Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Rookery Bay/Ten Thousand Islands
Emergency contact information:
Collier County Sheriff’s Office:
Everglades National Park 24-hour
search and rescue: 305-247-7272
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission 24-hour wildlife emergency/boating under the influence
Begin: Lovers Key/
Distance: 68 miles,
although distances will vary depending on route taken
Paddlers have the option of taking the Gulf side of the many islands
in this area, making for easier navigation and shorter distances between
campsites. In windy or inclement weather, however, paddlers should
travel inside the islands through more sheltered bays and waterways.
Advanced reservations are
recommended for motels, and for campsites within Everglades National
Park. NOAA charts and/or a Top Spot map, along with a GPS unit, are highly recommended in the
Ten Island Islands as stories abound about lost boaters.
Rookery Bay and Florida’s
Ten Thousand Islands are steeped in history and mystery. The area is a
watery maze of mangrove keys where Calusa Indians once dug canals and
built land with their discarded shells. Seminole Indians and outlaws
sought refuge along the sometimes bewildering, twisting waterways. Men
once eked out a living by hunting alligators and crocodiles, killing
egrets for their plumes, and making moonshine.
Historic landmarks still
remain such as Chokoloskee’s Smallwood Store where the proprietor once
traded with dugout-paddling Seminole Indians. The Indians swapped pelts
and silver money for tools, guns and staples. Today, kayakers can land
at the cracker-style landmark and peruse the museum and gift shop.
In 1896, Marco Island,
then called Key Marco, yielded some of the most astounding Native
American artifacts ever found in Florida. Digging in the island’s
mangrove muck, Frank Hamilton Cushing and his Smithsonian expedition
crew uncovered an incredible array of perishable objects—carved and
painted wood animal heads, masks, clubs, bowls and atlatls (spear
throwing devices). They also found nets, fishhooks, cord, ropes, floats
and shell jewelry. Cushing later wrote of these early people, “… their
art is not only an art of the sea, but is an art of shells and teeth, an
art for which the sea supplied nearly all the working parts of tools,
the land only some of the materials worked upon.”
Environmentally, more than
150 species of birds frequent these unique southwest Florida habitats.
Mangrove forests predominate the landscape, the leaves of which fall and
create a rich detritus that is the base of the estuarine food web. Look
for the nearly impenetrable walls of prop roots created by red mangrove
trees. Black and white mangroves are generally farther inland on higher
Numerous fish, dolphins and manatees frequent the
channels, bays and coves of the area. Rich seagrass beds are nursery
grounds for a variety of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, and they also
provide food for manatees and sea turtles. The area’s sandy beaches,
mostly along the mainland and barrier islands, provide invaluable nest
sites for endangered sea turtles. These beaches are also famous for
their shelling opportunities.
To learn more about the
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, log onto
http://www.rookerybay.org/. For Everglades National Park
Information, log onto
http://www.nps.gov/ever/. This segment also covers several premier
Florida state parks: Lovers Key/Carl E. Johnson, Delnor-Wiggins Pass,
and Collier-Seminole, although Collier-Seminole is off the main route.
To learn more, log onto
For primitive camping
described in this guide, utilize Leave No Trace principles
There are numerous other
paddling opportunities in this segment. The northern part (in Lee
County) is part of the Great Calusa Blueway:
http://calusablueway.com/. The rest of the segment, which lies in
Collier County, will be phased in as part of the Paradise Coast Blueway:
http://www.paradisecoastblueway.com/. These blueways offer various
paddling trips along the coast and associated waterways.
1. Lovers Key/ Bowtie
Island to Lighthouse Inn or Vanderbilt Beach Resort,
Lover’s Key… this romantic sounding state
park is an ideal place to begin this segment. Once the possible
hideout of pirate Black Augustus, and later the site of numerous
fish camps, this cluster of four scenic barrier islands was
slated for development before the state of Florida and Lee
County stepped into the create the state park. You can hike or
bike miles of interior trails or launch your kayak at a landing
along Estero Bay. If on a long-distance paddle, you can land on
either the bay side or Gulf side for a picnic, obtain fresh
water, and use the restrooms. There is a small store and kayak
rental near the boat launch. No camping is allowed in the park.
