Beaches / Camping / Everglades / Kayak & Canoe / Southwest Florida

Beach camping in the wild Ten Thousand Islands


Campsite on Panther Key

Our campsite on Panther Key

Boat camping on the beaches in the Ten Thousand Islands is one of my favorite Florida weekend getaways.  We did it often in the ‘90s, but all my camping buddies moved on to new jobs in new states, and somehow my wife Kathy and I got diverted to an RV for land-based adventures.

But we’re back to the islands!

About six months ago, we went to a book signing in Coral Gables (at Books and Books) for our camping buddy Warren Richey, who wrote “Without A Paddle: Racing Twelve Hundred Miles Around Florida by Sea Kayak.”

Warren was the leader and inspiration of our annual camping excursions into the islands a decade ago, so when he suggested that we return on New Year’s Weekend, we were all for it, even though we knew the weather in January can be very unpredictable.

I was starting to have visions of one memorable return across Chokoloskee Bay back in the 90s when the wind and rain were so rough, Everglades National Park rangers, who watched us from their safe tower across the bay, wondered if we would make it.

We did.  It was a rough trip, against a wet wind and churning seas in canoes and kayaks. We were very weary, very wet and very glad to be going home.

Such is the nature of the Ten Thousand Islands.

To be sure, the weather in this watery wilderness off southwest Florida is unpredictable year-round. Storms and winds whip up with little notice, so we watched the forecast carefully as our departure date neared.

Perfect weather

Paddling out Indian Key Pass

Paddling with dolphin through Indian Key Pass

Warren Richey paddles in the gulf off Picnic Key

Warren Richey paddles in the gulf off Picnic Key

Warren Richey with his jungle hammock

Warren Richey with his jungle hammock

The forecast couldn’t be better – sunny skies with highs in the mid 70s and lows in the high 50s, winds 5 to 10 mph, at the end of a two-week cold snap that should knock down the mosquitoes.

I trailered my 19-foot Cobia Center Console fishing boat to Everglades City, along with two kayaks. The motorboat would transport gear while my wife Kathy paddled with Warren out through Indian Key Pass (5-6 miles) to the Gulf, and then three miles north to Panther Key.

Launching kayaks at the Everglades National Park Ranger Station in Everglades City is easy, and there was no fee because Panther Key is in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, north of the national park boundary.

I launched my motorboat across the street at Glades Haven Marina ($15 launch fee) and parked my truck and trailer at the ranger station, where there is a large, grassy lot set aside for all boaters going into the islands. You can also rent kayaks and canoes at Glades Haven (Kayaks, $45 per day; canoes, $35 per day), flats boats ($175 per day) or pontoon boats ($250 per day).

We left a float plan with the rangers, identifying our parked vehicles, trailer and boats, our planned route, date of return and where we planned to camp. I also left a copy of the plan with a friend back in Fort Lauderdale.

If you launch a motorboat at Glades Haven, be sure to get specific navigation instructions from the dockmaster. The channel is narrow and shallow, even at high tide, and requires local knowledge.  It is unmarked until you get out into Chokoloskee Bay.  Once you are in that channel, stay in it. Only kayaks and canoes dare cut across the bay.  Motorboats should stay in the channel until you get to mouth of the Barron River to make your westward turn.

Timing is everything for paddlers.  Check the tides before you go.  You should plan to leave Everglades City at high tide, so the current is with you as you paddle or power out to the outer islands.

Plan your return on the reverse… low tide on the outside so you return on the incoming tidal current. If you plan to paddle between islands, outside of the main channels, be prepared to encounter tidal currents that go every which way.

The trip out to the beaches

Kathy and Warren had a ball riding the outgoing tide, staying outside of the channel, which can get quite busy on weekends with tour boats, fishing craft (large and small) and pleasure boaters.  Dolphin were everywhere, playful with the kayakers as they paddled out Indian Key Pass.

I motored ahead and waited until they arrived at the Gulf.

The channel is deep, well-marked and well-maintained, so there’s little chance of running aground in your motorboat unless you veer far outside the channel into the many bays and trails that are ubiquitous in these islands.  A nautical chart, and local knowledge, are required tools for all boaters.

