The “Great Loop” is a 6,000+ mile trip that follows the Intracoastal Waterways (ICW), and the river systems around the eastern United States.
AGLCA – America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association
The AGLCA is a membership group that provides education, planning services, trip planning information, discount programs, and advocacy to the Looping community. They hold regular Rendevous and gatherings for boaters who are planning, in progress or have completed The Loop. You can learn more about them at “https://GreatLoop.org” or by watching the video below.
For a great video introduction on The Great Loop, check out this YouTube Video.
The Great Loop
The Loop takes about a year to complete if you move on a regular basis. Most Loopers take between 10 and 14 months to go around. We have met boaters that have completed it in 6 months, and boaters that are in their 6th year, and still have not made it all the way around once! We have also met many boaters who have done the loop 3, 4, and even 7 times, with a few who just go around once every year or so.
Our Loop Trip
We did the Loop in 2019-2020. To read about our Loop Trip, check out this post.
The “Loop” route has many options. You begin the trip wherever your boat happens to be! Most Loopers go “Counter Clockwise” as this gives the longest weather window. The Looping season typically begins in May with a big Rendevous in Norfolk Virginia.
There are also other Loops like the Down East Loop which goes up through Lake Champlain, and around Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England.
The North East
Starting in Norfolk, Virginia, the route goes north into the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake has several options and many people spend an entire boating season just exploring this area.
In the Northern Chesapeake, the route enters the C&D (Chesapeake & Deleware) canal, which connects the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware River. Here the route turns southeast and follows the Delaware Bay along the Delaware/New Jersey border to Cape May, New Jersey. Most boaters then cut through Cape May on the Cape May canal, which brings them to the Atlantic Ocean in southern New Jersey.
Here the Intracoastal Waterway provides an “inside” route up the coast of New Jersey, however, due to massive shoaling from Hurricane Irene, there are many sections that are impassible to larger boats, so most Loopers opt to go “Outside” into the ocean a mile or two for this part of the trip. The main stopping point on this leg is Atlantic City, where the casinos have an excellent protected marina!
From Atlantic City, the route continues to Manasquan New Jersey, where the ICW ends, and all boats go outside into the ocean for the 35 mile run to New York Harbor.
New York & The Hudson River
After entering New York Harbor and passing the Statue Of Liberty, the route follows the Hudson River northwest passing through Peekskill, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Hudson, and Albany. Just north of Albany, the route splits at Waterford, NY. One Route continues north into Lake Champlain following the Champlain Canal up to the Canadian border and into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The most common route turns west at Waterford and enters the Erie Canal.
The historic Erie Canal has its eastern end in Waterford, New York, and travels northwest through Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Utica, and Brewerton. This portion of the trip is where most boaters who started on the east coast, get their first taste of “Locks” where boats are raised or lowered in water-filled chambers.
Just west of Brewerton, the Oswego Canal turns North toward Lake Ontario, while the Erie Canal continues west eventually reaching the Niagra River near Buffalo. This is called the “Western Erie” canal. Some boaters will continue on the Western Erie (This was a common option when Canada was closed to travel due to Covid). There are some pretty low bridges that are not drawbridges on the western Erie Canal, so many larger boats are too tall to take this route. By far the most popular route is to take the Oswego Canal north.
The Oswego Canal is relatively short, only about 25 miles, and ends in Oswego, New York on the shore of Lake Ontario. Again there are quite a few locks on the canal, and a few of them are a bit tricky as the water flowing around the lock dam can push your boat around when you pass the outlet.
Lake Ontario & The Saint Lawrence Seaway
From Oswego, there are a number of options available.
You can take a left and head west toward Rochester and Buffalo, New York, then take the Welland Canal from Lake Ontario into Lake Erie past Cleveland, then Detroit, then through the St. Claire river into Lake Huron. This is a fairly unpopular route as you miss the Canadian Canals.
You can go straight across Lake Ontario to Kingston, Ontario, and then on to Trenton, Ontario, and the Trent-Severn Canal. This is a popular route for boaters who are in a hurry to get to the Georgian Bay to spend the summer.
Or, like most, you can cross Lake Ontario and enter the St. Lawrence River and the St. Lawrence Seaway and head up the border between New York and Canada. There are a few excellent stops within 40 miles of the start of the river. In Clayton, New York is the Antique Boat Musem an amazing collection of antique wooden powerboats. You can even get a ride in a 1930’s era Chris Craft! A little farther along in Alexandria Bay, is Boldt Castle, a fascinating love story castle built on an island in the middle of the seaway that you can tour. Also from Alexandria Bay, you can take a tour through the 1000 islands, and visit Singer Castle (of Singer Sewing Machine fame). Another Castle that was built on an island in the middle of the seaway.
From here most Loopers turn around and head back south to Kingston, and on to the Trent-Severn Waterway. However, those wishing for a more thorough Canadian experience continue up the St. Lawrence Seaway, crossing into Canada and continuing North to Montreal and Quebec City. We went as far as Montreal, then turn back south and up the Ottawa River to Ottawa. It is also possible to continue on a bit more from Quebec City and join the Champlain Canal which heads back south and brings you back to Waterford, New York.
