Top 5 Rivers in a Days Drive From Tampa

Weeki Wachee River
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Tampa Bay is home to world champions, award winning beaches, and numerous rivers flowing around the area. When you think of the Tampa Bay, you often think of the pristine beaches that cover billboards, but to many, the rivers are the real winners. The state has so many great rivers to choose from, but here are the top five rivers near the Tampa Bay.

Manatees at Crystal River
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Crystal River

Best for: Marine life viewing

Distance from Tampa: 1.5 hours

Location: Crystal River, FL

About Crystal River

Crystal River is a spring fed river north of the Tampa Bay. This river has become a famous location for seeing the manatees. The river boasts many springs throughout but most notably is Three Sisters Springs. This spring has become synonymous with winter manatee home. You can still spot the manatees throughout the river in the spring and summer but is not done quite as easily as in the winter.

The river is small and connected to the Gulf of Mexico but most people stay within a small area around the boat and kayak launches. Near town, the river splits into numerous estuaries and tributaries lined with springs and homes.

The river is also home to Crystal River State Park, where people can hike and go bird watching along this iconic river.

There are plenty of launches and rental places around the main area to help get a day on Crystal River started. Beware, during the day when boats are around the open river area, the water can be choppy and difficult to traverse. This river is best visited in the morning before others start making their way on the water, too.

Please note that while this river is great to see the manatees, they are a protected species and this river is their home. Do not touch, harass, feed, chase, or torment the manatees in anyway and always work to protect them and their land through education and keeping the river clean.

Aligator on Myakka River
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Myakka River

Best for: Wildlife viewing and photography

Distance from Tampa: 1 hour

Location: Sarasota, FL (within the Tampa Bay area)

About Myakka River

Myakka River is a free flowing river in the lower Tampa Bay area. The river is mostly undeveloped due to a large portion being preserved within Myakka River State Park. The park contains the river, nature and hiking trails, camping, a lake, and the countries first public canopy walkway.

This river is not for the faint of heart, unlike the other rivers around the Tampa Bay, Myakka River is home to many alligators. So many that it is famous for alligator viewing in the area. The Tampa Bay area has a lot of salt water and spring fed bodies of water, which makes alligators a rare find, but on the Myakka, they’re hard to miss.

This river is a haven for wildlife photographers due to finding alligators, otters, and aquatic birds. It is easy to find a kayak spot along the river to sit and wait for the right picture. Within the park, it is common to see bobcats and deer roaming the fields.

In the dry season, the river gets very low and in parts, too low to paddle. In the wet season the waters are higher and quicker so it is better to kayak rather than paddle board so you can steer clear of lurking gators. The river is also windy with many tributaries making it difficult to navigate, be sure to bring a GPS so you don’t get lost among the gators.

Important to remember, gators are the icon of Florida but are extremely docile creatures. They can protect themselves when needed, but as long as they are left unbothered, they will stay to themselves.

Weeki Wachee River near Tampa Bay
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Weeki Wachee River

Best for: Becoming a mermaid

Distance from Tampa: 1 hour

Location: Spring Hill, FL

About Weeki Wachee

Famous for the mermaids, Weeki Wachee quickly became a roadside attraction in the 1940’s. While many people love to be entertained by the mermaids in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, there’s a whole river to discover right behind the park.

To enter the river, kayakers and paddle boarders enter through the park – this does require a pre-reserved entry ticket – and ride the rivers current through the palm canopy. After about a six mile paddle/float to Rogers Park, the state park employees will pick you back up to retrieve your car.

The waters at Weeki Wachee are crystal clear and perfect for diving. Along the route, there are plenty of areas to pull your board to the side, embrace your inner mermaid, and dive with the fish. The current is strong so be sure to wear your flippers when diving.

This river and park is a top attraction in Florida, and the state works hard to protect it. There are only a limited number of slots to launch per day, and they often fill up a month in advance, be sure to plan ahead. Also, no alcohol or single use plastics are allowed on this river, pack accordingly.

The Chassahowitzka River near the Tampa Bay
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Chassahowitzka River

Best for: Cave diving

Distance from Tampa: 1 hour

Location: Chassahowitzka, FL

About Chassahowitzka River

The Chassahowitzka River – more commonly known as The Chazz to locals – is located just north of the Tampa Bay. This river is spring fed, but is not clear and blue like other spring fed rivers. Instead this river looks like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. The Florida jungle comes alive along the banks of The Chazz and gives endless opportunities to explore.

One of the biggest draws to this river is 7 Sisters Springs. The spring is located close to the boat and kayak launch making it accessible to just about anyone. Unlike the other springs in the area, 7 Sisters has small caves to dive through. It is common to see lines forming around each cave on the weekends with people waiting to get their dive in. The caves are small and the spring is shallow but is a great place to explore and introduce yourself to free diving techniques.

Pro tip, this river is mostly locals and could be considered a hidden gem in Florida. Be sure to respect the river and the people and arrive extra early to get a spot and some dives in before the crowds come.

Rainbow River
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Rainbow River

Best for: Relaxing

Distance from Tampa: 1.5 hours

Location: Dunnellon, FL

About Rainbow River

Another famous river in Florida’s spring country, Rainbow River is a crystal clear, cool, lazy river flowing through central Florida. Rainbow River is a great paddling destination but is most notably known for tubing during the summer months. Since the river is spring fed, it stays at 72 degrees (Fahrenheit) year round – even during the brutal Florida summers.

The river is connected to Rainbow Springs State Park – where you can go and explore the springs that feed the river.

Rainbow River is my favorite river near Tampa, it can serve as a full day of fun for just about anyone. The paddle is long but relaxing in the current, and it is great to grab a group of friends to attach tubes and float with.

Pro tip – the shuttle between KP Hole and Blue Run only runs through the spring and summer months, if you go when the shuttle is not running, bring a phone to call an Uber or a car at each park.

Turtle at Chassahowtizka River near Tampa Bay
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Rivers Near Tampa Bay

This list only describes five rivers near Tampa. In reality, there are so many more rivers to explore.

The Tampa Bay rivers give locals and visitors a great view of the Florida environment away from the beach crowds. Next time you are in the area, be sure to visit one of the great Tampa rivers.

Let me know in the comments below your favorite river to explore in the area.

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Rivers near the Tampa Bay pin
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