From Indian Key, at the mouth of the pass, I threw a line to Kathy to tow her 9.5-foot kayak the final 3-4 miles over open water to Panther Key.  Warren, no stranger to open water in his 17.5-foot sea kayak, paddled on ahead.

My kayak, a 12-foot sit-on-top, rode comfortably on the deck of my motorboat, although I learned a great deal about packing gear on the deck when I had to scramble around it to get to anchors, dock lines and unhook the straps on my Bimini top.

Warren stokes the campfire on the beach at Panther Key.

Warren stokes the campfire on the beach at Panther Key.

Anchored off the beach at Panther Key

Anchored off the beach at Panther Key

The beach at Panther Key

The beach at Panther Key where we camped

Navigating to Panther Key from the outside offered a few surprises, largely due to the changed landscape caused by Hurricane Wilma five years ago. An important landmark, Round Key, was whacked to half its former size, and the seaward point on nearby Panther was totally wiped out, leaving a shoal that stretched a couple of hundred yards into the Gulf of Mexico.

Shoals and coral outcroppings are common, so motor craft are advised to have a reliable depth sounder on board.  While charts are useful and necessary, there is no way to anticipate what the weather has wrought out here after that chart was published.

Travelling north, you pass two islands designated by the National Park Service for camping, Picnic Key and Tiger Key, which is my all-time favorite because you can camp on a crescent-shape beach on the leeward side of the island.

Both Picnic and Tiger require a backcountry camping permit, $10 plus $2 per person, and there are a limited number of campsites.  Note that backcountry permits are only issued 24 hours in advance, and there is stiff competition for those sites on weekends.

But Camp Lulu and Panther Key are wide open for camping, and there are no fees.  We considered Lulu, which is northwest of Tiger Key, but chose to continue on to Panther because we expected Lulu to be too crowded for our tastes on this beautiful New Years Weekend.

Camp Lulu is the party island.

Swinging wide around Round Key, you will see Panther Key straight ahead. The point of the island is a mass of tangled driftwood, dead trees and mangrove trunks ripped out and stacked haphazardly, if not artistically, by Hurricane Wilma.

As you approach Panther, you will see a marker that identifies the channel going to Port of the Islands through Faka Union Bay. This is your access point to the beaches on the south side of Panther. We decided to swing wide around the point and camp on the northwest side.

Once around the point, the bay between Panther and Hog Key, also a popular camping destination, is quite deep, and I was able to bring my motorboat right up to the beach and anchor there for the weekend.

Other access to Panther Key

  • Port of the Islands – Port of the Islands, located on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail), is a full-service marina with a boat ramp at the head of well-maintained Faka Union Channel, and it’s much closer to Panther than Everglades City. Call (239) 821-2885 for information.
  • Goodland/Marco Island – Goodland is a quaint little Everglades outpost on the south side of Marco Island with a modern Calusa Island Marina, which has a good boat ramp. A well-marked channel through Coon Key Pass takes you out to the Gulf.  Follow the islands south to Panther Key. Call (239) 394-4140.

Beach camping on Panther Key

Exploring Panther Key

Exploring Panther Key

Hurricane Wilma tore up the point on Panther Key

Hurricane Wilma tore up the point on Panther Key

Warren heads out to explore Hog Key

Warren heads out to explore Hog Key

We pitched camp on the north side of Panther because the wind was sheltered from the southeast winds (actually a breeze, but it can change fast).  The risk, of course, is that the leeward side of the island is heaven for mosquitoes, but we expected (correctly) that the mosquitoes had probably been knocked down pretty good by December’s freezing weather.

Warren camps in a jungle hammock, which he finds extremely comfortable and packs easily in his kayak. He was totally self-contained, and he carried a lot of gear in that little boat, a lesson he fine-tuned when he participated in the Ultimate Florida Challenge, a monthlong race that circumnavigates the Florida peninsula and where he got the nickname, “Sharkchow.”

Kathy and I set up our big tent, capacity eight and very comfortable for two, on the beach. Since there are no outhouses, I brought along a portable potty that we put in a corner of the tent. It’s well-sealed and did not give off any odors.

