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Canoeing & Kayaking

American Heritage River

St. Johns River from Lake Washington to Lakes Poinsett & Florence, Melbourne Florida USA

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Copyright 2002 Alfonso Vazquez-Cuervo - See Terms of Use

Our Route Summary

  • Submitted by: Al Vazquez with some photos courtesy of Rob Walker
  • Date Submitted: 2/2002
  • Location: Melbourne, Viera, Cocoa Florida USA
  • Class: Typically flat water river with three large lakes that can have wind blown waves
  • Distance Paddled: about 22 miles one way. Because this is a long paddle for one day with no access to roads along the way, make sure the wind and weather are in your favor (blowing from the south or southwest), and take adequate supplies and clothing. I also strongly recommend a GPS to know how far you are from some of the rest stops listed below.

    Approximate Segments Distances:
    1. Lake Washington put in to the mouth of the St. Johns River on the north end of Lake Washington: 3 miles
    2. River between Lake Washington and Lake Winder: 9 miles
    3. Lake Winder: 3 miles
    4. River between Lake Winder and Lake Poinsett: 4 miles
    5. Lake Poinsett to western mouth of the channel to Lake Florence: 2 miles
    6. Lake Poinsett to Lake Florence takeout: 1 mile
  • Water Level: the main channel is typically navigable even during drought conditions.
  • Water: fresh, with a typically light current in the channels flowing generally from south to north, the direction of our paddle.
  • Wildlife: hundreds of alligators of all sizes, bass, anhinga, ibis, wood storks, vultures, ducks, great blue heron, turtles, saw grass, hyacinth, hydrilla, and other water plants
  • Special Regulations: Because of the impressive population of large alligators, I would avoid this paddle during mating season in the spring and I would not take any small pets along.


  • Directions: Exit Interstate 95 at Eau Gallie Boulevard eastbound. Turn north on Wickham Road. In about a mile, turn left (west) onto lake Washington Road and follow it to the park at the end.
  • GPS: N 28 degrees 08.863' W 80 degrees 44.055'
  • Fee: none
  • Description: dirt beach beside concrete ramps
  • Parking: paved parking adjacent
  • Facilities: restroom, picnic tables
  • Handicap Access: paved ramp and accessible restrooms


  • Directions: Exit Interstate 95 in Cocoa at Route 520 westbound. Turn south (left) onto the first road west of Interstate 95 (about 100 yards) and follow it to the end on Lake Florence (about 2.3 miles). It will run parallel to Interstate 95 (north south) and it will become a dirt road which eventually turns west just before Lake Florence. Beware that this road can become very muddy during rains and may require a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Also, the vehicles we left here became covered in mud from airboats using the road.
  • GPS: N 28 degrees 19.711' W 80 degrees 46.798'
  • Fee: none
  • Description: shallow dirt and sand beach
  • Parking: adjacent unpaved parking
  • Facilities: none, but just on 520 there are fast food joints and gas stations
  • Handicap Access: probably OK, though it's muddy

What We Saw

The St. Johns River is a beautiful, northern flowing river that was once the prime tourist destination in Florida. Before railroads or roads, the St. Johns served as a major thoroughfare with numerous paddle wheel boats. And native Americans used it extensively. The river begins in the marshes of Blue Cypress Lake and ends at it's mouth in Jacksonville.

We paddled downstream (northward) from a nice county park on Lake Washington, the drinking water reservoir for the Melbourne area. Entering the river channel shown at left at the north end of Lake Washington,

GPS: N 28 degrees 09.980' W 80 degrees 45.485'

we paddled several miles of winding river channel before coming to large Lake Winder, a very remote lake where we saw the largest alligators. The channel narrowed north of Lake Winder again for several miles until we entered another large Lake, Poinsett. Lake Florence is a smaller lake east of Lake Poinsett that provided access to our take out.

See the Paddling Routes page for other paddles on this long, American Heritage River.

Though this is a fantastic, gorgeous paddle, be prepared for some airboat and motorboat traffic. Airboats love the swampy areas along the shores of river. But we found boaters polite, friendly and usually careful to steer clear of us paddlers. I suggest placing a bright, tall warning flag on your canoe or kayak to be more visible above the high grasses. And take a loud horn to warn away boats if necessary.

