Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail
Kayakers on Open Water in the Keys
Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
End: Fort Zachary
Taylor Historic State Park, Key West
Duration: 9-10 days
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
www.ReserveAmerica.com. 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 principles
Lodging is available in all of the Keys’ towns, and there are numerous
private campgrounds. The best way to access information on these
amenities is through the Internet. Log onto
www.fla-keys.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. To learn more about state parks in the Keys, log
www.floridastateparks.org. There are two state aquatic preserves,
Lignumvitae Key and Coupon Bight—
www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/keys. The Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission manages the Florida Keys Wildlife and
land and waters include Everglades National Park,
www.nps.gov/ever, Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge,
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge,
http://southeast.fws.gov/GreatWhiteHeron/, Crocodile Lake
National Wildlife Refuge,
http://southeast.fws.gov/CrocodileLake/, Key West National Wildlife
http://southeast.fws.gov/KeyWest/, and the Key Largo, Looe Key and
Florida Keys national marine sanctuaries,
www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov. 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 be obtained by calling or visiting Florida Bay
Outfitters in Key Largo (305) 451-3018. Whether you are planning to
paddle an hour or a week or more, seeing the keys by kayak offers many
1: John Pennekamp Coral
Reef State Park to Tavernier, 12 miles
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
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. Paddlers can stay at
the Tropic Vista Dive Motel, accessing it via a small canal in
An old boat launch just west of the motel beside the restaurant will
make for easier landing. call 800 537-3253 for more information
and to make reservations.
Tavernier Creek can take you to the bay side, if so desired. Accessible
motels along the bayside include Coconut Palm (305-852-3880), Island Bay
(800-654-5397) and Lookout Lodge (800-870-1772). 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.
you reach the town of Islamorada, you can arrange for a motel stay at
one of several resorts and motels by logging onto
http://www.islamoradachamber.com/. Waterfront motels that are
considered kayak friendly include: Conch On Inn Motel (mm 89.5) 305
852-9309; Lookout Lodge (mm 88) 1-800 870-1772; 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.
the southwest of the park is the San Pedro Underwater Archeological
Preserve. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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 engineering achievement.
A little over two miles down the old bridge from Knight’s Key, you can
stop at Pigeon Key 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
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 Knight’s Key
Campground 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. Bahia 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.
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
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 pm each day to allow for paddlers to get a first shot.
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.
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
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 islands.
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.
you paddle in this section, you may see one to two white blimps on the
horizon as you look south toward Cudjoe Key. One blimp is known as Fat
Albert, a Navy surveillance airship, and the other transmits Radio Marti
to Cuba. The blimps are only seen in good weather, so take note.
Camping is at the Sugarloaf Key KOA Kampground: 305-745-3549 or log onto
http://www.koakampgrounds.com/where/fl/09316/. 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 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
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 a pavilion.
rest stop is on the Sammy Creek parcel of the Florida Keys Wildlife and
Environmental Area (WEA) located on the east side of Sugarloaf Creek
(see map). The patchwork of WEA lands throughout the keys provide
habitat for more than 30 state and federally listed animal species.
Many of these species are found nowhere else and include the Lower keys
marsh rabbit, Key Largo cotton mouse, silver rice rat, key deer, Big
Pine ring-necked snake, Florida Keys mole skink, Lower Keys striped mud
turtle, Stock Island tree snail, and Schaus swallowtail butterfly.
Key Marina is 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 or log onto
9. Geiger Key Marina to Boyd’s Key West Campground, 7-8 miles
alongside Boca Chica Key through the Western Sambos 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 the reserve by logging onto
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.
part of Key West is about five miles west of Boyds 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 Fort 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
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.
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.
that 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.