Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail
Kayakers on Open Water in the Keys
Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail
Emergency contact information:
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
John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, Key West
The Keys are unlike any other segment in that you can paddle up and back
and choose paddling on the Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico side or along the
Atlantic Ocean. Distance and duration will be determined by which side
is chosen. The Bay side is longer as the shoreline is more sinuous and
there are numerous opportunities to explore a multitude of islands,
especially in the Lower Keys. You can also weave in and out between the
bay and ocean through several creeks and channels, taking advantage of
prevailing winds and weather conditions. Many of the same campsites can
be utilized since they often border channels between the main islands.
All mileage estimates in this guide are for the Atlantic side of the
keys; they are measured in statute miles, not nautical miles. A global
positioning system (GPS) unit is highly recommended to find campsites
and points of interest.
For long-distance circumnavigation paddlers arriving from Everglades
National Park and Florida Bay, the current point of connection to this
trail is to come in from a primitive campsite at Rabbit Keys to the
Indian Key Channel between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. Efforts are
being made to establish a primitive campsite to the south in Everglades
National Park so long-distance paddlers have the option of beginning
this segment in Key Largo.
Paddling in the Keys is a great
way to experience both tropical splendor and unique culture. The
Overseas Highway is busy, powerboats abound on weekends and holidays,
and some of the island towns can become congested during the peak winter
tourist season, but by paddling just a short distance to lush,
uninhabited islands or down winding tunnels through mangrove forests, it
is easy to taste wildness and to experience solitude. Paddlers can enjoy
viewing a rich diversity of marine life, ranging from manatees and sea
turtles to lobsters, fish and stingrays. An array of bird life can also
be spotted, from migrating hawks to magnificent frigate birds to
brightly-colored warblers. Conversely, civilization in the form of great
restaurants, lodging, and evening entertainment is often within easy
reach of the water. Thus, the best of both worlds can be experienced!
History, too, is a strong part of the keys experience. Visual reminders
of Henry Flagler’s overseas railroad of the early 1900s can be seen in
the arching concrete columns of several old bridges, including the
original Seven Mile Bridge between Knight’s Key and Ohio Key. Remnant
railroad depots still exist, and the Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway
Historeum can be visited at the Key West Seaport. The Labor Day
Hurricane of 1935 destroyed much of the railroad.
Historic sites such as Indian Key Historic State Park and Fort Zachary
Taylor Historic State Park can be visited from the water. Shipwrecks can
sometimes be spotted in the gin-clear waters, testament as to how
treacherous the Keys’ waters were for navigation. Salvaging shipwrecks,
known as wrecking, was once the main industry in the Keys.
Because the Keys are a popular winter destination for tourists and
snowbirds, advanced reservations for desired motels and public or
private campsites are highly recommended. For reserving state park
campsites as outlined in this guide, call toll free 1-800-326-3521 or
1-866-I CAMP FL, or go online to
There are some primitive campsites specifically for paddlers being
developed at several state parks that do not require reservations at
this time. Please keep these sites clean and follow all regulations in
order for them to remain open for paddlers. Most of these sites are
“pack-it-in, pack-it-out” only, with campers following Leave No Trace
Lodging is available in all of the Keys’ towns, and there are numerous
private campgrounds. Log onto
http://bestonkeywest.com/ , or call the Monroe County Tourist
Development Council at 1-800-FLA-KEYS to ask for a free planning guide.
Several outfitters in the Keys can also assist you in renting or selling
equipment or in guiding trips. A Web search is the best way to locate
them, or view the outfitters link on this Website.
Many important land areas and water bodies in the Keys are in the public
domain, to be carefully managed for ecological, historical or
recreational purposes. Visit the popular
Florida State Parks in the
Keys. There are two
Preserves, Lignumvitae Key and Coupon Bight. The Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission manages the
Florida Keys Wildlife & Environmental Area. Federal land and waters
include Everglades National Park ,
National Key Deer Refuge,
White Heron National Wildlife Refuge,
Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge,Key
West National Wildlife Refuge , and the Key Largo, Looe Key and
Florida Keys National
Marine Sanctuaries. The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary covers most
waters in the keys, encompassing 2900 square miles, and kayakers should
be aware of regulations if planning to fish or snorkel.
