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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15 Comments

  1. Hi great article, just what info I was looking for, thanks. But have a question as we looking at doing a trip +/- 20 May to +/- 4 June 2014 and was wondering how bad the bugs and mosquitoes will be at this time of year? What is the paddle distance from Millers put in to Panther Key?

    Thanks, Gordon

  2. Hi! Thanks for the write up. I’m having a hard time finding info and hoping you can help. I’m planning a kayak fishing trip from Texas to the keys. I was looking into the big pine area due to what looks like a number of islands and alot of backcountry. My question is am I allowed to camp on a backcountry Beach down there like you did in this article? I want to spend as much time out as possible so it would stink to have to paddle back to a mainland campground everyday.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Chris,
      There is a lot of back country around Big Pine Key, mostly on the north and west sides. While most of those islands are thick mangrove, a few do have beaches. There is no open camping on Big Pine itself or on adjacent No Name Key, which has a small population and is mostly privately owned. However, you should be able to find a few remote islands with small beaches where you can camp.
      Another option to consider is Bahia Honda State Park, which has a few waterfront sites.
      I have a friend who lives on Big Pine and knows those islands like the back of his hand. (He’s a fishing guide). I’ll give him a shout and see if he can feed me some GPS coordinates for you. Stay tuned. – Bob

      • That would be amazing Bob! I was hoping you were still following these replies. Please let your friend know that there will be no fires involved.
        If he doesn’t know of any places can you please ask him how far of a paddle it is from Bahia SP to good backcountry fishing so I can have an idea if I have to go that route? If anything I can always camp up where you did in this article. Thanks again!

        • Chris,
          My friend, fishing guide Kevin Rowley, suggests Tarpon Belly Key on Cudjoe Channel (north of Cudjoe Key). The island is an abandoned shrimp farm and you can camp in the shade of pines.
          Per my charts, GPS coordinates for the channel: 24′ 43.83 North and 81′ 31.60 West. Tarpon Belly is on the east side of the channel.
          A nearby landmark, south of Tarpon Belly, is Fat Albert, a locally famous tethered USAF blimp that can be seen for miles.
          According to my fishing charts, Cudjoe Channel is ideal for dropping a line. I’d also venture out onto the flats and look for holes. The water is clear and shallow, so you’ll spot the holes.
          You will need a Florida fishing license, and it is enforced. Call 888-FISH-FLORIDA on your cell phone when you arrive and they will give you a license number over the phone so you can fish immediately.

          • You might consider hiring Kevin for a day or half-day of fishing in his flats boat. His phone number is 305-393-2618. Kevin grew up on Big Pine, has fished the area all his life and knows every inch of the back country. You can learn a lot from him.

  3. Idaho Mike says:

    Bob,

    Great article. Loved it. My wife and I recently relocated from Idaho to Naples, Florida for her new job. We are both avid outdoors folks (including back country camping) back in Idaho. We were a little worried about finding some “off the beaten path” camping and exploring, but lo and behold, we found 10,000 islands. What a wonderfully, beautiful area. We purchased a 15′ flats boat to explore is more fully and are ready to start camping. While we are both very experienced campers, I had a few questions about where the best place to go may be, and when is too late in the season for dealing with the bugs.

    Really like Panther Key. We have been there for lunch during the day, but would like to try it for our first overnight camp. Do you feel that mid-April is pushing it? Have you ever camped out there that late in the season? Also, any thoughts to alligators coming up on the beach? Is that something we need to be worried about? I told my wife that the water is too salty for them out that far. Any thoughts or advice?

    Lastly, out west in the back country, we have to prepare our camping sites for bear activity at night. ie – No food left out, coolers hung in the trees by rope, etc. Granted, I know there is no worry regarding bears, but maybe racoons?

    Thanks for your advice. We look forward to enjoying the refuge to its fullest!

    Very sincerely,

    ~Mike

    Any

    • Mike,
      For your first few outings, stick with Panther Key because you don’t need a backcountry permit like you do in the National Park. Once you are comfortable and explore other islands, you’ll get a better sense of where you want to go. Stick to the beach on the north side of Panther for protection against hard winds and volatile tides.
      There are mosquitoes year ’round, but they don’t really get nasty until June. They also lay down with onshore breezes. If it’s hot and muggy and still, or if the breeze is coming out of the islands, they get thicker.
      I wouldn’t worry about gators on Panther, but you do have raccoons. Backcountry precautions in Idaho work here, too. Be especially protective of your water (and ice!). These racoons have no fresh water, and they will tear a cooler apart to get it. Your best bet might be to anchor your boat offshore and bungee the coolers tight inside the boat. Leave enough slack in your anchor line for tides, but not enough to let the boat drift onto the beach in reach of the racoons.
      Have fun! :-)

  4. stan wolofsky says:

    has taken 2 days surfing through the web to find an article like yours .kayaked the everglades 2 years ago…last year kayaked from key largo to key west..am thinking of returning to 10000 islands in february 2012. am looking for campsites north of everglades national park..such as panther key are there other campsites you would recommend..or advice for camping in the area…many thanks stan toronto ontario

    • Bob Rountree says:

      Stan,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Yes, there are several islands north of the park boundary where you can camp. A friend of mine just came back from a kayak trip out there, and he camped on Gullivan Key, which is a mile or so north of Panther on the outside.
      Just before and offshore from Panther is a small island called Round Key that is popular on weekends. It’s very cool if you’re alone on Round Key, but there’s not much privacy if anybody else joins you.
      Closer to the park boundary, across West Pass from Tiger Key, is Camp Lulu Key. Camp Lulu is a frequent layover for Outward Bound. I’ve never camped there, but there’s a cove on the back side where larger boats can anchor.
      If you go in there with a kayak, you can land just about anywhere. If you have a larger boat, be extremely careful. I’ve torn up a few props on rocks in the shallow water all through that area.
      Basically, everything north of the park boundary is open for camping unless posted otherwise.
      I prefer Panther Key because it has nice beaches with deep water on the north and south sides, both sides suitable for camping. (Stay away from the point. Give it wide berth.)
      Before I launch from Everglades City, though, I routinely check with the ranger station to see if Tiger is available. I love that island best. :-)
      Hope that helps. Have a great time!

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  7. Hi Bob,

    Excellent post. I love your writing style. I am working on a new website gofishingnaples.com and have a Blog at http://www.bigsitesinc.com/gofishingnaples and would love to include this article on my Blog site. Even better would be to have YOU as a contributing author on the Blog. I have only a few articles on this because it is new and I am just getting it going. Let me know if I can either include this post, if you have more, or if you want to be an author.
    Thanks, Liz

  8. great guide for anyone looking to paddle that area

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