Vast and remote, the Ten Thousand Islands off Florida’s southwest coast seems challenging to visit, a labyrinth of twisting channels through thousands of remote mangrove islands.
But even the casual visitor can get a taste of this scenic maze.
THE EASIEST WAY to see the Ten Thousand Islands is a narrated boat tour based at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center of Everglades National Park in Everglades City. The 90-minute tour is $31.80 for adults. Children 5 to 12 are $15.90.
You’ll learn about the islands’ unique environment and will often see dolphins play in the tour boat’s wake. You will undoubtedly see a variety of bird species, including soaring bald eagles, hawks, nesting osprey and colorful roseate spoonbills.
Boat tour details at www.evergladesnationalparkboattoursgulfcoast.com/
TAKE AN EASY KAYAK OR CANOE PADDLE to Sandfly Island. The Sandfly Loop kayak trail is about five miles, out and back from the Visitor Center, a 2-3 hour paddle. Add an hour to explore Sandfly, where you can dock, use the portable toilet, picnic and walk a mile-long trail past vestiges of pioneer homes. Extend your paddle by exploring nearby passes, bays and islands, but keep your bearings. The portable toilet on the dock at Sandfly is an excellent landmark and visible from the trail. Park service brochure w/map: www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/upload/Sandfly.pdf
Detailed Florida Rambler article: Sandfly Island is perfect ‘intro’ kayak trail
RIDE THE TIDE TO INDIAN KEY. Slightly more advanced, this 15-mile out-and-back paddle takes you out to the Gulf of Mexico through the main channel (Barron River/Indian Key Pass) out of Everglades City, the same channel the park service tour boat follows. Best time to start your journey is a few hours after the high tide at Everglades City and ride the tide all the way to Indian Key, where the channel empties into the Gulf. Take a swim and have a picnic until the tide turns, then ride it back. If you don’t time this trip with the tides, you will struggle against strong currents. (Do not confuse this Indian Key with Indian Key in the Florida Keys).
Detailed Florida Rambler article: Ride the Tide through Indian Key Pass
PLAN AN OVERNIGHT KAYAK TRIP to an outer island for a brilliant night sky from your own private beach. We like Tiger Key and Picnic Key, just north of Indian Key Pass, the main channel out of Everglades City. Picnic Key’s beach sites are on the windward side of the island with little protection from sudden storms, while Tiger Key has a sheltered crescent-shaped beach on the leeward side facing West Pass. Sites on both islands are limited and must be reserved at the Visitor Center no more than 24 hours in advance. (Weekdays are best). It’s a nine-mile paddle, about four hours, each way. You can avoid the camping limits by paddling a little further north to Panther Key, which is outside Everglades National Park in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Detailed Florida Rambler article: Beach camping in the wild Ten Thousand Islands
WILDERNESS WATERWAY. The 99-mile Wilderness Waterway is the premier Ten Thousand Island adventure, a week-long paddle from Everglades City to Cape Sable and Flamingo (or vice versa). You will spend your nights on raised platforms (chickees), hard ground islands and beaches. Not for amateurs or the feint of heart, this journey will test your skills. Motorboats are allowed in these waters, but all watercraft, motor or paddle, must carefully navigate through varying depths, some too shallow at low tide and some even shallow at high tide. Select your gear carefully, but bring a tarp or pop-up tent, and understand that you will probably be sharing a cozy chickee platform with strangers on more than one overnighter. Don’t even think about taking this trip without up-to-date NOAA navigation charts and studying the park service’s Wilderness Trip Planner.
It’s easy to get lost in these islands, so closely watch your channel markers (bring charts), and make note of landmarks, understanding that all of these islands look the same after awhile. You will deja vu over and over again. I’ve found that a handheld GPS that tracks your path can be very handy if you need to backtrack to a known location.
Be sure to use tide tables to plan any paddle trip in these islands. The currents can be tough to navigate against the tide. Ideally, you should paddle out on the falling tide and return on a rising tide, using the tide tables for the Barron River at Everglades City as your point of reference.
You can rent single or double kayaks or canoes from the concession at the visitor center.
Gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands
Explore historic Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island by car, bicycle or on foot. These neighboring outposts in the Ten Thousand Island are off the Tamiami Trail (US 41) and have a legendary past as fishing village, smuggler’s haven and hideout to more than a few notorious characters.
Today, there is far more fishing than smuggling (or so we are led to believe), with several unpretentious seafood restaurants that feature the local catch, most notably the delectable stone crab in season. Consider Triad Seafood, 401 School Drive West, or City Seafood, 702 Begonia St.
Visit iconic buildings from the 1920s: Old Collier County Courthouse, Bank of Everglades Building and the legendary Rod and Gun Club, which has hosted Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon, as well as Ernest Hemingway.
On Chokoloskee Island, visit historic Smallwood Store, which opened in 1906 when this was the Wild West and Ted Smallwood was a pioneer. The former Indian trading post on stilts overlooking Chokoluskee Bay served a small community of hardy and often ornery individualists. Today, the store is a museum, still owned by descendants of the founder. Admission is $5.
Other ports of entry to the Ten Thousand Islands
Collier-Seminole State Park — This state park is a jewel with an excellent boat launch area for kayaks and canoes, as well as motorboats (up to 24 feet) with access to the Blackwater River, which dumps into Blackwater Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands. There is also a paddle trail that branches off the Blackwater into the depths of the park. As this writing (January 2016), the campground is closed for reservations. For updates, check the state park web site.
Goodland (Marco Island) — Just off the southeast access bridge on Marco Island (State Road 92), Goodland is a rustic little fishing village with a couple of interesting restaurants and quite a few characters. A modern marina with boat ramp, as well as several access points for canoes and kayaks, make Goodland a good alternative to access the northern tier of the Ten Thousand Islands.
Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center, 815 Oyster Bar Lane. Everglades City, Florida 34139; To talk to a ranger, call 239-695-3311. Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Mid-November through Mid-April); 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Mid-April until Mid-November) Approximate GPS coordinates: 25°50’49.03″ N 81°23’06.85″ W