If you wish to primitive camp in the area,
Bowtie Island is available on a first-come, first-served basis
free-of-charge. Managed by the Florida Paddling Trails
Association, the island is about two miles south of the Lover’s
Key wayside picnic area (see map).
From Lover’s Key, you can take a more sheltered inside
passage about nine miles to Wiggins Pass, if you wish.
On the Gulf side, it is about eight miles to Wiggins Pass and
you can take breaks at two lovely county parks—Barefoot Beach and Bonita
Beach (see map). Along the south shore of Wiggins Pass you can enjoy Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, partly named after Joe Wiggins, the
area’s first homesteader who ran an apiary and trading post. Here, you
can take a break and enjoy a picnic, take a shower, or grab a snack at a
If you’re planning to stay
at the Lighthouse Inn, you’ll need to keep on the inside channel for
more than two miles to reach the motel. The motel docks are high so a
high tide would make it easier to disembark and pull your boat onto the
dock. Reservations are recommended, so call (239) 597-3345. The motel is
adjacent to a restaurant and it is a short walk to Vanderbilt Beach.
If you have wheels for your kayak, you can portage to Vanderbilt Beach
(about 900 feet). Otherwise, you’ll need to add about 5 miles to your
next day’s paddle.
As an alternative for
overnight lodging, you can stay directly on the beach at the Vanderbilt
Beach Resort, just before the public beach. This option will be more
expensive but you will not have to portage or paddle extra distance.
Again, reservations are recommended, so call (800) 243-9076.
Restaurants and a small
convenience store are in the area.
2. Lighthouse Inn or
Vanderbilt Beach Resort to Cannon Island, 19.5 miles (add 5 miles if
staying at Lighthouse Inn and not portaging to Vanderbilt Beach)
Hug the Gulf shoreline as
you head south. This is a long stretch of paddling, but you can break it
up with stops at county parks and at the Naples City Pier. At Gordon
Pass, you can take the inside passage along Key Island (also referred to
as Keewaydin Island)and avoid much of the boat traffic, but
this will add more than a mile to your day.
The reward for all of your
efforts is Key Island. Accessible only by boat, the Gulf side of this
barrier island has some of the best shelling opportunities in Florida.
Note that a 3.5-acre portion of the southern end of the island may be
closed from mid-April through mid-August for Least Tern nesting. Look
for signs. Primitive camping is available on the southern
end of Key Island when birds are not nesting. Cannon Island (gps point
on map) is considered a better camping alternative since there is less
boating traffic to and from the island.
3. Cannon Island to
Cape Romano, 11.5 miles
The mileage listed is for
the Gulf side. However, you may need to take the inside channel in
inclement weather, which will add about four miles. Just after Cannon
Island, you can take a break on undeveloped Sea Oat Island. If paddling
on inland waterways, Johnson Bay is recommended as motorboats are
required to travel at slow speeds. The area can be busy with boats on
weekends and holidays. If paddling through Johnson Bay, you may want to
land at one of the kayak friendly restaurants along the Isle of Capri.
NOTE: if you are a long distance paddler set on continuing through
the Ten Thousand Islands and Florida Bay to the Keys, Marco Island
offers the last opportunity to stock up at a supermarket. For this
supply run, you’ll need to paddle about 3.5 miles on the inside of Marco
Island to the Highway 951 Bridge. You can land at a small beach and hike
almost a mile down Collier Boulevard to the town center, where there is
a large supermarket and other stores and restaurants. There is no
supermarket at the south end of Marco Island. Once the site of major
clam digging operations and a clam cannery in the first half of the
1900s, Marco Island boomed in the 1960s with plush developments for
those attracted to island living.
If you take the Gulf side
to Cape Romano, you can take a break at Tiger Tail Beach, which has
restrooms, a kayak rental, and a restaurant. Along the bay side, you can
stop at a marina and restaurant along the Highway 92 Bridge, although
Hurricane Wilma temporarily closed the restaurant. The town of Goodland
offers a small store and restaurants. This small fishing village has
struggled to keep its rural identity in the face of a booming coastal
real estate market.
