With a dozen launch points along its 16 mile length, Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, is a must-do paddling trip along a remote spring-fed waterway. Since it’s in a very rural part of the Panhandle, many paddlers have never even heard of it, unless they live in the region. We knew of it from friends who raved about the springs. Getting up there and back means a multi-day trip from our Central Florida home, so when a guided trip was offered to us this spring as part of a tour of Riverway South -- the rural spaces between the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee Rivers -- we jumped at the chance.
We met our guide, Dana Phillips, at Old Cypress Canoe Rentals in Vernon, which she runs out of her home. On the wooded acres behind the house, there is a parking area, changing room, and portalet. She also mentioned a campsite on the creek, but we could only see swamp where the road sloped down into the basin of Holmes Creek. We’d end up at the campsite at the end of our paddle, the focal point of which was a visit to popular Cypress Spring. But to get to Cypress Spring, we’d have to paddle upstream nearly a mile.
Normally, Dana would drop off paddlers at Cotton Landing, but it was closed for renovations. So we started our journey at Culpepper Landing in Vernon, which meant we’d be powering our way upstream with two paddles. John and I paddled in separate kayaks before, but never together in one watercraft. He thought a canoe would be wise, and I agreed. I found it a bit tippy to my taste, so I sat between the ribs up front while he took care of providing the power and steering from the rear. It took a little bit for us to get a rhythm together.
It was good to have a guide, since we didn’t know exactly where we were headed. Small tributaries flow into the creek, many of them spring-fed. The spring run for Cypress Spring had a bunch of “No Trespassing” signs on the west shore, because wouldn’t you know, Nestle is pumping water out of this beauty. But we were able to approach by water and get to a spot where we could see this majestic second-magnitude spring in all its glory.
There are more than 15 springs along the 16-mile paddling run, and while Cypress Springs is one of the showiest, it certainly wasn’t the only one along our trip. As the paddling was not against the current on our trip back to Vernon, we were able to pull close to where many of the springs poured out from the forests adjoining the creek. Where you don’t see private property signs, it’s okay to stop and jump in.
I thought it was interesting there were so few houses along such a pretty creek. Much of its shoreline is protected by Northwest Florida Water Management District as Choctawhatchee WMA. Floodplain forests line the waterway to the west, while bluffs rose to the east. In a few spots, we could see where people could make their way down to the water by foot.
Not long after we passed Culpepper Landing again, Dana pointed out a sign calling attention to another spring. “Go that way!” she shouted.
The winding route under a dense canopy of trees popped us out into a big circular spring basin below a house on a bluff. She told us this was Beckton Spring, and it has an obvious boil on its surface. It wasn’t as clear or blue as Cypress Spring, but it certainly seemed deep. A large run poured out of this second magnitude spring. I first mistook it for part of Holmes Creek, given how we’d paddled into the spring basin, but we left a different way, floating with the current to rejoin the main flow of Holmes Creek again.
The last stretch of our paddling trip was as heavily wooded as the first stretch was. A handful of houses peeped over the bluffs, usually in deeply shaded settings. A few broad pools along the way looked as if they might harbor more springs, but since we were with a group, we kept their pace.
We’d have missed the take-out entirely if Dana hadn’t pointed it out in advance. A camping area with picnic tables adjoined the spot where her Chevy Silverado Z71 pickup was waiting for us. Looking at the surrounding swamp forest, I’d wondered how she’d gotten it here and how were were going to leave. There was no obvious path.
To our great surprise, she powered the 4x4 right into the swamp, following the ruts of an old road under the tannic water. Turns out this part of her property is in the floodplain, which makes it a great place for put-in and take-out, but not an easy place to walk to!
While this was only a small sampling of Holmes Creek, it certainly made us want to explore more! We paddled about 3 miles along the route. For a summertime activity, you’ll have a splashing good time.
Our two-hour trip launched from Culpepper Landing and ended on the waterfront property of Old Cypress Canoe Rentals, where they have a campsite for overnight paddlers using their rentals. Dana isn’t the only outfitter in Vernon, but she’s a native of Panama City and entirely in love with paddling in this region, growing up playing on the Chipola River and Econfina Creek as well. She started the business in 2012, and employs a small staff. It’s a seasonal thing, May 1-Nov, but you can rent kayaks and canoes off-season as well by calling ahead, 850-388-2072. If you want a guided trip, that needs to be arranged in advance. Most paddlers just get dropped off with a map.
If you bring your own kayak or canoe, you can launch at any of the following sites. The southernmost one is south of the creek’s mouth on the much broader and swifter Choctawhatchee River. Keep in mind that if you plan to camp, you need to figure out those logistics in advance.