If you’re interested in back-country kayaking or canoeing in Everglades National Park, there are only a dozen or so marked trails. (Pretty surprising, given the Everglades are the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi.)
There’s no “best” trail: It will depend on your own experience – the weather that day, the wildlife you see.
I recently paddled the Coot Bay and Mud Lake trail on a crisp sunny January day, and I recommend it –with a few minor reservations.
The good: Our paddle on the Coot Bay/Mud Lake trail offered around two hours of gorgeous scenery through magical mangrove tunnels opening into broad wild vistas of water and trees.
The bad: It also required about two hours of hard paddling against the wind through large lakes where the view didn’t change and the birds didn’t linger.
You launch at a small opening in the mangroves along the main road a few miles short of Flamingo; it’s well marked with a sign for Coot Bay Pond and there are a few picnic tables. (Coot Bay Pond is a short distance beyond Mrazek Pond.)
You should start out equipped with Everglades National Park’s map of Flamingo canoe trails and water, lunch or snack. Stop at a restroom before you set out – there will be no solid ground allowing you to leave your canoe or kayak at any point and there is no restroom at Coot Bay Pond.
You can make your kayak or canoe trip an in-and-back or you can do it as a seven-mile loop through Coot Bay, Mud Lake, into Bear Lake and back through the Buttonwood Canal.
We took the in-and-back option because stiff wind made paddling Coot Bay and even smaller Mud Lake a challenge. Also: the Buttonwood Canal, your possible return route, is a straight canal frequented by power boaters and not my idea of the most appealing paddle.
The best parts of the Mud Lake/Coot Bay trail are the mangrove tunnels, with the light filtering through the latticework of branches and roots. We loved pretty little Coot Bay Pond, which actually was filled with coots when we visited. And Mud Lake, whose round mangrove islands are like green polka dots, had beautiful solitude and entertaining bird activity — a number of tricolor herons whose nasal call sounds like they are complaining about being disturbed.
Coot Bay, on the other hand, was quite windy. While we hugged its southern shoreline, this very large body of water was tough going.
As you enter and exit these lakes, take extra care to note your surroundings. There are markers at each point, but the little openings in the mangroves can be hard to spot on your return. (Actually, that navigational challenge was part of the fun of the trip.)
When we got hungry, we paddled over to a “beach” on Mud Lake and discovered all land was the consistency of chocolate pudding. So, as we did on another Everglades trail, Nine Mile Pond, we enjoyed a sunny picnic right in our canoe.
We spent about four hours paddling the Coot Bay/Mud Lake canoe and kayak trail. It wasn’t strenuous (except when paddling against the wind) and we’d give the scenery a B+.
If you bring your own kayak or canoe, you’re set. The open-water paddling on Coot Bay might be tough in a sit-on-top kayak that doesn’t track well. Long double kayaks might be challenged in the mangrove tunnels. This is actually a paddle trail where a canoe might be your best bet.
We didn’t bring our canoe, so we rented one from Tours In The Glades, which operates out of the Everglades International Hostel in Florida City. It’s a great deal: For $30, they’ll give you the gear to strap a canoe to your roof and you can use it all day with no set return time. You do have to be able to lift their 83-pound canoes onto your roof. I don’t have great upper-arm strength, but we did manage.
The folks at Tours in the Glades were very helpful in explaining the various trail options, helping load the canoe and generally offering expert advice. They also offer guided trips.
More about visiting Everglades National Park:
- Be aware: Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is now $25 per car, with a pass good for seven days. (As soon as you turn 62, get a senior pass. For $10, it offers lifetime admission. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks.)
- Another great Everglades paddle trail: Nine Mile Pond
- Insider tips from Florida Rambler
- Gulf Coast Everglades National Park canoe and kayak trails
- Campgrounds in the Everglades
- The Everglades National Park website
- Everglades National Park map
- Shark Valley entrance, with its 15 mile trail and trams ride
- Robert is Here, the funky fruit stand near the Homestead entrance.
- Knauss Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, in Homestead.
Places to stay near Everglades National Park
Homestead offers the usual array of moderately priced motels. While I haven’t stayed here, I know people who give high marks to the Everglades Hostel in Florida City. The hostel rents bikes, canoes, kayaks and arranges outings.
On this outing, we stayed at Hotel Redland in downtown Homestead. A local businessman bought it and has turned the 1904 hotel into a bed and breakfast with a good home-cooking restaurant in it. It’s a friendly place. There are a few rough edges, but it is clean, quiet and full of local character.