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Beach camping in the wild Ten Thousand Islands

Campsite on Panther Key
Our campsite on Panther Key

Beach camping in the Ten Thousand Islands is one of my favorite Florida getaways.

But it’s not an easy adventure and requires significant preparation.

It is very easy to get lost in the confusing landscape, so stay in marked waterways, tidal changes are fast and confusing, and the weather is unpredictable. 

I have memories of traversing Chokoloskee Bay in howling winds and white-cap surf, one time so severe Everglades National Park rangers, watching us from the safety of their observation tower, wondered if we would make it.

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

Before you go:

  • Check tide tables for Everglades City. You want to leave at the top of the outgoing tide (high tide) and return on the rising tide (low tide). 
  • Know the weather forecast, surf and wind speed. High winds mean rough seas on the outside edge of the islands.
  • Understand you will be entering a wilderness. This is not a casual paddle.

Perfect Weather for Beach Camping

Warren Richey paddles in the gulf off Picnic Key
Warren Richey paddles in the gulf off Picnic Key

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 with two kayaks on board. 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 for a backcountry camping permit because our destination is Panther Key in the desolate Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is north of the national park boundary.

I launched my motorboat across the street at Glades Haven Marina (launch fee) and parked my truck and trailer at the ranger station in the grassy field set aside for kayakers. 

We left a float plan with park 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 to Chokoloskee Bay is narrow and shallow, even at high tide, and unmarked.

Once in the bay, closely follow channel markers to the Barron River. The bay is extremely shallow, barely navigable for kayaks at low tide.  

Time your departure to the outgoing tide

Paddling out Indian Key Pass
Paddling with dolphin through Indian Key Pass

Timing is everything for paddlers.  Check the tides before you go.  You should plan to leave Everglades City at high tide or shortly after 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 unpredictable tidal currents that go every which way. Blindly following currents is how people get lost, so carry a GPS. 

Kathy and Warren had a ball riding the outgoing tide, staying outside of the channel, which can get busy on weekends with tour boats, fishers 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 Indian Key on the Gulf.

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

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.

Navigating to Panther Key from the outside offered a few surprises, largely due to the changed landscape caused by recent hurricanes.

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, my all-time favorite because you camp on a crescent-shape beach on the leeward side of the island.

Both Picnic and Tiger require a backcountry camping permit, which can be obtained at the
Everglades National Park Visitor Center, and there are a limited number of campsites.  Backcountry permits are issued up to 24 hours in advance, so you may want to get there a day before departure and sign up.

Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Refuge

Exploring Panther Key
Looking for a campsite on Panther Key

Once past Tiger Key, you are leaving Everglades National Park and entering the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which does not require back-country permits for camping. 

Camp Lulu and Panther Key are wide open for camping, and there are no fees.  We considered Lulu, which is just past 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, from batterings by hurricanes.

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 north 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.

Alternate 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 outpost on the south side of Marco Island with a modern Calusa Island Marina, which has a very good boat ramp. A well-marked channel through Coon Key Pass takes you out to the Gulf.  Follow the islands south to Panther Key.

Beach Camping on Panther Key

The beach at Panther Key
The beach at Panther Key where we camped

We pitched camp on the north side of Panther for shelter 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.

Overnight camping on the beaches of Panther Key, Coon Key, and Round Key is prohibited May through September because of nesting sea turtles and shorebirds. You wouldn’t like the mosquitoes in those months, anyway.

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 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 sealed and did not give off any odors.

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

Warren stokes the campfire on the beach at Panther Key.
Warren stokes the campfire on the beach at Panther Key.

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

Once we set up camp, Kathy, a diehard beachcomber, 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. (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 an alternative route from Port of the Islands.

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

Warren Richey with his jungle hammock
Warren Richey with his jungle hammock

Camping Gear Checklist

  • 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

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.

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 for the five miles to Chokoluskee Bay.

Chokoloskee Bay was like glass, so the crossing was beautiful for the kayakers. It’s not always that way, as we have learned over many years, and paddlers should always 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 it 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.

Tiger Key — Everglades National Park

Camping on Tiger Key in the Ten Thousand Islands
Tiger Key

Tiger Key, the northernmost Gulf island within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, is probably my all-time favorite destination for camping in the Ten Thousand Islands. We’ve camped out there perhaps a half-dozen times.

The campsites are on the lee side of the island on a crescent beach just off West Pass. Lulu Key, the “party island,” is on the other side of the pass, just outside Everglades National Park but within the boundary of the wildlife refuge.

There’s a long sandbar that emerges from the pass at low tide where you can fish or just hang out in a beach chair. An absolutely gorgeous setting.

When tides are high, fishing boats ply the waters of the pass, stopping first in the cove off our crescent beach to net bait, then deeper into the islands to fish. Red fish, snook and sea bass are abundant in these waters.

With a kayak, you can explore shallower waters nearby where the redfish and shore birds feed on and around the oyster beds. The mangrove islands are also breeding grounds for shrimp, a variety of gamefish and stone crabs.

Late one night, a loud diesel-powered trawler entered the West Pass around 2 a.m. We didn’t think much of it until the next morning when a marine patrol boat pulled up to our beach. The rangers asked if we heard any boats passing through under the cover of darkness.

Well, yeah!

The Ten Thousand Islands are notorious for illegal fishing and smugglers. That night around the campfire, our group of eight had great fun concocting stories about the identity of the invaders.

South of Tiger Key is Picnic Key, which has a vault toilet accessible to campers on both islands. 

The Picnic Key beach campsites are on the windward side, facing the Gulf, offering no shelter when pop-up storms blow ashore — and blow ashore they do!


We’ve lost a few tents in those storms.

Backcountry Permits Required for camping on Tiger Key, Picnic Key

beach camping ten thousand islands tiger key map Beach camping in the wild Ten Thousand Islands
National Park Service map. Tiger, Picnic keys at upper left.

Camping on either Tiger Key or Picnic Key require backcountry camping permits, which you obtain before setting out from a self-service kiosk at the national park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. 

There are no reservations, but you can secure a permit 24 hours in advance for the island where you want to camp. A permit processing fee of $15 will be charged as well as a $2 per person per day camping fee. Fees are waived mid-April through mid-November, but permits are still required. (You really don’t want to camp out there in summer.)

If you plan to camp over a weekend during winter, it would be a good idea to obtain your permit a day earlier than your departure. Both Tiger Key and Picnic Key limit the number of campers. Maximum stay is 14 days.

Ten Thousand Islands Kayak Rentals

Everglades Adventures Kayak and Eco Tours. Rentals are available November-April only. Ivey House, 605 Buckner Ave North, Everglades City, FL 34139. Phone: (239) 695-4666

Glades Haven Marina, across from Everglades National Park Gulf Visitor Center, 801 S Copeland Ave, Everglades City, FL 34139. Phone: (239) 293-7743

Chokoloskee Island Park and Marina. 1150 Hamilton Lane, Chokoloskee, FL 34138. Phone: (239) 695-2414

Triad Seafood Cafe

Stone crabs in Everglades City
Stone crabs at Triad Seafood in Everglades City

There are many cool places to eat in Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island, but our favorite is the The Triad Seafood Café 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, local jumbo shrimp, fried oysters and clams.

I’m usually wary of ordering grouper because of substitution scandals, but this grouper was the real deal.

Triad had a full range of appetizers and chowders.

The Ten Thousand Islands are known for fresh stone crabs, and the restaurant featured an all-you-can-eat stone-crab special, or you can spend less for smaller portions.

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