Ottawa River & The Rideau Canal
The Ottawa River connects the St. Lawrence Seaway with Ottawa Canada. Along the way is a must-see if you come this way. The Fairmont Le Château Montebello a massive log hotel. There is a marina at the hotel that you can stay at and get full access to the property. It is one of the largest log structures in the world!
Ottawa is a fascinating city. There are lots of museums, great restaurants and it’s a very friendly town. The highlight for Loopers is the start of the Rideau Canal and the Staircase Locks. This is an 8 lock flight that raises you 80 feet. The locks are between the Canadian Houses of Parliament a large castle-like structure on one side and the magnificent Chateau Laurier hotel, another castle-like structure on the other! The locks are right in the middle of downtown Ottawa, and there are 100’s of tourists that line the locks to watch the boats. As a boater, you ARE the entertainment!
The Rideau Canal connects Ottawa with Kingston Ontario back on Lake Ontario. The canal is small and quite narrow in places and is really a bunch of man-made connections between lakes and rivers. The locks on the canal are mostly hand-cranked by College students who work for Parks Canada on their summer school holidays. It’s great to chat with them as you wait for the water to fill (or empty). There are a number of very quaint small towns along the canal and plenty of space to tie up on the lock walls at night.
For both the Rideau and Trent-Severn Canals, you purchase a Parks Canada pass which lets you stay on the lock walls or in Provincial Parks for a flat fee.
The Rideau Canal is 125 miles long and has a total of 49 locks. We thoroughly enjoyed the Rideau and I highly recommend it to anyone considering the Loop! A consideration however is that doing the Rideau Canal, with a side trip up to Montreal takes about three weeks. Depending on your timing going through the Erie canal, this could put you well behind the “pack” of Loopers and will bring you into Georgian Bay and more importantly Lake Michigan later in the season which could mean you experience weather issues.
The Trent-Severn Canal is the main route for most Loopers. From Kingston, Ontario (A great historic city and a must-stop!) you leave Lake Ontario and cruise through a series of interconnected bays to Trenton, Ontario. Trenton is the southern end of the Trent-Severn Canal.
The Trent-Severn canal is 240 miles long, with 44 locks. It connects Trenton in the south with Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) in the north. Like the Rideau, you purchase a Parks Canada Pass which allows you to tie up to lock walls (many of which offer power and water services) for the night. There are again many quaint small towns along the canal that thrive off of and cater to the boating traffic.
While all of the locks are fascinating, there are three spectacular locks along the canal that are amazing feats of engineering. In Peterborough, there is the Peterborough Lift Lock, which is basically two huge bathtubs that you drive your boat into, and are lifted 65ft, boat, water, and all! The Peterborough Lift Lock is a castle-like structure and beautiful to look at! It is the highest hydraulic lift lock in the world.
In Kirkfield, there is another lift lock, this one is an iron structure, and holds the distinction of being the second-highest hydraulic lift lock at 49 ft.
Finally in Coldwater, just before you reach Georgian Bay, is the Big Chute Marine Railway. Here your boat is lifted OUT of the water on a railroad-like car that goes underwater to pick up your boat. You are then lifted up, across a road and a small hill, then the rail car runs down the tracks on the other side of the hill, and gently places your boat back in the water on the other side. The total vertical distance is 58ft over 1,000 ft of distance. Another amazing feat of engineering.
The Trent-Severn canal ends on the north end in Severn, Ontario in Georgian Bay.
Georgian Bay is an area like the Chesapeake Bay, you could spend an entire season here and never see it all! If you like to anchor out, there are many opportunities in little back coves. There are also some very interesting little ports all around the lake. Most boaters make a stop in either Midland or Penetanguishene (Penetang for short) on the Eastern end of Georgian Bay. Both towns have great marinas that will help you map out your trip through Georgian Bay and the North Channel.
Another popular stopping point is Henry’s Fish Restaurant on Sans Souci Island. It’s an Excellent Fish Restaurant, a Marina, and a Sea Plane Port! The only way to get to the island is by boat or plane, there are no roads or bridges!
There are too many places to mention in Georgian Bay, again you could spend an entire season here! Parry Sound is a big stopping point, and we liked Killbear Marina.
We will give you another bit of advice here. WATCH THE ROCKS IN GEORGIAN BAY! Pay attention to the markers and watch your charts. Don’t “ASSUME”!!! We “Assumed” and a 75-mile tow followed by a month in a boatyard and a $35,000 bill for props, shafts, and a new keel later, we continued our journey. And we had plenty of company!
Another note on scheduling is that part of Canada pretty much closes up on the day before Labor Day. We hit our rock on Labor Day, and we had a hard time finding a boatyard that could fix us that season. Also, when we got back on the water in early October, we were pretty much alone most of the way with snow flurries and very cold weather. Most marinas and restaurants were closed for the season.
From Georgian Bay, all roads lead to Killarney, Ontario which is the gateway to the North Channel. Killarney is another “Must Stop” location. It’s a small town with a huge vacation lodge (home to the world’s largest canoe paddle!) Great fish restaurants abound!
