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Office of Greenways and Trails

Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail

Segment Fourteen

Everglades/Florida Bay

Emergency contact information:

  • 911
     

  • 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 hotline: 1-888-404-3922

 

Begin: Everglades City

End: Long Key State Park

Estimated Distance: 99 miles via the Gulf side; 126.5 miles via the Wilderness Waterway

Duration: 6 days

Special Considerations:

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% 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.

 

Introduction

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 releases.

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 http://www.nps.gov/ever/

Leave No Trace principles and practices should be followed for primitive camping www.lnt.org

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.

 

1.  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 accordingly.

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 http://reservations.nps.gov/parkresults.cfm?park_id=3

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 beach.

 

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, 11 miles

At 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 south.

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 hurricanes.

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 miles

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 vanished.


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, and 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: http://reservations.nps.gov/parkresults.cfm?park_id=3

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 out.”

 

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 15).

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).

Segment 14 Maps:

 

Paddling Trail Logo

 

 

Last updated: July 07, 2014

  3900 Commonwealth Boulevard    M.S. 795   Tallahassee, Florida 32399-3000
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