Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Note: The Elliot Key
campground is currently closed for repairs until further notice. the
Boca Chita Campground remains open. Check the Park's website for
Monroe County Sheriff's
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission 24-hour wildlife emergency/boating under the influence
Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
End: Oleta River
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: John Pennekamp, Bill Baggs Cape Florida,
and Oleta River. More information can be found on these three parks by
http://www.FloridaStateParks.org 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. To learn more, log onto:
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. To learn more, log onto
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. For
more information about Leave No Trace principles, log onto:
A GPS unit is a must to
safely follow the route and find campsites. Bug repellent is
recommended, even in winter, although biting insects are more prevalent
in warm months.
1: 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
2: Garden Cove campsite to Elliott Key, 24.5 mile
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
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 keys 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
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 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 camp.
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 the Black Point Park and
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
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 used by people
of all races and cultures. The key also features several native plant
communities that are scarce in Dade County, and it harbors the state
endangered Biscayne prickly ash. To learn more, log onto
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, 10.5 miles
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 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 open.
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 station.
You can enjoy the luxuries of one of the
park’s cabins for a fee. Advanced reservations are recommended,
especially on weekends, by calling toll free 1-800-326-3521 or
1-866-I CAMP FL, or you can go online to
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—The Blue Moon Outdoor
Center and Blue Marlin Fish House and interpretive center
http://www.bluemoonmiami.com/. Kayak rentals are
As you enjoy Oleta 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 urban setting.