Cape Romano is an isolated
point that is fully exposed to the elements, so proceed with caution.
You may see the ruins of an unusual dome-like dwelling near your
campsite. The elements are slowly claiming the structure. If you take
the inside passage and the weather is inclement, you may want to proceed
to Whitehorse Key.
4. Cape Romano to
Whitehorse Key, 7.5 miles
Here, you will be entering
the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands. If you hug the outside of the
islands, you’ll have no problem finding your way. You can easily get
lost if you travel through the inside passages. It is best to follow
Whitehorse Key is situated
between Gullivan Key and Hog Key and you can camp on these two islands
Just to the east of your
campsite is Panther Key. This was where one of the area’s most colorful
characters once lived—Old John Gomez. Born in the 1770s, Gomez claimed
to have met Napoleon, served with the pirate Jose Gaspar (Gasparilla),
fought in the Second Seminole War, and operated as a blockade-runner
during the Civil War. He named his home Panther Key because panthers
would swim to the island and eat his goats. Old John Gomez attracted
many visitors and writers to Panther Key until his death in 1900 at age
While the Ten Thousand
Islands contained some harmless hermits, it also harbored numerous
fugitives, such as Ed Watson, who allegedly killed the outlaw Belle
Starr, among other people. An early account of seven unwritten laws for
the area reads like something out of the frontier West: suspect every
man; ask no questions; settle your own quarrels; never steal from an
Islander; stick by him, even if you do not know him; shoot quick, when
your secret is in danger; cover your kill.
About a century later, it
is unlikely you will need to follow this code when paddling through the
Ten Thousand Islands.
5. Whitehorse Key to
Everglades City, 14 miles
After Whitehorse Key, you will soon enter Everglades National Park, a
vast watery wilderness of islands, sawgrass, mangroves and forests. Its
life-giving fresh water supply, unfortunately, is largely controlled by
pumps, floodgates and retention ponds outside the park, a man-made
system that has been detrimental to the Everglades’ natural ecological
balance. A multi-billion dollar restoration plan may fix some of the
Before you can camp in the
national park, you must obtain a permit at the visitor’s center in
Everglades City (see map). Indian Key Pass is the most direct route to
Everglades City. Follow the marked channel. An incoming tide will be a
Everglades National Park
takes no advance reservations by phone; you must arrive in person up to
24 hours in advance of your planned first night’s campsite. Since it is
14 miles from Whitehorse Key to Everglades City, it would be best to
spend the night in Everglades City. There are numerous motels and cabin
rentals, some of which are accessible by water. Advanced reservations
are recommended. The Museum of the Everglades in downtown Everglades
City is worth a visit, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through
From Everglades City,
you’ll have your choice of taking the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway to
Flamingo, or the Gulf route. Weather may be a deciding factor. Campsites
range from chickees that have been built on pilings in rivers and bays,
ground sites that have been cleared within the mangrove forests, and
beach sites. Campfires are only allowed at the beach sites (below
high-tide line). The ground sites tend to have more insects, but be
prepared for insects anywhere in this region at any time of year.
Hurricane Wilma closed
part of the park to camping, and future hurricanes may affect campsite
availability as well. Call ahead to learn about current conditions. The
Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City can be reached by calling
(239) 695-3311. You can reach the Flamingo Visitor Center by calling
The segment from Everglades City to Flamingo is the longest stretch
along the circumnavigation trail without a fresh water supply. At
Everglades City, you’ll need to obtain a gallon of water per day per
person for seven to eight days. That is a lot of weight and bulk. Some
groups contract with a boat guide in Everglades City or Flamingo to
resupply them with water en-route.
Raccoons are the biggest
threat to your food and water. Raccoons have been known to chew through
thin plastic water jugs. When camping, secure your food and water in
your kayak compartments. Campers have unintentionally contributed to
larger raccoon numbers near campsites. In turn, hungry raccoons destroy
an estimated 90 percent of sea turtle nests in the park.