Enchanting and alluring, Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands is a maze of uninhabited keys off the state’s southwest coast. The southern part of this unusual jigsaw puzzle of water and small, low islands is part of Everglades National Park.
The islands consist mostly of sand or coral, and they are covered with mangroves, tropical hardwoods and sea oat grasses. Some of the keys are no bigger than a basketball court, while others are large enough for football.
Despite the designation, the islets in the chain number only in the hundreds, not the thousands. Some have names given to them by the area’s early pioneers, hardy folks who survived by fishing and hunting the watery backcountry that has changed little in more than a century.
Aside from flying over, the only way to see Ten Thousand Islands is by boat. With its myriad islets, mangrove-lined passes and remote beach camping, there’s enough paddling potential in this subtropical wilderness for a weekend or weeklong getaway.
The early Calusa Indians recognized canoes as the most practical mode of transportation through the island group. Canoes (and sea kayaks) are still the best way to appreciate the area’s beauty. Paddling routes are endless among the island-speckled seascape.
However, if you want just a taste of what it’s like on “The Outside,” as the islands are locally called, ease into it with a day paddle — or one- or two-night trip — to some of the keys that lie closest to Everglades City. Then set a date for a longer wilderness excursion to more distant islands where camping is permitted.
Most veteran ’glades paddlers agree Ten Thousand Islands harbors some of the best backcountry campsites in the entire national park. Favorites include Tiger and Picnic keys, two of the northernmost campsites in Everglades National Park. The camping areas of both are on the western sides of the islands and face the Gulf, and thus are open to sea breezes that make the beach sites comfortable and free of bugs, even in warmer weather.
To the southeast, Rabbit Key is an ideal first-night stop for longer trips. And still farther south along the coastline are other secluded keys to pitch your tent on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, with unobstructed views of mangrove islands on one side and open water on the other.
But if you have to choose just one island as a beach camper’s dream, you can’t do better than Pavilion Key, hosting the largest campsite in the islands. This is a campsite for intermediate and experienced paddlers only, as the hook-shaped mangrove- and grass-fringed prominence is separated from the mainland by a mile of open water. You’ll feel just like a modern-day castaway, notwithstanding the fact that the camping area is equipped with portable toilets.
Rules and Regs
All backcountry campers must first obtain a permit at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. Permits may only be obtained in person the day before your trip begins. There is a nominal fee for processing permits and camping. During the winter months, some island campsites can be in high demand, so get there early and have a backup plan.
You Won’t Forget
Some of the finest bright orange sunsets you’ll ever behold can be witnessed from the western shores of the outlying keys.
This is a wilderness area that will likely be very different from any other place you have paddled or camped. Proper planning is a must. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums (tiny biting insects) are less of a problem in the wintertime (which is definitely when you want to go); however, always take bug repellent, a head net and a tent with no-see-um-proof netting.
You’ll need to carry in all your drinking and cooking water, as no fresh water is available anywhere along the coast; count on at least a gallon a day per person. If possible, carry drinking water and food supplies in hard-sided containers. Raccoons inhabit many of the keys and can be numerous and bold, often chewing through soft-sided water jugs to quench their thirst.
The island chain can be navigationally confusing. Equip yourself with a GPS/compass and nautical charts. Tides can greatly influence paddling to and from Everglades City. Savvy paddlers use the daily ebbs and flows to their advantage. Finally, be prepared for sudden wind and weather changes. Bring extra food and supplies in case you run into bad weather and must stay put for an extra day or so.
The islands harbor an abundance of wildlife, and the shallows serve as nursery grounds for countless marine species. Expect to have curious dolphins cruise alongside you and, if you’re lucky,
West Indian manatees, as well. Averaging from 9 to 11 feet long and weighing between 450 and more than 1,300 pounds, these gray or brown slow-moving and docile marine mammals might rise to the surface next to your canoe or kayak — and then, like phantoms, disappear below just as quickly.
Definitely bring your binoculars and a bird field guide. Avian sightings may include bald eagles, ospreys, pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, ibises, wood storks and more than 350 other species.
When to Go
Plan your trip during the cooler dry season (November through March). Because of the heat, humidity and intolerable number of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, only a dedicated few venture into the Everglades wilderness during the rainy season, which starts around April and continues through October. Note also that hurricane season is from early May to mid-November.
Did You Know?
Though only an hour drive from the hustle and bustle of Miami, Everglades National Park is the largest national park and designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi River: More than 1.5 million acres of “saltness and sweetness” cap the southern end of Florida. Also, the subtropical habitat is one of the only places in the world where alligators and American crocodiles coexist, though odds are you won’t see either species when paddling the saltwater of Ten Thousand Islands. Gators prefer freshwater; crocs do inhabit saltwater, but they are rare.
The two main gateways for exploring Ten Thousand Islands include the Chokoloskee Island Resort and Marina, where a parking and launch fee is required, and the park service “ramp” at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City (where you get your permits and trip-planning advice). The visitor center also offers educational displays, orientation films and informational brochures. Located nearby are canoe and sea kayak rentals, restaurants, stores, lodging and campgrounds.
Everglades National Park (Gulf Coast Visitor Center) at 239-695-3311 or nps.gov/ever. To learn more about the campsites and different paddling routes through the national park, check out Johnny Molloy’s book, A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park.