A large number of shorter paddling adventures are available in the Keys
other than the sections outlined here. To learn more, check out
The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas by Bill and Mary Burnham (Falcon
Press), The Florida Keys Paddling Guide by Bill Keogh
(Backcountry Press) and Kayaking the Keys by Kathleen Patton
(University Press of Florida). Up-to-date trail information can also be
obtained by calling or visiting local outfitters.
Whether you are planning to paddle an hour or a week or more,
seeing the keys by kayak offers many rewards.
1: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to Tavernier, 12 miles
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is an appropriate beginning
point for the Keys trail. Dedicated in 1960 and named after the late
John D. Pennekamp, a Miami newspaper editor and strong supporter of
establishing the park, this was the first undersea park in the United
States. While the famed coral reefs are considered too far offshore for
a kayak, the park offers several types of tours in which to safely view
the reefs and rich marine life. Call 305-451-6300 for more information
on these tours. The park also boasts a large aquarium and visitor’s
center, two nature trails, full facility camping, and 2.5 miles of
marked mangrove wilderness trails for canoes or kayaks. Approximately
100 feet offshore from Pennekamp’s Cannon Beach, you can snorkel or
glide over the remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck.
You can begin this section at Pennekamp’s kayak and canoe launch along
Largo Sound. Be watchful of boat traffic as you make you way to the
Atlantic along the park’s canoe and kayak trail, heading south along a
tidal creek through the mangroves. Paddle along Key Largo to Tavernier.
Many paddlers camp on Tavernier Key, but this island is private and
formal approval for camping has not been granted.
Tavernier Creek can take you to the bay side, if so desired. Accessible
motels along the bayside include Coconut Palm (305-852-3017), Island Bay
(305-852-4087) and Lookout Lodge (305-852-9915). See map for GPS points.
During the peak spring season, some of these motels may require a two or
three night minimum stay.
2: Tavernier to Islamorada, 9 miles
In his History of Tavernier, found on
www.keyshistory.org , Jerry
Wilkinson writes, “In early writings, the harbor between Tavernier Key
and Key Largo is mentioned as a rendezvous area for Bahamian wreckers.
It offered a haven from Atlantic gales and a good view of the Upper Keys
reefs. In the early 1820s it is believed that slaves were gathered on
Key Tavernier to be smuggled into the Bahamas by wreckers, but this has
never been documented. It was used as a relay point for some escaped
slaves enroute to the Bahamas.”
The Keys history website, along with several good books, can inform you
more about fascinating aspects of Keys history such as the wrecking
industry, sponging, early native inhabitants, Flagler’s railroad,
devastating hurricanes and more.
Leaving historic Tavernier Key, it is a fairly straight shot along
Plantation Key, once the site of a large Native American village. A huge
Indian mound that stood on the island for centuries was leveled for
construction in 1958.
When you reach the town of
Islamorada, you can arrange for
Islamorada Lodging at one of several resorts and motels. Waterfront
motels that are considered kayak friendly include: Conch On Inn Motel
(mm 89.5) 305 852-9309; Lookout Lodge (mm 88) 305-852-9915; Coconut Cove
Motel (mm85) 305 664-0123; and the Hampton Inn and Suites (mm 80) 1-800
426-7866. The Whale Harbor Channel in Islamorada is a link to the bay
side. Islamorada has often been called the fishing capital of the world.
3: Islamorada to Long Key State Park, 15 miles
The first of many long bridges separate Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys
in this section. On the Atlantic side of the bridge is Indian Key,
famous for a Seminole raid in 1838 on the family of Dr. Henry Perrine.
Perrine and several others were killed, though many family members
successfully hid in a turtle kraal beneath the house. The island is now
a state park and can be visited seven days a week from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Tours are available at 9 AM and 1 PM Thursday through Monday.
Just to the southwest of the park is the
Underwater Archeological Preserve State Park. In good weather, you
can glide over or snorkel the remains of a 1733 Spanish treasure ship,
which lies in 18 feet of water. Look for the five white mooring buoys
marking the site approximately 1.25 miles south of Indian Key. You can
tie your kayak to these while snorkeling.