The North Channel
From what we have heard the North Channel is an anchorers paradise! There are 1000’s of small bays, islands, and channels with spectacular waterfalls, crystal clear water, and bears that swim out to your boat for a snack! We did not get to experience the North Channel, as we were fast-tracking it back to the US and Lake Michigan. During our Loop year (2019-2020) the locks on the Illinois river were being closed off/and on for maintenance, and we had to hurry to get to Chicago before they closed for the season.
We did have nice stops in Little Current which is a quaint small town, and Gore Bay (if you stop, check out “The Codmothers” restaurant!) on our way to Drummond Island and our crossing back into the United States.
Drummond Island was a nice stop, a great little marina with a loaner Cadillac SUV that had a +/- 4 foot margin of error on the steering. I guess it’s their way of keeping people from speeding or leaving the island!
Another “Must Stop” is Mackinac Island. This is at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The island does not allow vehicles (except official vehicles), so all transportation is by horse and carriage! They even have radio-dispatched horse-drawn taxis! The major attraction is the “Grand” hotel. A victorian era behemoth with huge wrap-around porches. There is a large marina on the island (very hard to get a reservation in the high season). You can also get space across the channel in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace and take one of the many ferries to visit the island.
At the Straits of Mackinac, you pass under the Mackinac Bridge and enter Lake Michigan where there is another major route decision to make. Do you go down the Michigan side or the Wisconsin side of the lake? From talking with other Loopers it’s about a 60/40 split with the small majority going down the Michigan side.
Lake Michigan is an inland sea. While most boats stick to one side or the other, there are areas where you can not see land. Also, the lake is not very deep and when the winds kick up, it is not uncommon for there to be 10 – 12 foot waves! It is said that you want to get to Lake Michigan before the end of September if at all possible, as the number of good weather days steadily decreases from there.
On the Wisconsin side, the major stops are Escanaba, Menominee (where you officially cross from Michigan into Wisconsin), Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Port Washington, Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, Kenosha, and then crossing into Illinois, Waukegan, Evanston and finally Chicago.
On the Michigan side, some of the popular stops are Harbor Springs/Petoskey, Charlevoix, Travers City, Leland (one of our favorites), Frankfort, Manistee, Ludington, Muskegon, Grand Haven, South Haven, Benton Harbor, (and crossing into Indiana), Michigan City, Hammond, and Chicago.
The Illinois River to the Mississippi
Whichever route you take, all roads lead to the Illinois River. There are two major access points. One is through downtown Chicago where the Chicago river snakes through the canyons of the skyscrapers and you go under 30 odd bridges. We hear that it’s a spectacular trip, and the next time we go around, we will make sure that we take that route.
The other route is to go to Hammond Indiana and take the Calumet River inland. We took this route as we were rushing a bit, and we had a very rough few days on Lake Michigan so we were just happy to see the back-side of the lake. We were well into October at this point, and we were stuck in South Haven for two weeks waiting for a weather window to cross to Hammond Indiana. It ended up that our “best shot” day started with 8-foot waves for the first few hours of our 6-hour crossing. (Well within the capabilities of our boat, but not so much the crew!)
Both routes meet about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, at the scenic “Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal”. This section of the trip is very industrial with oil refineries, huge barges and barge terminals, and lots of factories lining the way. There are two notable landmarks on the Sanitary Canal. First, there is the Electric Fish Barrier. This is a 1/4 mile long section of the canal where they pump high voltage pulses into the water to kill the Asian Carp and keep them from getting into the Great Lakes. As you go through it’s advised that you turn off all of your electronics to avoid frying them. We forgot to unplug an iPad and it went dark as we passed through.
The other landmark is the 19-foot 6-inch bridge on the Illinois River. This is the lowest, unavoidable, fixed bridge on the Great Loop. There is no way around it. If your boat is taller than 19′ 6″, then instead of doing the “Great Loop”, you do the “Great U-Turn”! Our normal “air draft” is 24 feet. So on parts of the loop, specifically the canals (Erie, Rideau, Trent-Severn, and on the Illinois River, we had to lower our mast so that we were under 20 feet. Note: To go through downtown Chicago, you must be less than 17-feet. To do the Western half of the Erie Canal, you must be able to clear 15-feet 6 inches.
On the Illinois River, there are 8 locks. These are BIG locks that can handle towboats with barges in tow. They are average 110 feet wide by 600 feet long, with an average lift of 39 feet. Many of the “Tows” (a tug pushing or pulling multiple barges) are so large, that they have to split them in two when going through the locks. Image seeing a boat heading toward you that’s 100 feet wide, and a 1/4 mile long!
When you are on the big rivers, (Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and to a lesser extent the Tombigbee Waterway), pleasure boats are second-class citizens. The locks give priority to commercial traffic, and it is not unheard of to have to wait several days to lock through. We went through during the pre-closure period so there was lots of commercial and recreational traffic. Most of the lockmasters did an excellent job of communicating with us and trying to maintain a reasonable balance of commercial and recreational boaters. The AGLCA did a great job of working with the Army Corp of Engineers who operate the locks to schedule larger groups of boats together to make it easier to fit us through in one bunch.