Shortly after paddling the channel north of Lake Washington, we came to the dam pictured at right. On the west side (river left) there was the wooden ramp (pictured below) designed to let airboats portage safely around the dam under power. We portaged our kayaks across this ramp also, being careful not to step in the wide gaps between the parallel timbers underfoot.

Though this is not a high dam, I'd not try running it even in a whitewater boat as there are many alligators in these waters.

We saw some small alligators in this area. These were the first of dozens we'd see.

And these vultures were one of many types of birds we saw along the river. We were comforted by the lack of kayak or paddle pieces in their area :-)

Our first rest stop after the dam was a high grassy mound on river right (east) at

GPS: N 28 degrees 12.296' W 80 degrees 49.879'

About 200 yards east of this mound is the campground shown at right. With the water level during our paddle, a paddler had to to leave his boat by the river and walk about 100 feet to the campground.

Further down the river, we had difficulty finding campgrounds loosely marked on an "artsy" map provided by the St. Johns River Water Management District. In an aerial survey after the paddle, I was able to spot some of these further away from the river or lakes where they could not be seen by paddlers. I asked the water management district to add GPS coordinates to their maps.

Further down the river, we paddled across large Lake Winder. As with any lake, you may want to paddle along the lee shore to get protection from the wind if necessary. A couple of the paddlers decided to rest in the middle of the lake.

One of our paddlers had an encounter with an alligator. He and I were searching for the campsites on the west shore without success. As he paddled through low water and reeds back toward the center of the lake, an alligator bit the stern of his kayak. He said he accelerated his paddling and left the gator behind in the shallows.

This was the first gator incident I've actually had on any paddling trip. We believe he may have paddled over the gator in shallow water and frightened it. Or it may have mistaken the light bottom of his kayak for a rival gator crossing it's territory.

We continued past a peninsula at the north end of Lake Winder at

GPS: N 28 degrees 15.918' W 80 degrees 50.398'

And on to the mouth of the river at the north end of Lake Winder at

GPS: N 28 degrees 16.543' W 80 degrees 49.831'

North of Lake Winder, we stopped at The Palms, a campground easy to find on the west shore of the river at

GPS: N 28 degrees 17.327' W 80 degrees 49.168'

You can actually hike a short distance behind The Palms to more water.

Another nice rest stop north of The Palms is a canoe shelter on the east side of the river at

GPS: N 28 degrees 18.598' W 80 degrees 48.426'

Since we'd been paddling in a downpour north of The Palms, it was nice to get out under a roof. There are no other facilities here other than the roof and some bench seats, but it was a great place to rest and have some snacks and refreshments. And we had a nice chat with an air boater who skillfully navigated his boat to avoid blowing our kayaks away. He was amazed we'd paddled all the way from Lake Washington.

Finally, we came to the mouth of the St. Johns River at the south end of Lake Poinsett at

GPS: N 28 degrees 18.724' W 80 degrees 48.565'

The rain had stopped and the winds calmed, leaving the lake like a gorgeous mirror reflecting the now quiet stormy sky shown at left. It was one of those magic paddling moments.

Navigating to the Lake Florence take out from here takes some care. Don't head straight toward the GPS coordinates because it's not a straight trip. Instead, head North/Northeast toward a high radio antenna on the far shore using the following waypoints. You'll have to round a small peninsula on the east shore of Lake Poinsett before heading east toward the channel to Lake Florence.

GPS: N 28 degrees 19.623' W 80 degrees 48.186'

GPS: N 28 degrees 19.805' W 80 degrees 47.955'

GPS: N 28 degrees 19.803' W 80 degrees 47.827'

This last waypoint should have you at the mouth of the channel that connects Lake Poinsett to Lake Florence. I understand this channel was cut long ago for commerce, perhaps in the days when a few adventurous steamships ventured this far up the St. Johns River.

Normally, this last channel would be a nice paddle at the end of a great, long trip. But on that day, the sky's opened up on us again as we paddled Lake Florence. And it continued to pour as we dragged our boats on weary bodies onto our mud covered vehicles.

Still... what an AWESOME paddle :-)