For those who wish to rough it, you should bring a shovel for visits to the woods, but you will need to pack out your used toilet tissue (wildlife refuge regulations).

Warren got right to work on gathering wood for the campfire. Even though this is a popular camping area, plenty of dead wood could be found on the island because of Wilma. Bring a saw, but do not cut down any live trees. You don’t need to, and it won’t burn well, anyway.

Once we set up camp, Kathy, a diehard beachcomber, immediately set out along the beach to find shells and weathered driftwood.  As darkness approached, we prepared dinner.

Kathy and I brought cold food – cold cuts, bread, fruit, vegetables and snacks – while Warren brought freeze-dried backpacker meals. He brought a backpacker stove to heat water for those meals. (He favors turkey tetrazzini.)

The next day, we were off to explore Panther Key and Hog Key in our kayaks, and Warren went fishing in the afternoon while Kathy and I motored up the Fakahatchee Pass to the Faka Union River to explore more back country and the alternative route to Port of the Islands.

On the third morning on yet another beautiful day, we packed our gear to go back to Everglades City.

Camping Gear Checklists

  • Kayak Camping Checklist – Kayak guru and author Warren Richey shares his checklist of eseential gear to pack for the confined space of a kayak. Your needs may vary, as will the size of your boat, but this is a terrific guide to get you started. Go here: Sharkchow’s Kayak Camping Checklist
  • Boat Camping Checklist - The author of this article, longtime camper and outdoor enthusiast Bob Rountree, shares his checklist for camping from a larger boat, a 19-foot Cobia Center Console open fisher (no cabin). While your individual needs will vary, as will the size and features on your boat, this checklist is a good starting point. Go here: Bob’s Boat Camping Checklist

The return to Everglades City

Exploring the back country in the Ten Thousand Islands

Exploring the back country

We left in the morning, just after low tide at Panther. The key for paddlers is to get back to Indian Key Pass so you can ride the tide back to Everglades City. The currents are quite swift through the channel, almost whitewater, so it’s a real thrill for kayakers who can use minimal effort for maximum fun.

Warren left early, about 9 a.m., and we planned to leave at 10 a.m. to time our arrival at the same time. It was perfect timing. Warren was just finishing lunch in his kayak as we pulled up. I put Kathy’s kayak in the water and she paddled with Warren with the current the 5 miles to Choko Bay.

The broad Choko Bay was like glass, so the crossing was beautiful for the kayakers. It’s not always that way, and paddlers should be prepared for stiff headwinds.

For me, the currents were strong as I entered the back channel to Glades Haven and my boat was pushed into some very shallow mud flats. Fortunately, I was able to goose the boat back into the channel, but I took great care from that point to go easy until I got back to the dock at the boat launch.

We arrived at Everglades City at 12:30 p.m., perfect timing for our ritual lunch in Everglades City before returning to Fort Lauderdale across Alligator Alley.

The Triad Seafood Cafe

There are many cool places to eat in Everglades City and on nearby Chokoloskee Island, so Warren took us to his new favorite, the The Triad Seafood Café, which is on the Barron River, just east of the landmark Rod and Gun Club on Camille Street.

The Triad is hard to find, hidden behind the Everglades City School. You can access Camille Street at the Circle K on State Road 29, just south of the bridge over the Barron River.

We had been outdoors for three days, and any food tastes good under those conditions, but the meals we had at the Triad were exceptional.

Kathy and Warren ordered the grilled grouper sandwich ($10.95), and both praised it highly for its freshness and taste.  I opted for the fried seafood basket ($13.95), which included tasty grouper nuggets, fresh local jumbo shrimp, fried oysters and clams.

I’m usually wary of ordering grouper because of recent substitution scandals that have swept the state, but this grouper was the real deal.

They had a full range of appetizers and chowders, and we later regretted not trying the chowder (clam, fish, conch or shrimp gumbo, $3.95 for a cup, $4.95 a bowl).

The Ten Thousand Islands are known for fresh stone crabs, and the restaurant featured an all-you-can-eat stone-crab special for $42.95. Or you could order smaller portions for considerably less.

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