Traveling down the Illinois River, you pass through Joliet (a rough town), Peoria, which is a beautiful city and worth a stop. If you do stop in Peoria, be sure to go to the Caterpillar Tractor museum! In the end, you get to Grafton, where the Illinois River meets the Mighty Mississippi! Once you pass Joliet, most of the river is a rural flood plain, with only the occasional marina or town. Many people end up anchoring out in the back-waters behind islands (to stay out of the way of the tows that operate 24/7/365).
At the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers are the towns of Grafton and Alton. These are both great stops with excellent marinas (and the last fuel for a while!). Grafton is a big party town with lots of bars and has the feel of an old river town from the age of the steamboat. Alton is more of a city with lots of services If you want to tour St. Louis and visit the Arch, it’s only a 30 minute Uber ride from Alton to downtown St. Louis. Worth the trip just for the BBQ!
Another Note: Just North of St. Louis there is a split in the river. There is a large arrow pointing to the left at the point of an island. STAY LEFT! To the right is an area called the “Chain Of Rocks” which you don’t want to see up-close! Recently there was a sailboat that missed the turn, got stuck on the rocks, and after several attempts to get it free, vanished overnight, they only found the dinghy (everyone on board had been evacuated safely).
After St. Louis, the Mississippi gets very rural. Due to flooding, there are very few towns right on the river. As a result, there are very few places to dock for the night. There are a few anchorages, but you are dodging the tows on the river which make the ones on the Illinois River look small!
We spent a night at the Kaskaskia Lock, which is a lock about 1/4 mile off the main channel and a popular stopping spot. We also spent a night tied up to a barge on the side of the river in Beardstown, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln won a murder trial 2 years before he became President. The town has a Lincoln and Riverboat museum and has preserved the courtroom where the trial was held. (They still hold county trials there today!)
The Ohio River
In Cairo Illinois, where Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky come together, is the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, here you have another choice, how am I going to get to the Gulf of Mexico? You can continue down the Lower Mississippi ending up at the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans. Or, you can turn left up the Ohio River, to connect to the Tenessee River and the Tombigbee waterway which brings you to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama.
The majority of Loopers choose the Ohio route. The Lower Mississippi is not “Pleasure Boat Friendly”. While we’ve talked to Loopers who have done the trip it takes some planning. First, there are no marinas for 700 miles. So you will be anchoring out. Also, while there are tug harbors, they don’t sell diesel to pleasure boaters, so you will need to call ahead and have a truck meet you on the side of the river somewhere. And, speaking of tugs! The tows are huge and the current strong, so it’s not a pleasurable cruise. As with the Upper Mississippi, it is very rural and mostly flood plain with few visible towns or industrial.
The Ohio route is much more enjoyable as it follows the Tennesse-Tombigbee Waterway which, while there are tugs and tows they are smaller, and there are many towns along the way.
After turning left on the Ohio River, it’s a 50-mile run upstream to Paducah, Kentucky. The Ohio is a BIG river and has a strong current especially if there has been rain recently. The current can run 6 knots so that 50 miles can be a slog in slower boats. There are several good places along the way to tuck off behind sand bars for the night to anchor.
Paducah is another “must stop” location. They have an excellent marina just off of downtown. You’ll see how much the river rises during the spring floods as the marina sits about 20 feet down from the bank on floating docks, then when you reach the top of the ramps, you pass through a 20-foot flood wall! The Ohio can rise over 40 feet at flood! In Paducah, there are great restaurants and the National Quilt Museum which is quite an interesting stop.
From Paducah, you continue north upstream on the Ohio river for either 5 miles and turn onto the Tennesee River, or go on another 10 miles to the Cumberland River. In chatting with Loopers the Cumberland River is the preferred route as there is less commercial traffic and it is much more scenic. Either route it’s about 35 miles and one lock to reach the Kentucky Lakes and Green Turtle Bay Marina, the next “Must Stop”! Finally off the big rivers!
Tenessee River & The Tombigbee Waterway
Green Turtle Bay on the Kentucky Lakes is a fantastic marina. There is not a lot around but they have two really nice restaurants, a repair yard (very important), and most importantly fuel! The folks at Green Turtle Bay are great, very accommodating. They have loaner cars so that you can run into town for supplies, a beauty parlor/spa, and it’s a great place to just unwind for a few days after the stress of the big rivers. Many Loopers will leave their boats at Green Turtle for a week or two and make a trip home.
From Green Turtle Bay it’s a leisurely cruise down the Kentucky Lake which was made by daming the Tennesee River. As the lake narrows down, you are back on the Tenessee River. There are many marinas along the way and plenty of places to pull off the river in small side channels or behind islands to anchor.
There are 12 locks along the Tombigbee Waterway. The first that you will reach is the Pickwick Lock and Dam, a huge structure! After your lift, you will be in Pickwick Lake. There are many marina options on Pickwick lake with Aqua Yacht being the largest and most popular with Loopers. Pickwick Lake is also the home of Joe Wheeler State Park, which is where the AGLCA holds its annual Fall Rendevous.
When you leave Pickwick Lake, you enter Mississippi and merge onto the Tombigbee Waterway, a manmade canal that connects several man-made lakes, each with a lock and dam complex. Again you will find many marinas, good anchorages, and small towns as you head south to the Gulf. The larger towns you will pass through in Mississippi, are Fulton, Aberdeen, Columbus. In Pickensville you cross into Alabama.
