Monroe County Sheriff's
Keys (305)745-3184. Middle Keys (305)289-2430. Upper Keys (305)853-3211
Miami-Dade Police Department: 305-4-POLICE
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
24-hour wildlife emergency/boating under the influence hotline:
1-888-404-3922 or *FWC
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Oleta River State Park
Heavy winds and storms may prove
challenging in open water areas. Weekend boat traffic can be heavy,
especially in the more narrow northern section of the bay. Day two will
be a highly interesting though challenging day in terms of mileage.
Paddlers can follow in the wake of Tequesta
Indians, Bahamian tree-cutters, pirates, wreckers, smugglers, fortune
hunters, millionaires and several United States presidents who have
utilized Biscayne Bay for their livelihood or their playground. The
numerous islands and keys reveal a surprising wildness, especially due
to their close proximity to Miami, and paddlers can observe first-hand
the restoration efforts underway for several spoil islands that are
being turned into tropical oases. Much of the bay is shallow, so
paddlers can largely avoid boating lanes and hug the shorelines, being
wary of large wakes.
Since the heart of Biscayne Bay is a wide watery
expanse, paddlers should pay close attention to weather conditions. To
quote from the Biscayne National Park website: “Some days, Biscayne
Bay’s shallow waters are glassy smooth, a window on another world. Other
times, the wind whistles and whips, creating white waves that bite like
teeth at an angry sky.”
Several routes can be taken through this segment,
depending upon desire and prevalent winds. This draft will focus on one
main route since campsites are currently limited to just a few sites.
Three Florida state parks
are included in this segment:
Bill Baggs Cape Florida,
The route traverses the
Biscayne Bay Aquatic
Preserve, an area that includes
extensive mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, estuarine and hard-bottom
communities, and a diverse array of marine life. At least 512 fish
species occur in the bay and more than 800 benthic organisms. Manatees,
sea turtles and a wide variety of birds can be seen.
Paddlers will also enjoy
Biscayne National Park, the
largest marine park in the national park system, with more than 180,000
acres of islands, mangrove shorelines and undersea life.
campsites outlined in this guide, users are required to keep these sites
clean and follow all regulations in order for them to remain open for
paddlers. All human waste must be packed out and properly disposed
Leave No Trace Principles.
A GPS unit is a must to
safely follow the route and find campsites. Bug repellent is essential
even in winter, although biting insects are more prevalent in warm
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to Garden Cove campsite, 4.5 miles
In this section, you’ll begin paddling through
one of the most pristine areas in coastal South Florida. Green
mangrove-lined shorelines greet paddlers along with shallow patch reefs
with their colorful fish.
From the Pennekamp kayak
launch site (just over the wooden bridge on your left along Largo
Sound), paddle north through North Sound Creek and skirt the inside of
Rattlesnake Key. The Garden Cove campsite at
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
has a composting toilet and fire ring. Paddlers wanting to camp must
pack everything in and out; there is limited access to Key Largo.
Arrangements must be made in advance by calling the Ranger Station at
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, 305-451-1202. The site is not
available to non-paddlers.
The name of Garden Cove dates back to the 1830s.
A Keys ship captain, John Whalton, and his crew maintained a garden of
fruits and vegetables in the area to augment their intermittent supply
shipments. When Whalton and four crew members paddled ashore to tend the
garden on June 26, 1837, Seminole Indians surprised them and killed
Whalton and one crew member.
2: Garden Cove campsite to Elliott Key, 24.5
Paddling along the shore, you’ll eventually pass
the Ocean Reef Club, an exclusive member’s-only community that does not
allow uninvited guests by sea or land.
For an ideal rest stop, follow the channel
markers into Palo Alto Key and take the first tidal creek on the right.
The rest stop is a short ways up the creek on the right in a tiny cove.
Use your GPS unit to verify. Please do not explore the area as this is a
protected hammock site. Poisonwood trees in the area are distinguishable
by black splotches of poisonous sap on the smooth trunks. Most people
are sensitive and can develop skin rashes.
