destination is like a personal paradise with powdery, soft sand. Starfish and untouched seashell varieties are often found traversing this particular hideaway zone and more private, quiet side of Big Sarasota Pass.
Bird Key Park
Coming from downtown Sarasota, cross over the John Ringling Bridge to the St. Armand’s Circle side, and there to the right lies the popular, often crowded, Bird Key Park. Frequented by many locals and visitors alike, it’s a super easy place to manage in terms of parking, launching and exploring. The strip of palms running parallel with the sidewalk with benches mark all your entry points. From there, you can navigate the perimeter waters of Sarasota Bay and get a kickass view of the cityscapes surrounding. Easily one of the most picturesque destinations to paddleboard and kayak with a pal, just be sure to dodge boat traffic that traverses under the bridges. The waters here are abound with grass flats, which makes it very likely to spot dolphins, manatees and fish, especially at sunset hour.
City Island Park/Ken Thompson Park
Making your way past the more touristy Lido Key and towards the local sanctuary of Longboat Key, pull off the John Ringling Pkwy for these two park pinpoints. Situated at the end of the peninsula, you’ll first pass by Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and The Old Salty Dog dockside restaurant and bar. Ken Thompson Park’s boat ramp provides an easy launching access point for kayaks and SUPs. Meanwhile, City Island opens up to some insane panoramic views of Sarasota Bay and the downtown Sarasota skyline, and prompts the question, “Which way do I go now?” But there is no wrong way.
Overlook Park at the LBK Bridge
If you continue on the John Ringling Pkwy, one spot to definitely hit up just a little further up on the other side of the Longboat Key Pass Bridge is Overlook Park. If you’re feeling like a party, “the Cove” becomes an enviable spot where boats, jetskis and SUPers gather together and spend the day hanging and swimming amongst the soft sandbars there. Beyond the boat parties, are shallow, quiet waters that extend around the fishing pier and boardwalk, underneath the bridge. Keep your eyes peeled for anything interesting the fishermen may be reeling in for dinner.
Whitney Beach/Beer Can Island
This super secretive spot can be quite difficult to find parking for and finding its exact location. Typically reached by boat, it is not impossible to get to on foot though. If you can score a spot at the Whitney Beach public access parking lot on Broadway Blvd, grab your gear and meander to the right (if looking at the horizon). Stop and jump in at any point, but for a real rugged Castaway-type experience, keeping trekking down to the very end/edge of Longboat Key. What can only be described as a remote, deserted island, Beer Can is overgrown with driftwood, wild branches, a beautiful mess of tree trunks, rope swings, hanging hammocks, hidden picnics and undercover parties. Paddleboard around these crystal-clear waters, but be carefully aware, as there is a lot of boat traffic coming to and from Jewfish Key. This may be a spot to do less paddling, and more perching with both legs on either side of your board. Meet friendly boaters with their own beer cans who have posted up here for the day and get a feel for the pirate life.
North Bridge Outlook Park/Nora Patterson Bay Island Park
Before crossing the North Bridge into Siesta Key, the parking lot of rock, sand and backed up cars will likely call your name at the last second to pull in and take in the vistas. The ease and convenience is noteworthy here, and at low tide, is really cool to stroll the exposed flats. You can either head south and explore Robert’s Bay or head north towards Sarasota Bay skyline. And if you’re an admirer of real estate, this launch spot gives paddlers prime access to venturing under the bridge to Nora Patterson Bay Island Park and into the luxury neighborhoods, where enviable homes are backed up on
the water, on-display one after the other. This destination also holds a vantage point for sun setting views and is also an ideal place to spot stingrays and high-jumping mullet.
Venice Jetty Beaches
The Venice Jetty Park splits the high-activity inlet into North Jetty Beach and South Jetty Beach. Parking is a plenty and the scene is energetic. Depending on the winds, tides and season, the Gulf can actually come alive and get a bit of action. On these days, the jetty will be flocked with surfers and boogie boarders when the waves deem promising, but it can also be a killer spot for stand up paddleboarders who are trying to paddle into and catch some fun ones to ride themselves. Just remember to obey safety rules and surf etiquette when in the lineup.
Rich in nature and history, this six-mile long urban stretch of sawgrass marsh, estuaries and residential neighborhoods, begins at Roberts Bay and goes north-inland—giving a backcountry peek of the behind-the-scenes Sarasota. Phillippi is one of the largest mangrove areas along Sarasota’s coast. Manatees, otters, egrets and herons, love finding shelter here due to the low boat traffic, which makes it also a great causeway to stand up paddleboard as well. No wake zones and minimal currents make Phillippi Creek a great beginner paddling course. Enter at Pinecraft Park and head southward or at the Phillippi Estate Park and head north.
Ted Sperling Nature Park
The mangrove tunnels on South Lido Beach provide a labyrinth of seagrass lagoons and overhanging tunnels for paddleboarders and kayakers to navigate. An accessible kayak/canoe and paddleboard launch makes it easy to enter and exit no-hassle. Lido’s slow-to-nil waves are ample for gliding the Gulf. Once on the water, dodge and duck under the dense branches and palms, skirting through the labyrinth of marshes and watch crabs scurry by, maybe get lost once or twice. The paths range from roomy to narrow, and everyone from novice stand up paddleboarders, to the addicts, enjoy the easy-going feel of Ted Sperling’s waterways. Each time out feels like a new adventure and turtles, dolphins, conch and exotic bird sightings are a plenty.
Lemon Bay Park
The unspoiled 210-acre shoreline of Lemon Bay in Englewood, is home to a variety of fish and trees that help filter the water. Launch your kayak or stand up paddleboard near the nature center so you can explore the Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve from the outside in. Motorless boats let you slip quietly in and out of the mangrove tunnels and scrubby flatwoods for 20 miles of paddling opportunities. This is the epitome of a serene day out on the water, with a sunset over Manasota Key to top it off.
Caspersen Trail / Alligator Creek
Located where freshwater and saltwater habitats meet along the edge of Charlotte Harbor, South Venice trails are certainly considered waterways less traveled. For
Alligator Creek, park at the South Venice Beach Ferry & Boat Ramp, and once unloaded, stroll down a bit to the entrance for this peaceful paradise, sparse of people-sightings, if any. As you paddle upstream, the flora and fauna changes and you’ll witness various layers of old Florida, including cypress domes and indigenous creatures. The launch point for another closeby paddle is located at Caspersen Beach Park. This trail loops along the Intracoastal Waterway and will eventually even connect with Alligator Creek, as well as Forked Creek. Note, that some areas along the Intracoastal are very shallow at low-tide.
Blackburn Point Park
This park is located in the barrier island of Casey Key, on both sides of the historic swing bridge. Blackburn Point can either take you out to busy Little Sarasota Bay and the Osprey Fishing Pier, or inland on scenic South Creek, which will eventually take you into the lush vegetation and brackish waters of Oscar Scherer State Park. This park is ideal if you want a little bit of both stand up paddleboard type routes, but beware of heavy boat traffic traversing throughout as well.
Myakka River State Park
Travel through one of Florida’s most primitive, largest and most diverse natural sanctuaries. Considered largely as the “Florida Wild and Scenic River”, the Myakka River flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. There is a launch point just past the first picnic area after entering the State Park (entry fee per vehicle applies). The technical difficulty is considered intermediate to advanced for paddlers, as some areas are open to wind, currents, flooding and subject to weather changes or navigational difficulties. Literally or figuratively running into alligators is a possibility too.