From here to the Gulf, there are very few towns and it is mostly floodplain and small fish camps. The exception is Demopolis Alabama which is another must-stop, mostly because it is pretty much the first fuel since Pickwick Lake. Again this is a large marina with a boatyard that is popular with Loopers who want to leave their boats for a while to travel home.
From Demopolis, the river takes a meandering route, with many switchbacks. In places, you will travel 10 miles only to be less than a mile from where you were an hour before! From Demopolis to Mobile, there is only one small marina “Bobby’s Fish Camp” which used to be a very popular spot with a great restaurant and fuel. Sadly the restaurant has closed, but we understand that you can still dock there and get fuel.
At the confluence of the Alabama River, the Tombigbee river becomes the Mobile River (still considered the Tombigbee Waterway) which you will follow to Mobile Alabama, Mobile Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Mobile has a large Navy yard, and some container and cargo terminals. There is some limited dockage at the convention center, but most Loopers continue through Mobile into Mobile Bay and go to either Turner or Dog River marinas on the Westside (both have excellent boat yards!). Or, to Dauphin Island Marina, right at the mouth of the bay. Or, the Grand Hotel Resort on the Eastside.
Regardless of where you stay in Mobile, it is decision time again! From here you can head west on the ICW toward New Orleans, and eventually Texas. For folks who live in that part of the country, this is their turn! Most Loopers however turn east and enter the Gulf ICW heading toward Florida. Just off Mobile Bay on the ICW, there are a number of popular marinas and restaurants including LuLu’s, Saunders Yachtworks, and a large shopping village and marina complex called “The Warf”.
The Florida Panhandle
At Dolphin Pass, you cross from Alabama to Florida. The entire Panhandle route has many marinas to stop at. The major stops are Pensacola, Destin, Panama City, Apalachicola, and Carrabelle.
Crossing The Gulf
Guess what time it is? It’s a decision time again! There are a few options for crossing the Gulf of Mexico. There is the “Three Stop” Rim route which follows the curve of the Panhandle around stopping at Steinhatchee, Chrystal River, and Tarpon Springs. Or there is the direct route which goes 165 miles straight across to Tarpon Springs. With either route, most Loopers start at Carrabelle, although for the straight across the route, some start at Apalachicola.
With the Rim route, you are doing one 80 mile day, and three 50-60 mile days. For slower boats that don’t want to travel overnight, this is the preferred route. The Straight Across route is one long 165-mile day. For “Fast Boats” (15 knots and above), it is possible to do a “daylight crossing” where you leave just as the sun is coming up, and arrive just about sunset. Slower boats, (8 knots) typically leave Carabelle in the mid-afternoon (3:00 or so), and travel through the night and arrive in Tarpon Springs in the early afternoon the following day. Many boats, especially slower boats, will convoy up for the crossing for safety and moral support.
Once you reach Tarpon Springs, you are back in civilization and are dealing with lots of boats, big cities, drawbridges many marina choices! Welcome to Florida!
Florida West Coast
The west coast of Florida is loaded with options, too many to go into here so we will just list the major stops. From North to South, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Clearwater, Tampa, St Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice, Boca Grande, Sanibel Island, Cayo Costa State Park, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Naples, and Marco Island.
When you reach the Fort Myers area, there is a major decision to make. Here you can either continue south toward the Florida Keys, or you can turn East up Fort Myers Bay and cross the middle of Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway that connects Fort Myers on the west coast, to Stuart on the east.
The Okechobee Waterway
From Fort Myers, you enter the Okeechobee Waterway. The waterway follows the Caloosahatchee River almost due east to Lake Okeechobee, crosses the lake, and then follows the St. Lucie River to Stuart Florida, and the Eastcoast ICW. The waterway is beautiful, and there are a few marinas along the way. There are 5 locks along the route. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the water levels in Lake Okeechobee are sufficient for your draft. There are times where the lake can be too shallow to accommodate deep-draft boats. While beautiful, the main reason to take the Okeechobee route is to save time.
The popular stops on the Waterway are, Labelle, Moore Haven (about a day out of Ft. Myers), Clewiston with Roland Martin Marina (just before you cross the lake).
At Clewiston, there is a, you guessed it, another choice. You can take the rim route staying in the canal for a bit longer. Shallower draft boats can use this route to avoid some of the waves that can come up on the lake in windy conditions, it’s not recommended for deeper draft boats. Or you can go straight-ish (more of a dogleg) across, 30 odd miles direct to Port Mayaca.
Note: The locks close at 5:00 pm and the last lock-through is typically at 4:30. You need to make sure that you are able to get through the locks and have enough time to get back off. Each entrance to the lake has a lock. Moore Haven, Clewiston, and Port Mayaca. You don’t want to get stuck on the lake overnight!
After Port Mayaca Lock, there are only two deep water marinas in the 30 miles to Stuart. Indiantown Marina just after the lock, and River Forest Yachting Centers just before your last Lock at St. Lucie South.
In Stuart, there are a number of large marinas to choose from, Sunset Bay and THe Harborage being the two largest.
After Stuart, it’s a 7 mile run on the St. Lucie river to the ICW and St. Lucie Inlet where you can get out to the Atlantic Ocean. From here you can turn right, and head south to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, or left to head north on the ICW.