On the other side of the bridge is Lignumvitae Key, famed for harboring
now rare lignum vitae trees. Meaning “wood of life” in Latin, the tree
was used to treat diseases ranging from syphilis to gout, and its dense
wood was used for submarine propeller shafts and other specific uses.
Rare orchids, tree cacti and an historic homestead can also be seen on
this state botanical area. Note that the park is also open from Thursday
through Monday, from 8 AM to 5 PM. Tours are available at 10 AM and 2
Surrounding the island is the Lignumvitae Key Aquatic Preserve and the
Lignumvitae Key Management Area.
Encompassing 10,000 acres of seagrass meadows, deep-water
channels and hard-bottom communities, look for tarpon, bonefish, permit,
sea turtles, lobster and other marine creatures in the clear waters.
Most of the seagrass areas are zoned off limits to combustion engines.
Past Lower Matecumbe Key, 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. On Long Key, you’ll
see remains of coral reefs formed 100,000 years ago, when sea level was
20 to 300 feet higher than today. When sea levels dropped during the
last Ice Age, the reefs died and formed the islands of the keys. The
highest point in the Keys is 18 feet above sea level, while the average
is less than 10 feet above sea level, a main reason why the Keys are so
vulnerable to hurricanes.
Long Key is famous for Henry Flagler’s Long Key Fishing Club, which
attracted such notables as western author Zane Grey. Grey summed up his
time spent on Long Key: “Into my memory had been burned indelibly a
picture of a sunlit, cloud-mirroring, green and gold bordered cove,
above the center of which shone a glorious fish-creature in the air.”
The original fishing resort was destroyed in the 1935 hurricane.
Camping is on the Atlantic side in
Long Key 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 campground, or you can call the park
headquarters up to 24 hours in advance to check on availability of the
primitive sites: (305) 664-4815. The park also offers nature trails, an
observation tower, and ranger led interpretative programs.
4. Long Key State Park to Curry Hammock State Park, 13 miles
In this section, you’ll pass several small islands and cross a long
section of open water. Duck Key, which was bypassed by both the railroad
and overseas highway, is the first large island you’ll encounter. In the
early 1800s, Charles Howe utilized the tidal creeks and pools of Duck
Key for making salt. At that time, salt was the main element used in
You have the option of paddling to the inside (along the Overseas
Highway) or outside of Duck Key to Tom’s Harbor Keys and Grassy Key.
Just past Grassy Key is Little Crawl Key and Curry Hammock State Park.
Use Reserve America to reserve a site in advance at
Curry Hammock State Park or call the park at least 24 hours in
advance to check walk-in availability (305) 394-3330. Take a walk
through the hardwood hammocks and view one of the largest populations of
thatch palms in the United States.
5. Curry Hammock State Park to Molasses Key, 15 miles
Take your time paddling through this section. First, you can take a
break at Sombrero Beach in Marathon. Make sure to use the kayak
launch site on the west side of the swimming beach.
As a side trip, you can take Sister’s Creek (just west of Sombrero
Beach) and then paddle through a labyrinth of shallow mangrove tunnels
that wind through Boot Key, but be careful not to become lost! Once on
the trail again, you’ll cruise alongside a famous Keys landmark—the
Seven Mile Bridge just past Marathon. You can view the new bridge, built
in 1982, as well as the longest surviving bridge segment of Flagler’s
railroad. Imagine the work that went into the original bridge. Top
quality cement was imported from Europe. Huge floating concrete mixers
had to be used. Dams were built around each column to keep out water, as
workers labored to bridge the span. Several hurricanes dealt serious
blows to men and machines during the overall project. The fact that the
bridge remains is a testament to the quality of workmanship and
materials. The new bridge is also acclaimed as a major architectural and
A little over two miles down the old bridge from Knight’s Key, you can
stop at Pigeon Key Marine Science
Center and tour through a restored village and museum. Pigeon Key
originally housed workers for the Flagler Railroad. What survives are
eight restored Flagler-era buildings. Be sure to land on the beach on
the north side of Pigeon Key. There is an entrance fee.
