When was the last time you visited Weedon Island Nature Preserve?
Its miles of hiking trails and boardwalks winding through pine flatwoods, tidal flats and mangrove forests treat visitors to glimpses of a variety of wildlife from herons to gopher tortoises to jumping mullet.
I have hiked this Pinellas County gem many times, but only recently did I explore its paddling trails by kayak. Experiencing Weedon Island's flora and fauna from the water gave me a whole new perspective of, and appreciation for, one of my favorite area parks.
Weedon Island offers two paddling trails: the North Trail, which winds for two miles through mangroves and Snug Harbor before ending at the beaches along Gandy Boulevard. And the South Trail, a loop starting near the canoe launch at the end of San Martin Boulevard that weaves through four miles of mangrove tunnels, seagrass flats, and along the edge of Tampa Bay.
You can rent kayaks from the outfitter next to the preserve's main parking lot (you will have to paddle a bit of a distance before getting to the trail) or if you have your own equipment, you can put in at the canoe launch further up the road, next to the fishing dock.
My husband and I chose a sunny summer morning for our adventure, after checking the tide charts for Weedon to avoid the low tide (I've spoken to people who have had to pull their kayaks through some of the tunnels when low tide dips water levels to mere inches, so paddling at high tide is recommended).
After launching our kayaks next to the floating dock, it was a short paddle to the first signpost at the mouth of a mangrove tunnel, mullet jumping in our wake. Along the way, we paused and marveled at a pelican dive-bombing the water then surfacing with a wriggling mullet in its bill. Sure, we'd watched pelicans feed before, but not a mere few feet in front of our line of vision and at eye-level.
As we entered the first tunnel, almost instantly the bright sun was subdued to dappled shade as we glided under a canopy of mangrove branches, their roots forking into the brackish water. Small, black mangrove crabs clung to branches within inches of our paddles. Deeper into the mangrove forest, we caught glimpses of the occasional tricolor heron, still and statuesque.
At places, the trail was so narrow that we had to break down our paddle to travel with just one oar and duck under overhanging branches. Then, the tunnel opened into shallow waters of seagrass beds before leading us back into the shady mangroves.
And so we paddled through and around the mangrove islands, until we reached the final, long stretch through Papy's Bayou that led back to our launch point. The loop took us a little more than two hours to complete.
There is no charge to visit or park at Weedon Island; canoe and kayak rentals are available for a fee. If you go, check the tides and weather forecast; the loop is one-way, so you will want to avoid times when thunderstorms are likely.
For more information about Weedon Island's paddling trails and its many amenities, activities and educational programs, visit its website.