The Florida Keys, Marathon & Key West
The other option from the Fort Myers area is to continue south toward the Florida Keys. After leaving Fort Myers, or Fort Myers Beach, two popular stops are Naples which has a great downtown right off of the marinas, and Marco Island one of Florida’s original Swamp to City projects!
After Marco Island, as you head south, a side trip for those with drafts under 5 ft is Everglades City, a small fishing town up a side channel. Most Loopers go direct from Marco Island to Marathon where there are lots of marinas to choose from as well as protected anchorages, shopping and bus transportation all along the keys.
Many boaters make Marathon their base for exploring the Keys and will leave their boat and take public transportation to Key West. Once you reach the Keys, there are two routes available, the “Inside” route which is on the Gulf side, and the “Outside” route which is on the Oceanside. The Inside route can be shallow in places so care needs to be taken for deep draft boats.
From Marathon, the most common route to Key West is to pass under the 7-mile bridge, and turn right (west). The two options for marinas and anchorages around Key West are Stock Island on the far eastern end of the island. This marina is quite large and is much less expensive than the marinas in Key West. They offer a regular shuttle bus service to downtown Key West.
In Key West, there are several marinas and anchorages to choose from. If you decide to go to Key West, be prepared for slip rates that exceed $5.00 per foot, plus power, plus water, plus tax, plus resort fees! Still, walking off of your boat into downtown Key West is a great experience. We planned two days in Key West for the experience and then went to Stock Island for the rest of our stay.
From Key West, it’s a U-Turn either around the island to the Gulf side and back east to Marathon the way you came. There is one side trip to an anchorage 70 miles away in the Dry Tortugas National Park for the very adventurous. If you want to see the Dry Tortugas and the old fort there, we suggest taking the fast ferry from Key West for a day trip!
Marathon to Miami
From Marathon, you head northeast either on the Inside or Outside route. Popular stops along the way are Islamorada with marinas on both the north and south sides of the key. Here you can see Ernest Hemmingway’s fishing boat at the World Wide Sportsman (owned by Bass Proshops) or eat at the famous Islamorada Fish Company. Key Largo on the outside route is another popular spot. When you reach Biscayne Bay, Homestead has a good marina with fuel and a nice restaurant.
The first major stopping point in Miami is Key Biscayne. There are a few marinas and several anchorages here. Downtown Miami has many marinas however you will find that they are very busy, expensive, and unless you have a $2 million+ Yacht, you may feel out of place in many! We prefer to skip through Miami and head a bit farther north to the Fort Lauderdale area.
Miami to the Daytona
From Miami, you can go on the outside (weather permitting) and avoid all of the drawbridges and traffic. All along the ICW in Florida, there are marinas and anchorages available. As before we will just touch on the major stops and call out the major inlets where you can transition from inside to outside or vice versa.
If you take the ICW route you will go through Fort Lauderdale, with an inlet, where there are many, many marinas and boat repair facilities.
North of Fort Lauderdale is Hillsboro Inlet where you can go in or out if you are daring and there are several marinas there. Delray Beach is another area with many marinas on the ICW, as is Boynton Beach and Lake Worth.
The next area heading north is Palm Beach, again lots of marinas but many are quite exclusive! Here is where you will pass Mr. Trump’s Mara Largo Resort on the East side of the ICW! Just north of Mara Largo, you will come to the Lake Worth Inlet, this is a great inlet, and has many marinas. From Lake Worth Inlet it’s just a short cruise to Palm Beach Gardens with three large marinas.
Things calm down a bit after Palm Beach Gardens until you reach Jupiter Inlet. This inlet is not recommended unless you have local knowledge and a shallow draft. From Jupiter, the next major inlet is the Saint Lucie Inlet, which is the intersection with the Okeechobee Waterway and Stuart Florida.
The next big stop is Fort Pierce Florida with the Fort Pierce Inlet, another excellent transition point between inside and outside. Fort Pierce also has a large number of marinas, anchorages, and boatyards.
Next is Vero Beach, with a nice town marina, and home to the famous Captain Chris! After Vero, marinas get a bit thin for a while, Melbourne has Melbourne Harbor which is quite large, and just north is Eau Gallie Boat Works if you need repairs.
When you get to Cocoa Florida you are on the “Space Coast”, from pretty much everywhere you can see the NASA launch facility and get spectacular views of the frequent launches from Cape Canaveral! Your options for marinas pick-up again as well. You have Cocoa Village marina which is right off of downtown. Also, Cocoa Village has a free public dock that is available. There are also many anchorages here.
Just North of Cocoa is the Canaveral Barge Canal. Down the canal is Harbourtown Maria a very large marina. If you continue down the Barge Canal, you will reach Port Canaveral where the large cruise ships depart from. There is a good inlet here, however, you need to go through a lock to transition from the Inside to the Outside. Check ahead as it is frequently broken or closed.
Just opposite the NASA Facility on the west side of the ICW is Titusville with a large marina and mooring field. The next opportunity for marinas is in New Smyrna Beach where there are a few options for marinas and fuel. Then it’s on to Daytona.
