Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Emergency contact information:
Everglades National Park 24-hour search and rescue: 305-247-7272
Collier County Sheriff’s Office: 239-774-4434
Monroe County Sheriff's Office: 305-289-2430
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission 24-hour wildlife emergency/boating under the influence
End: Long Key State
99 miles via the Gulf side; 126.5 miles via the Wilderness Waterway
Duration: 6 days
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
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% of sea turtle nests in the park.
Since hurricanes may
affect campsite availability, 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 (239) 695-2945. These two visitor’s centers are
currently the only places where camping permits can be obtained.
A GPS unit and good
navigational maps are essential in this segment as many unprepared
boaters have become lost in the maze of mangrove islands in the Ten
Thousand Islands. A compass is essential, too, in case thick mangroves
interfere with your GPS unit or your unit malfunctions.
Everglades National Park
and Florida Bay are two of Florida’s natural treasures that attract
visitors from throughout the world. This vast watery wilderness of
islands, sawgrass, mangroves, forests, waterways and open water often
appears little different than when dugout travelers fished the waters
and set up villages and camps on the islands.
In this segment, you’ll
see a unique combination of subtropical and tropical plants, marine
creatures from both marine and estuarine environments, and the only
place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist. Bird life
includes roseate spoonbills, ospreys, white pelicans and wood storks.
Sea turtles can often be seen poking up their heads in the Gulf and
Florida Bay. If fortunate, you might glimpse a rare sawfish. Its long,
flat snout contains 24 or more pairs of sharp teeth that resembles a
two-bladed crosscut saw.
Unfortunately, to the
detriment of many native creatures in Florida Bay, pumps, floodgates and
retention ponds outside the park now largely control the Everglades’
life-giving fresh water supply. A multi-billion dollar restoration plan
may fix some of the problems, along with improved timing of water
From Everglades City,
you’ll have your choice of taking the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway to
Flamingo, or the Gulf route. The Gulf route is shorter and generally has
fewer bugs, but 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.
This guide will focus on
the Gulf route across the Ten Thousand Islands to Flamingo since it is
shorter and less known. The park can provide information and GPS points
for the Wilderness Waterway, if that route is desired. There is only one
route at the moment from Flamingo to the Keys where campsites are spaced
a reasonable distance apart. To learn more, log onto
Leave No Trace principles and practices should be followed for
To learn more about the
campsites and different paddling routes through the park, you may want
to peruse Johnny Molloy’s A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National
Park, published by the University Press of Florida.
Everglades City to Rabbit Key, 9 miles
Before you can camp in
the national park, you must obtain a permit at the visitor’s center in
Everglades City (see map) and pay a small fee. 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. Plan to have
alternate campsites in mind in case your first choices are full. Some
campsites have portable toilets while others do not, so plan
Since camping at the
Flamingo Campground is not part of the permit system, you’ll need to
make separate reservations by calling The National Park Reservation
Service at 1-877-444-6777 or by logging onto
For the long distance
paddler arriving from Whitehorse Key, it is 14 miles to Everglades City
so you’ll need 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 Saturday.
Tides can greatly
influence paddling to and from Everglades City. If you can time it
properly, take the incoming tide to the visitor’s center and the
outgoing tide to Rabbit Key through Rabbit Key Pass. Park rangers often
check for permits, so have it handy in your kayak and tie it onto your
tent after you set up camp. Stick to your permit itinerary unless there
are extenuating circumstances such as injury or a big storm.
Paddling to Rabbit Key,
you’ll cross the open Chokoloskee Bay to the small hamlet of Chokoloskee,
originally a massive shell mound built by Calusa Indians and now linked
to the mainland by a causeway. Take a break at Smallwood’s Store (see
map). Established by Ted Smallwood in 1906, this store was the main
trading outpost in the region. Residents and nearby Seminole Indians
would paddle or boat to the store to trade or sell hides, furs and
produce for dry goods, guns and ammunition. It remained open until 1982
and is now a museum. For a small fee, you can tour the exhibits and view
many of the items that were once for sale or trade.
From Chokoloskee, you can
wind through a maze of mangrove inlets to Rabbit Key Pass or choose less
direct routes. Rabbit Key is perched on the edge of the Gulf, so you’ll
have the best of both worlds: a view of mangrove islands on one side and
open water on the other.
2. Rabbit Key to Turkey Key, 11 miles
You can take a direct open water route to Pavilion Key and beyond, or
you can duck behind mangrove islands in order to find shelter from winds
and waves. Some of the water will be very shallow at low tide, however.
Proceed cautiously across
the open water from Pavilion Key to Mormon Key as unfavorable winds and
tides have caused numerous small crafts to capsize, some say the highest
number of capsizes in the park.
The approach to the beach
campsite at Turkey Key is shallow, so a high tide is best. The key was
once the site of a commercial fishing operation.
3. Turkey Key to Highland Beach, 12 miles
In the latter part of this segment, you’ll be leaving the Ten Thousand
Islands and moving along a more continuous shoreline of mangroves,
beaches and bays.
