Like biking trails for cyclists and hiking paths for backpackers, a handful of coastal kayak trails is offering ways for novice and expert paddlers alike to explore new territory, fish or just get lost on purpose.
The trails, offered now in a few states, include trail markers and maps keyed to Global Positioning Systems waypoints.
"The area opens up a whole new world with every stroke of the paddle," says Chet Couvillon, an angler from Spring Branch, Texas, who gave up his larger boat to fish Texas' Lighthouse Lakes Trails from a kayak. "You get to see things that you wouldn't have the opportunity to see from a power boat."
The Lighthouse Lakes Trails, on the Texas Coastal Bend, are accessed off county roads near the town of Aransas Pass. Markers indicating the major trailheads lie a short paddle across the Aransas Shrimpboat Channel.
Before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department created the trails in 2000, much of this wild, scenic estuary was ignored by boaters, who traveled past it to reach more accessible destinations.
On the way into Lighthouse Lakes, there are twists and turns. One mangrove shoreline starts to look like another. One channel opens up into three others. Some, barely wider than a kayak, lead to secluded tidal lakes where roseate spoonbills show off their pink plumage and blue herons wade among white ibis and reddish egrets.
Kayakers using hand-held GPS units can always find their exact location, the distance they have traveled and how far it is back to the starting point.
"There is an opportunity for everybody on the trails," says Dean Thomas, owner of Slowride Kayak Rentals in Aransas Pass. "Grandmas and little kids do this every day, plus the most hardcore fly-fishing guy is out there doing his thing."
Some of the trails are as short as two miles and can be paddled in a couple of hours. Others can take the entire day.
The South Bay Loop Trail, for instance, starts on the north side of the Aransas Channel and goes 6.7 miles across open, shallow flats covered in submerged sea grass beds. Paddlers encounter small spoil islands and duck-hunting blinds. Waterfowl fill the sky in fall and winter, and in summer, anglers hunt for redfish and spotted seatrout.
Florida's West Coast also offers a variety of marked and mapped kayak trails, from the Big Bend area near Tallahassee to the Everglades National Park at Chokoloskee.
The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trial starts at the Aucilla River on the St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve and runs 105 miles down the coast to Suwannee. A good launch point for sampling the trail with campgrounds is Ecofina State Park, between Tallahassee and Perry. It offers bathrooms and a general store.
Kayakers on the Big Bend Trail may feel like they stepped back into Florida's past, viewing miles of undeveloped shoreline. Key features on the trail are identified with posts and markers.
A more populated but no less intriguing Florida coastal trail is the Great Calusa Blueway, west of Fort Myers, a dramatic paddling loop around Pine Island Sound, a host of islands, archaeological sites and wildlife refuges.
It is one of the few kayak trails in the country where you can feel at one moment lost in a mangrove estuary, viewing wood storks, alligators and ancient Indian shell mounds, and an hour or two later stop off for a bottle of wine and a seafood dinner at an old inn or luxury beachside hotel.
Doug Burnham, who has kayaked many coastal trails in Florida with his wife, Virginia, gathering information for a paddling atlas, says they took a 10-day trip down Matlacha Pass and back up Pine Island Sound, camping out three nights and staying the rest of the time in lodgings ranging from luxury B&Bs to 1930s resorts on island hideaways.
A favorite Florida kayak trail for Doug Adomatis, who provides GPS data for recreational activities on his TravelbyGPS Web site, is the Wilderness Waterway trail out of Everglades City. It straddles two national parks: Everglades and Big Cypress.
Most kayakers put in off the Tamiami Trail on U.S. 41 and head toward open water, Adomatis says. They can either explore the outside barrier islands or go inland through meandering channels with mangrove canopies.
Winter is best for exploring the Everglades, Adomatis says. "In summer, you will go insane without a toxic slathering of insect repellant."
In California, Channel Islands National Park, accessed by kayakers from the coastal communities of Ventura, Santa Barbara and Oxnard, comes with tours of sea caves and close-up views of sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals.
For expert paddlers traveling in groups and equipped with hand-held GPS units, there is the 12-mile open-ocean trek to Anacapa Island. Besides pinpointing the landing area on the island, GPS receivers are handy in identifying and avoiding boat and freighter channels.For the less ambitious but no less adventurous kayaker, there is a shuttle trip by boat to the Scorpion Ranch campground on the eastern shore of Santa Cruz Island, a jumping-off point for day trips and three- or four-mile tours of scenic shorelines and sea caves.
What to take on a kayak trip
Touring by kayak is attracting many new participants. The National Park Service recommends the following equipment on extended wilderness trips:
2. Air horn/whistle/signal mirror
4. Portable marine/weather radio with waterproof pouch
5. Area charts
6. Bilge pump/bailing device
7. Spare paddle/paddle float
8. Personal Flotation Device
10. Broad-brimmed hat
11. Adequate spray skirt
12. Food and fresh water with extra provisions
13. Dry storage bags
14. First aid kit
16. Heavy diameter haul lines with carabiner
18. Repair kit