Daytona to Georgia
Daytona has many marina options and facilities and is a popular stopping point for many Loopers. 25 miles north of Daytona is Palm Coast, where there are two very nice marinas Palm Coast Marina, and Hammock Beach Maria. Palm Coast offers fuel and is closer to town. There is a GREAT HARBOR HOST at Palm Coast if you need anything! US!!!! We live just across the canal from the Palm Coast Marina.
5 miles north of Palm Coast, is Marineland Marina. There is not much there, however, if you have a wide beam catamaran or a large (up to 150′) yacht they can accommodate you! From there the next stop and services are in Saint Augustine.
Saint Augustine is another “must-see” stop. There are several marina options here, the most popular being the Saint Augustine Municipal Marina which is right at the Bridge Of Lions and is right in the middle of downtown, (be sure to visit the historic Spanish Fort while you are there!) and, Cammachee Cove Marina on the other side of the inlet. Cammachee is a large marina and has a repair facility as well. The Saint Augustine Inlet is also a great inlet to transition from inside to outside.
North of St. Augustine there are not many options until you get to Jacksonville Beach aside from anchorages. In Jacksonville Beach, there are two nice marinas Palm Cove Marina and Marine Max Jacksonville Beach.
The next stop is Jacksonville. The ICW actually just crosses the Saint Johns River before you get to Jacksonville. Jacksonville proper is another 5 miles up the Saint Johns. Just past Jacksonville is the Ortega River and The Marina at Ortega Landing and Sadler Point Marina. Both are popular places to leave a boat for an extended trip home. Also, if you continue “Up” (South) (The Saint Johns River flow South to North!) you can travel all the way back south some 150 miles to Sanford Florida. (We just made that trip and it’s amazing with lots of gators and manatees to be seen!)
Once you cross the Saint Johns river, it becomes pretty rural again and you are cruising mostly through creeks and marsh until you reach Fernandina. Fernandina has a new city marina and also has an Inlet which is popular with boats heading south that went outside to get around Georgia. Fernandina is the last marina until you get into Georgia.
Georgia in our opinion gets a bad rap. The route through Georgia is mostly on twisty-turney creeks through marshland. We think it’s beautiful! Many people opt to go outside and skip it. We think they are missing some beautiful country!
From Fernandina, you pass the Saint Marys Inlet and follow the main channel to the Navy Submarine Base. The sub-base is active, and usually has armed patrol boats to keep the curious at bay. That said, the ICW channel passes with 1000 ft of the base at one point. After the sub-base, you enter marshland and the Cumberland River. Here is an inlet called Saint Andrew Sound while a deep water inlet, it is not very popular with Loopers.
Just past the Inlet is Jekyll Island, with the famous Jekyll Island Hotel. There is a small marina here with fuel, we enjoy staying here and borrowing bikes to ride into town or visiting the Hotel and restaurant.
From the Jekyll Island Marina, you pass under a bridge into a shallow creek. This is best traversed at high tide and is notorious for shoaling, proceed with care! When you exit Jekyll Creek (only about a 3 miles), you are in Saint Simons Sound. This is a major inlet and shipping channel and has a short side trip to Brunswick and the Brunswick Landing Marina, another popular stop. Saint Simons sound is also a major shipping inlet with frequent large cargo vessels.
After Saint Andrews Sound, you are into rural, marshy Georgia. The next major stopping point is Savannah, 80 miles north. There are a few marinas along the way, but it’s mostly just marsh and private docks. There are is one marina about halfway up in Richmond Hill, called “Kilkenny Marina”. I would describe it as “a rural gem” or “Quaintly Shabby”. It is about a mile up a side creek with plenty of deep water. They have 8-foot tides, but they are very gentle coming in and out. There is a great little seafood restaurant next door to the marina. The people who run it are great. The cleats on the docks are just 2×6 board nailed to the side. It is truly one of our FAVORITE marinas and a must-stay on all of our trips through Georgia.
The next real “civilization” is Thunderbolt, Georgia just before you reach the Savanah River. Thunderbolt Marina is a good stopping point and provides easy access to downtown Savanah. When you leave Thunderbolt it is a few miles to the Savanah River and crossing into South Carolina.
If you follow the Savanah River into Savannah, there are a few marinas and a municipal dock downtown. Downstream the Savannah River is a major shipping inlet.
Halfway across the Savannah River you cross into South Carolina. The route here takes you through some popular Looper destinations like Hilton Head, and across Port Royal Sound (another good inlet), is Beaufort (long “u” sound, not to be confused with (Beaufort North Carolina which is pronounced with a long “o” sound), another popular stop.
After Beaufort, the ICW again becomes pretty rural with the occasional small marina until you approach Charleston.
Just before Charleston is Saint Johns Island Yacht center, a nice stop if you want to avoid the higher fees in downtown Charleston. In Charleston, you have many options and it’s a great place to visit and spend a few days. On the Southern side are the main shopping and “Old Charleston” area served by the Charleston Municipal marina and several private marinas and a mooring field. Across Charleston Harbor by the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier Museum, is the Charleston Harbor Marina, and there are a few small marinas just off the north side of downtown. Charleston is another major shipping port with a good inlet and there is a lot of container ship traffic.