Primitive camping is on Molasses Key, a private island just over half
way down the Seven Mile Bridge on the Atlantic side, but far enough away
from the highway to avoid most of the traffic noise. Be mindful of swift
currents and the potential for strong winds when crossing these open
spans of water.
As an alternate overnight stop, you can camp at the privately-owned
Knights Key Resort &
Marina just before the Seven Mile Bridge. It can be accessed by
either Sister’s Creek (just west of Sombrero Beach) or by taking the
Atlantic side around Boot Key. There is spacious tent camping in the
center of the campground and restaurants are within easy walking
distance. Like most private Keys campgrounds, in can be pricey in the
winter months. You must call ahead to reserve a spot and land at the
manager’s campsite, which is site #9 (see gps coordinates on map).
Access can be muddy and rocky at low tide. Call (800) 348-2267.
6. Molasses Key to Bahia Honda State Park, 7 miles
Some places just seem more graced with beauty than others.
Honda State Park is one of them. Arching palms frame sandy beaches
and coves alongside sparkling clear water. An old section of the Flagler
railroad bridge (the only trestle bridge along the route) across the
Bahia Honda Channel gives the park an historic flavor.
This is a very popular state park, considered one of the top beaches in
the world, so reserve campsites early. Prime tent sites along the
Atlantic are in the Sandspur Camping Area. Non-electric beachside sites
are 49 through 56. The more expensive electric sites are 64 through 72.
There is also camping near the bridge in the Buttonwood Camping Area
(sites 12 through 25 are electric sites along the water) and eight
non-electric sites (cheaper) along Florida Bay in the Bayside Camping
Area. You may want to access the park on the north side of the abandoned
railroad bridge along the west end of the key if the surf is strong
along the Atlantic beaches.
Campsite #80 on the bay side is available to paddlers on a first-come,
first-serve basis. Paddlers must first register at the park’s ranger
station. If you plan to use the site, call the park at (305) 872-2353 on
the morning of your planned arrival to ensure that the site will not be
released for use by the general public. The site is held by the park
until 3 p.m. each day to allow for paddlers to get a first shot.
At the far end of Sandspur Beach, don’t miss the nature trail that
follows the shore of a tidal lagoon. Here, you can see two national
champion trees: the silver palm, a threatened species, and the yellow
satinwood. The endangered lily thorn can also be seen. The park boasts
one of the largest stands of silver palms in the United States.
If Bahia Honda is booked, try camping at the
Big Pine Key
Fishing Lodge just across the Bahia Honda Channel (305 872-2351).
You can land at the boat ramp via the inlet parallel to U.S. 1. Sites 10
through 14 and 40 through 46 are tent sites right on the water. The
campground has a convenience store, pool, and laundry. Bicycles can
often be rented if one wants to ride the two or so miles to restaurants
and a larger grocery store in Big Pine.
Be on the lookout for endangered key deer, which roam freely on Big Pine
Key. The Key deer is the smallest subspecies of the Virginia
white-tailed deer, having become isolated in the middle keys about 4,000
to 10,000 years ago when sea levels rose. Big Pine Key also contains a
high level of biodiversity, with 466 documented plant species.
If you stay at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, you can cut about 3.5 miles
off your next day’s paddle to Sugarloaf Creek.
7. Bahia Honda State Park to Sugarloaf Key KOA, 17 miles
Part of the beauty of paddling this stretch is that once you pass
Spanish Harbor, you can paddle alongside several remote islands more
than two miles from the main highway, so traffic noise is minimized.
You’ll also cruise through the 6,000-acre Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve,
located on both sides of Newfound Harbor Keys. On the Atlantic side of
the keys, look for circular domed formations which are living coral
patch reefs. By snorkeling, you can spot brightly-colored tropical fish
along with larger grouper, snapper, snook and barracuda. Besides
providing necessary habitat for marine life, patch reefs such as these
baffle wave energy, thus helping to provide storm protection for the
Coupon Bight itself is a shallow tropical lagoon where you can spot
numerous wading birds and possibly key deer along the shore. Sea turtles
nest on the preserve’s beaches. These waters are known for harboring
large numbers of tarpon in the spring.