Highland Beach, your
destination, is a natural beach with a long shell ridge formed by wave
action. Once farmed by the Rewis family, it has a grass prairie, cabbage
palms and other plants to break up the mangrove forests. Highland Beach
is best accessed at high tide as the water is very shallow near the
4. Highland Beach to Graveyard Creek, 9 miles
Along this route, you’ll paddle through the mouths of the North and
South Harney rivers, named for Colonel William Harney, who used the
river to cross the Everglades in a surprise raid on the Indian leader
Chekika and his band in 1840. The raid was, in part, retaliation for
Chekika’s raid on Indian Key, in which seven settlers were killed. By
1842, with most Seminoles killed, imprisoned or removed to Oklahoma,
hostilities ceased until re-igniting again in the 1850s.
This shorter day will
allow you to explore Graveyard Creek and the many other tributaries
along Ponce De Leon Bay. The bay is also known for its good fishing.
Graveyard Creek campsite has characteristics of both a ground and beach
campsite. It is best to land at the campsite along Graveyard Creek as
the water is deeper.
5. Graveyard Creek to Northwest Cape Sable,
low tide, the mouth of Graveyard Creek can be a mud flat, so you may
want to paddle up Graveyard Creek and wind around into Ponce De Leon
Bay, where the water is deeper, allowing you to continue your journey
On this day you’ll begin
your approach of Cape Sable, one of the finest natural shorelines
remaining in Florida. A grassy plain borders the sandy beach in most
places, with occasional clumps of sable palms, Jamaica dogwood and
hardwood hammocks. Gopher tortoises and Cape Sable seaside sparrows are
among the protected species here, with the Cape Sable seaside sparrow
being the only bird restricted entirely to the Everglades environment.
They depend upon prairies that both periodically flood and burn.
Before the national park
was established in 1947, many attempts to farm, ranch and develop Cape
Sable were short-lived due to its remoteness, insect life, and killer
Because of the remoteness
of the Northwest Cape campsite, you’ll likely see few other visitors.
The extensive beach and prairies make for excellent hiking.
6. Northwest Cape Sable to East Cape Sable, 9.5
The sharp point at Middle Cape, roughly the halfway point, was once
the site of a 1850s Army fort established as a base to hunt down
Seminole Indians. In the 1880s, a coconut farm once flourished nearby
until a 1935 hurricane destroyed the coconut palms. Few signs of human
inhabitation are seen here today.
This segment can be very
windy. There is an interior route through a series of creeks and canals
and across Lake Ingraham that is heavily influenced by tides. With luck,
you can paddle towards the lake on an incoming tide and leave the lake
on an outgoing tide.
The East Cape campsite is
the southernmost point in the mainland United States. Fort Poinsett was
erected here in the 1830s in an effort to prevent Seminole Indians from
obtaining arms from Spanish fishermen, but traces of the log fort have
7. East Cape Sable to Flamingo, 10 miles
Flamingo will likely be a
welcome break after six or seven days of paddling. The park service
manages a campground, but the Flamingo Lodge and cabins were destroyed
by Hurricane Wilma and have not reopened. A small store is adjacent to the
landing. Canoe and kayak rentals are also available. The campground is
about a mile before the marina and accessible by water at high tide. At
low tide, you might have to wade through mud. Reservations should be
made ahead of time by calling 1-800-365-2267 or by logging onto:
Flamingo, named in 1893
for the colorful flamingo birds that once arrived in great number from
Cuba and the Bahamas, is an isolated town and was formerly only
accessible by water. It is notorious for flying insect life during the
warm months and early residents relied upon smoldering smudge pots
inside their homes and even under baby carriages. When a scarcely
passable road was built to Flamingo in 1922, one resident joked, “There
were fewer people than ever at Flamingo. They had found a way to get
8. Flamingo to Little Rabbit Key, 13 miles
Make sure to check the
weather forecast at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center before embarking. Even
though Florida Bay is shallow, you’ll be entering the most expansive
stretch of open water on the entire trail. For a safer and slightly
longer passage, you might want to follow the banks and shallow flats
outlined on your navigational charts. Avoid getting too close to fishing
boats poling in the shallows as anglers are often sight-fishing for
bonefish, permit and tarpon on these flats.
A new chickee campsite on
stilts near Johnson Key is available about halfway to Rabbit Key, a half
mile off the route (see map). There is also a new chickee campsite on
stilts near Shark Point 7.5 miles east of Flamingo. From this campsite,
it is about 20 miles to Tavernier.
The clarity of the water
around Little Rabbit Key has been described as stunning, and you'll be
able to glimpse numerous fish, crabs and other aquatic creatures. There
is no sandy beach at Little Rabbit Key. Tent sites are behind a small
dock on the northwest side.
9. Little Rabbit Key to Long Key State Park, 14.5 miles
From Little Rabbit Key,
you’ll have a long stretch of open water paddling broken only by small
mangrove islands. Long Key sticks out like a huge boot. Early
Spaniards called it “Cayo Vivora,” which means Viper Key because its
shape is said to resemble a snake with open jaws. At Long Key Point,
you’ll connect with the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail (segment
Camping is on the
Atlantic side in the state park where you can reserve one of the park’s
60 scenic campsites in the campground (all bordering the Atlantic Ocean)
or camp in one of the park’s six primitive campsites open to paddlers.
You must reserve through Reserve America for the regular campground, but
you can call the park headquarters for reserving one of the primitive
sites: (305) 664-4815. The park also offers nature trails, an
observation tower, and a marked paddling trail through a mangrove
paradise (just over a mile in length).