As you pass Old Rhodes Key, you’ll notice the
bleached bones of mangroves as this area received a direct hit from
Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Porgy Key is an interesting point of interest as
this is the home site of the Jones family. Of African descent, they
settled the key in 1897 and raised pineapples and limes to sell in Key
West. Eventually, only one member of the family remained on the island,
Sir Lancelot Jones. He worked as a sponger and fishing guide, having the
distinction of taking four different United States presidents
bonefishing. Known fondly as “the philosopher of Porgy Key,” Sir
Lancelot was moved from the island at age 94 when Hurricane Andrew was
bearing down. Today, visitors can view concrete foundations of his house
and that of his family, and picture the life they once lived.
Across from Porgy Key is
a Biscayne National Park day-use area on
Adams Key where you can have
a picnic and use the restrooms.
Overnight camping is on
the bay side roughly halfway up
Elliott Key . You can tie up
your kayaks on the low docks that are generally reserved for dinghies.
Regulations forbid kayakers to land on the swimming beach.
Elliott Key has
restrooms, picnic tables, grills, cold showers and fresh water. A group
camping site is on the ocean side about half a mile across the island.
You can stretch your legs on numerous trails, exploring this scenic
island. One seven-mile trail cuts lengthwise through the center of the
island through a tropical hardwood hammock. Originally, this trail was a
150-foot wide swath cut by a former landowner just before the National
Park Service took control of the island. Known as Spite Highway, the
swatch has since grown back to become a pleasing canopied trail. A
nature trail on the ocean side will enable you to view sea grape, black
mangrove, bay cedar, buttonwood and other subtropical plants.
Camping on both Elliott Key and
Boca Chita Key is on a
first-come, first-served basis for a modest fee.
3: Elliott Key to Boca Chita Key, 5 miles
This is a short day, certainly optional, to a
premier campsite on Boca Chita Key, also managed by the National Park
Service. The landing site is on the north side of the 32-acre island.
There are picnic tables, grills and restrooms, but no fresh water. Take
time to explore “the little lighthouse that isn’t,” a lighthouse built
illegally from native coral rock by Mark Honeywell in the 1940s for his
own personal navigation landmark. He was forced to permanently
extinguish the beacon when it was deemed an uncharted hazard to
navigation in the area.
4: Boca Chita Key to Teacher’s Island, 21
Miles (10 miles to Bill Baggs State Park)
Paddlers have several
options to reach Teacher’s Island, which is near the mainland. The most
direct route in calm weather is to head straight north and explore tiny
Soldier Key, Stiltsville, followed by the Cape Florida Lighthouse at
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, and then cut across. It is possible
to stay at the State Park at the youth camp and reduce the distance by
about ten miles if you make prior arrangements by calling 305-361-8779,
M-F 8-4:30. The camp site is primitive with no restrooms, shelters or
power. When the park is closed (between sunset and 8:00 a.m.),
campers must remain in the youth camp.
No after-hours access to the park will
be granted during sea turtle nesting season - May 1st
though October 31st.
If arriving from the beach side go to the northern end where warning
flags are posted. A long boardwalk leads to restrooms and showers.
To access the campsite cross the parking lot and go west 0.5 miles on
Harbor Rd. You can also access the park from No Name Harbor, but
you’ll have to climb over a seawall. You can secure kayaks to the bike
rack near the restaurant and then carry gear 0.2 mile east to youth
The Cape Florida lighthouse was first built in
1825, destroyed by Seminole Indians in 1836, and rebuilt in 1846. The
95-foot lighthouse is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade
County. Ponce de Leon was believed to have landed in this area in 1513
during the first Spanish expedition in Florida.
Depending on winds, the safest route is by way of
the channel along Featherbed Bank, which is largely bordered by shoals,
and then follow the mainland. Taking this route, however, will add 4-5
miles to your day.
You can take a break at
Black Point Park & Marina,
and look for sea cows in this high manatee use area. Heading north along
the shore, you will pass a distinct Florida landscape feature, Mount
Trashmore, more than six stories tall. This is where Dade County’s solid
waste is disposed.
Take your time to explore some of Miami’s
shoreline culture by stopping for restaurant breaks near Matheson
Hammock Park and the Dinner Key area. The bay will gradually narrow
toward the Rickenbaker Causeway.
