Morning paddle at Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park

There are literally hundreds of places to launch a kayak, a canoe or a paddle board in the Florida Keys, whether you intend to explore the ocean, the shallow waters of Florida Bay or the many hidden creeks and channels unique to these islands.

On many stretches of the Overseas Highway (US 1), you can just pull off to the side of the road.

There is no way we could cover them all, but we have selected a few prime launch areas that will meet or exceed your expectations.


Upper Keys

Card Sound Road Bridge — There is room on both sides of the bridge to pull over and launch your kayak for access to Card Sound, its creeks and backcountry bays. Another option is Alabama Jack’s, a funky restaurant and bar on the north side of the bridge, where you should first ask the dockmaster for permission to launch. Read more about Alabama Jack’s.

Florida Bay Outfitters (MM 104.5) — This Key Largo mainstay rents kayaks and offers backcountry paddle tours, ranging from three hours to three days. Launch your own boat or paddleboard here for a nominal fee, although the fee is often waived if you buy something in their well-stocked retail store.

Kayaking a mangrove tunnel off Key Largo.
Kayaking a mangrove tunnel off Key Largo.

We’ve rented kayaks here and have found the staff to be very friendly and extremely knowledgable. When wind and weather weren’t right for an outing we had long planned, the folks at Florida Bay Outfitters strongly discouraged us, putting safety before revenue. Staff never hyped or over-sold (“sure you can snorkel there, but you won’t see much,” we were told of our route.)

We kayaked the recommended half-day paddle from their dock along the shore of Blackwater Sound into  Dusenberry Creek and then branching off into lovely, serene mangrove tunnels. We were warned that Dusenbury Creek is power-boat-infested (and it was.) It’s a nice intro to Keys kayaking, though for us it was a long paddle along windy open waters to get to the good part. Next time I’d try their Garden Cove trip (on the Atlantic in an area north of John Pennekamp State Park.)

Trail for kayaks and canoes through mangroves at Pennekamp State Park
On the paddle trail at Pennekamp

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5) — Popularly known for snorkeling, this state park offers 2.5 miles of marked mangrove wilderness trails that you can explore. You can rent kayaks and canoes from the park’s harbor concession, or bring your own. Be warned: The waterways attract crowds of kayakers on sunny weekends. There are also 47 campsites with full hookups for RVs and tents, although I don’t recommend tent camping here, especially in summer. Read more about John Pennekamp State Park.

Harry Harris County Park — Keys kayak guide Capt. Bill Keogh recommends this hidden park in his Florida Keys Paddling Guide for exploring oceanside islands of Rodriguez Key, Tavernier Key and Dove Creek. There is a $5 entrance fee if you don’t live in Monroe County (it’s free if you do). Finding this park is half the challenge. Coming from Key Largo, turn left at the Circle K just past Mile Marker 94 and continue onto Burton Road. Follow the signs to the park.

Indian Key/Lignumvitae Key  On the bay side is Lignumvitae Key, home to a virgin tropical hardwood hammock, once common in the Keys. If you need to rent a kayak, try Robbie’s Marina. Read more.



Middle Keys

Long Key State Park Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are ideal for getting out into the deeper water to cool off. Bring a floating cooler and your snorkel gear, and you are set for the day to just hang out. I’ve even seen folks setting up umbrellas in the flats to keep the sun off.  The ocean is fair game for paddling in any direction, around the island to the bay side or through a chain of interior ponds, mangrove flats and lagoons. Kayak and canoe rentals are available at the park rangers’ office for paddling the interior ponds.

Be especially wary of thunderstorms when paddling the Florida Keys in summer, lest you get fried to a crisp by lighting.

Kayak trail at Curry Hammock State Park
Kayak trail at Curry Hammock

Curry Hammock State Park Typical of Keys beaches, the ocean off Curry Hammock is shallow, the surf modest and the currents are weak. Kayaks and canoes can be launched from the day-use area or the campground. The day-use area has a concession that rents kayaks: $17.20 for a single for two hours and $21.50 for a tandem. Stand up paddle boards are $21.50 for two hours. A ranger-led kayak tour is offered Wednesday mornings (call ahead). Go on your own and paddle out to sea and still find yourself in shallow water, or paddle the mangrove trail and visit nearby islands. Here’s a related story: Curry Hammock State Park.

Sombrero Beach — At MM 50, go south at the traffic light onto Sombrero Beach Road (between the Publix and Kmart) to the end (about two miles). From here, you can paddle out to a sandbar in the ocean, or back into Sister Creek to explore backcountry trails that snake into largely uninhabited Boot Key. Or paddle into busy Boot Key Harbor, a sheltered cove speckled with sailboat moorings. (Yes, people live on those sailboats.) Sombrero is in the heart of Marathon, so you’ll find plenty to see and do along the harbor waterfront.


Lower Keys

Spanish Harbor Boat Ramp — This wayside park is a popular launch site for small and medium-size boats and is often busy. It’s just over the bridge, past Bahia Honda State Park, which also has some excellent launch points and a campground. This island mostly consists of Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps. Otherwise, it’s quite barren. You have access to both the ocean and bayside, which will take you back towards No Name Key and some of the backcountry around Big Pine. Mile Marker 34.

Boat launch at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.
Boat launch at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.

Summerland Key — Just past The Wharf Bar & Grill, make your first right onto Horace Street, a second right onto Northside, then left onto Niles Road all the way to the end. This small, isolated beach is ideal for paddling. The water in the surrounding bay is 2 to 3 feet, peppered with islands, bays and lagoons. Locals tell me you might discover some old fishing huts out there, and there are plenty of fish. Look for holes in the shallow bed.

Geiger Key – At the Circle K (Mile Marker 10), turn onto Boca Chica Road (oceanside) and go about 1.3 miles until you see a sign for the Geiger Key Marina. The launch is just past the marina, surrounded by a chain-link fence, and offers access to Saddlebunch Harbor and the ocean. There’s a really cool little tiki bar at the marina and a small RV park. Next to the tiki bar is a narrow kayak launch, but ask permission before you use it. If you continue along Boca Chica Road, past the turnoff for the Geiger Key Marina, you’ll find yourself riding parallel to the beach. There are several launch spots here for ocean kayaking behind the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key.

And there’s more!

A more comprehensive guide to kayaking in the Keys can be found in Florida Keys Paddling Guide: From Key Largo to Key West, which lists 70 tested launch sites by renowned Keys guide and naturalist Captain Bill Keogh. (Keogh was a source for some of the launch points in this article.)

Another good option is the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas by Bill and Mary Burnham.

Related articles:

Off to the Keys: Best Road Food on the Overseas Highway

Ultimate Road Trip: Florida Keys Mile-Marker Guide


Bicycling the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail

View our Florida Keys index page for more things to do in the Keys