After crossing the harbor, the ICW enters a narrow congested creek to Isle Of Palms, where there is a small marina that is also an option for visiting Charleston.
After Isle of Palms, you enter another area of twisty creeks with little or no facilities until you reach Winnyah Bay and Georgetown SC. There is one small marina called “Leland Oil” it’s really just a fuel dock for the shrimp boats, but they will let you tie up there for the night and there is a great fresh shrimp restaurant in town. This section has many anchoring options along it and is actually mostly abandoned rice fields from before the Civil War.
Entering Winnyah Bay, the ICW turns north and you come to Georgetown Harbor. There is also a very good Inlet here. In Georgetown, there are several marinas to choose from and it is a quaint downtown. Check out the “Rice Museum” and the “Seafarers Museum” if you have a chance!
From Georgetown, you head north on the Waccamaw River, which is said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the Loop. Most of the areas along the river are abandoned rice fields and are now part of a National Wildlife Refeuge. The next big town along is Myrtle Beach about 30 miles north. There are some marina gems along the Waccamaw. First is Wacca Wachee Marina (our old home marina) in Murrells Inlet with an excellent transient dock, very nice restaurant, and good fuel prices. Also, a quick Uber ride takes you to the oceanside of Murrells Inlet where there are over 30 excellent restaurants along the inlet! If you have an extra day, stay and visit the famous Brookgreen Gardens as well. Also worth mentioning is Osprey Marina, which is also a great place to leave a boat for a time and has very good fuel prices. To visit Myrtle Beach proper, your best bet is Barefoot Landing Marina in North Myrtle Beach.
The last stop in South Carolina is Little River where there are a number of marina choices. Also, Little River Inlet is a good deep water inlet.
After passing Little River, you cross into North Carolina. The first major stop in North Carolina is Southport on the Cape Fear River. From Little River to South Port there are a number of small marinas, but Southport has two large marinas on the ICW just before the Cape Fear River. When you get to the Cape Fear River, check out Bald Head Island Marina as an option.
The ICW turns off the Cape Fear before Willmington NC, but it’s an easy 15-mile ride to Willmington where there are some very nice marinas, excellent restaurants, and a good boatyard.
The next big stopping point in North Carolina is Morehead City and Beaufort (with an o sound). Along the way are some good stops like Wrightsville Beach, Topsail Beach, Surf City, Sneads Ferry, Camp Lejeune (free mooring if you are a veteran) check for advisories that the ICW is closed due to gunnery practice! All of these towns have small marinas and a good selection of restaurants.
In Beaufort, there are several large marinas and this is again a popular Looper stopping point. Beaufort has a great downtown that’s right on the waterfront. Morehead City just across the creek also has mooring options.
After Beaufort, the ICW turns inland to head north and follows Adams Creek to the Nuse River. Along Adams Creek there are some very big boatyards if repairs are needed.
At the Nuse River, the ICW and the Loop Route cross the river. There is a side trip here up the Nuse to New Bern, NC. If you are a Pepsi fan, this is a must-stop as the drugstore where Pepsi was invented is in New Bern! New Bern has several nice marinas with easy walking distance to a revitalized downtown. Also, if you are a Hatteras Boat fan, the Hatteras factory is just outside of town and if you call ahead you can arrange a tour.
Continuing on in North Carolina on the other side of the Nuse River is Oriental, another popular stop. From Oriental the ICW follows the Nuse River for a few miles the turns to follow creeks and canals to the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound, there is an alternate route through the Sound but most take the inside route as the sound can get pretty choppy.
Bellhaven is the next popular spot and is just a mile or so off the ICW. There is a 5-star restaurant in Bellhaven “Spoon River Artworks and Market” that is a real hidden gem! At Belhaven, the ICW turns east and enters the Alligator River Canal and then the Alligator River. There are not a lot of marinas along this stretch until you get to Coinjock some 85 miles away unless you take the Albermarle Sound option. At the end of the Alligator River, there is a small marina (Alligator River Marina) just before you get to the Albermarle Sound.
When you exit the Alligator River and enter the Albermarle sound there are three options.
- You can continue on the main ICW route across the sound and up to Coinjock. This is the most popular route. Coinjock has a large marina with restaurant and is famous for its Prime Rib!
- You can cross the sound and head toward Elizabeth City and the “Dismal Swamp Canal” route. The Dismal Swamp is a canal, through, well, a swamp! It was first surveyed by George Washington! It’s a nice ride through a narrow tunnel in the trees with two locks and a free dock at the visitor center half way across. The canal ends just before Norfolk VA. It has a bit of a bad reputation for having submerged logs, and lots of weeds in the summer. We took it and had a great time and no problems.
- You can make a side trip and do the “Albermarle Loop” if you stop at any two spots, you can get free dockage at at most of the other stops. It’s the honor system! There are some quaint towns and excellent history including a replica of the CSS Albemarle Iron Clad Gunboat in Plymouth. A nice 3-5 day side trip that can include Manteo with easy access to Kitty Hawk and Cape Hatteras (rent a car from the local Ford dealer).
Regardless of which route you choose, the next stop is Norfolk, Virginia where we started our journey!
We hope you enjoyed reading this whirlwind tour of America’s Great Loop!
Tom & Brenda