For either route, it is recommended that you
skirt around Virginia Key on the Atlantic coastal (east) side and slide
between Fisher Island and the Port of Miami, avoiding the Intracoastal
Waterway. Be wary of large ships as you cross Government Cut. A large
offshore zone on the northwest side of Virginia Key is a restricted
A great rest stop and
point of interest is the 82.5-acre
Virginia Key Beach Park,
located on the east side of the key along the recommended route.
Kayakers need to land on the northeast corner of the park beach (see
map). At the park, you can access restrooms, fresh water, picnic
pavilions and an interpretive trail. In 1945, Virginia Key Beach was
established as Dade County’s only public beach and recreation facility
for “the exclusive use of Negroes.” It is now on the National Register
of Historic Places and a popular off-road cycling destination. The key
also features several native plant communities that are scarce in Dade
County, and it harbors the state endangered Biscayne prickly ash.
Another point of interest is the Flagler Monument
Island just offshore from Miami Beach on the bay side. This is a tiny
island that harbors a 60-foot obelisk dedicated to Henry Morrison
Flagler, builder of the Florida East Coast Railroad. Carl Fisher, the
major developer of Miami Beach, built the monument in 1919. Allegorical
statues representing pioneering, education, industry and prosperity are
located on each side of the monument’s base.
Teacher’s Island, just
past the Venetian Causeway near the mainland, is the first of several
spoil islands that Dade County is restoring into tropical paradises with
native vegetation. Most are nearly surrounded by riprap (large rocks) to
stem erosion, but small beaches or docks on each island offer handy
landing spots. With the exception of Bird Key, which is a bird rookery
and off limits, each island has a picnic area, and some have nature
trails and shelters. No long-term camping is permitted, but the islands
make great stopovers for circumnavigation paddlers as long as No Trace
Principles are utilized. Nearby parks on the mainland, such as
Morningside Park near
Morningside Island, offer public restrooms. Bear in mind that on most
weekends, the islands are very popular with boaters.
In exploring the islands, try to identify native
species that have been planted on these once barren isles of sand.
Species may include bay cedar, sabal and coconut palm, sea lavender, sea
grape, sea oats, gumbo limbo, Jamaica dogwood and mahogany.
5: Teacher’s Island to Oleta River State Park,
The bay gradually narrows
as you head north until you’ll see the huge area of mature mangrove
forests, framed by large buildings. This is
Oleta River State Park,
resembling a coastal Central Park in an urban setting. Exceeding a
thousand acres, this is the largest urban park in the state. The upland
areas were built from spoil material from dredging and are now best
known for premier mountain biking. Wet areas mostly consist of
mangroves, though it is interesting to note that sawgrass once dominated
these sites. A 1926 hurricane opened a channel across from the park,
allowing more salinity into the northern bay, enabling salt-tolerant
mangroves to take hold. Dredging now keeps the Baker’s Haulover Inlet
Paddlers can enjoy the park by landing at a
designated spot along a tidal creek near the beach. It is against park
regulations to land a craft on the beach as it may pose hazardous for
bathers swimming underwater. Visitors need to pay a day-use fee in the
iron ranger near the landing spot, or they can hike to the entrance
You can enjoy the
luxuries of one of the park’s cabins for a fee. Advanced
recommended, especially on weekends, by calling toll free 1-800-326-3521
or 1-866-I CAMP FL.
A primitive campsite for
paddlers is a short ways up the Oleta River, on the north side. It is
along the second inlet on the right past the state park bridge. This was
a marina several decades ago, but the site has been restored.
You’ll need to utilize Leave No Trace
principles and hike a short distance to the entrance station to pay a
small camping fee. Across the road from the park headquarters are
restaurants and a movie theater. A supermarket is one block east. Along
the river just north of the campsite, at the bridge, is the park’s
visitor services provider—Blue
Moon Outdoor Center and
Blue Marlin Fish House.
Kayak rentals are available.
As you enjoy Oleta River State Park, it is
difficult to imagine that millions of people live within a 20-mile
radius. Like many parts of this segment, Oleta is a natural oasis in an