Camping is at the
Sugarloaf Key KOA, 305-745-3549. This full facility commercial
campground is located on the Atlantic side of Sugarloaf Key along a
well-marked channel. GPS on map is for the boat ramp. Kayakers can stay
in a spacious primitive tent area for less than the regular fee. Some
paddlers stay at an unauthorized campsite near a collapsed bridge along
8. Sugarloaf Key KOA to Geiger Key Marina, 13 miles
On your way to Geiger Key, you’ll paddle along Sugarloaf Key. An 1850
census reveals only three males residing on Sugarloaf Key. One was known
as “Happy Jack.” Believed to have a fondness for whiskey, he survived by
trapping deer and raising fruit. Other colorful Keys hermits of the time
included Paddy Whack, Jolly Whack, Red Jim and Lame Bill.
Sugarloaf Key is better known for a 35-foot tower that remained
unoccupied. In 1929, trying to control the hefty mosquito population,
R.C. Perky called in outside help to build a giant bat house. Stocked
with imported bats, the bats promptly flew away and the tower failed to
attract new bats. Nevertheless, tourists continue to flock to this
national historic landmark. The tower is located on the west side of
Sugarloaf Sound on the bayside.
A good rest stop and launch site is a small parcel of public land on the
east side of Sugarloaf Creek (see map) where there are picnic tables and
Geiger Key Marinais
located on the east side of Geiger Key just inside Saddlehill Key. It
offers several amenities such as tent camping, showers, water,
Laundromat and a restaurant. For more information or to make
reservations, call (305) 296-3553.
9. Geiger Key Marina to Boyd’s Key West Campground, 7-8 miles
Paddle alongside Boca Chica Key through the Western Sambo Ecological
Reserve, believed to contain the greatest habitat diversity in the Lower
Keys. Nearshore patch reefs are accessible to kayakers while bank reefs
and other coral formations may be too far offshore. Learn about fishing
and snorkeling regulations in
Western Sambos Ecological Reserve .
Proceed to Key West, the largest of the Keys’ towns and one that boasts
a culture all its own. The campground is located on the east side of
Stock Island about a half-mile south of the main highway. It boasts
several waterfront tent sites along with a heated pool, laundry
facilities, game room and convenience store.
You can reserve a site by e-mail (www.boydscampground.com)
or, if you are planning to arrive within seven days, you can call
directly at (305) 294-1465. Reservations between December 25 and January
1 are not accepted (first come, first serve). There are also several
oceanside resorts and motels in Key West.
The old part of Key West is about five miles west of Boyd’s Campground.
Buses or taxis, or your own two feet, can take you to numerous museums,
restaurants and other attractions. Don’t miss the sunset celebration at
Mallory Square, where people-watching is an added bonus.
10. Boyd’s Key West Campground to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State
Park, Key West, 7 miles
Cruise along several scenic beaches, such as the renowned Smathers
Beach. You may want to stop
for a photo at the southernmost point in the continental United States,
identified by a huge red-topped metal marker just past South Beach. The
end of this segment is
Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. You can land at a kayak launch
spot on the eastern end of the park’s beach near a kayak concessionaire.
You need to check in at the admissions gate before using the park and
touring the fort.
Construction of Fort Taylor began in 1845. Union forces occupied it
during the Civil War to control blockade-running ships. This helped Key
West to prosper during the war since numerous ships from several nations
were seized and brought into Key West’s harbor for disposition. The fort
was used again during the Spanish-American War. Today, Fort Taylor is
noted for containing the largest buried arsenal of Civil War cannons in
the United States.
You can end (or begin) your journey here, or turn around and head back
to Boyd’s Campground. Another option is to circumnavigate Key West, but
beware of large ships (such as cruise liners) entering or leaving Key
West harbor just past the fort. Taking this route will add three to four
miles to your return trip to Boyd’s Campground.
Note: if you are doing the entire circumnavigational trail in one swoop,
you are welcome to shuttle back to the point where you entered the Keys.
No need to paddle the same water twice.