Indian Key is a fascinating Keys kayak trip with good snorkeling from shore

Indian Key Historic State Park is a historic island off Islamorada. (Photo: David Blasco)
Indian Key Historic State Park is a ghost town on an island off Islamorada. (Photo: David Blasco)

My favorite kayak trail in the Florida Keys is a short paddle across shallow open water to one of those small green islands you see off the Overseas Highway.

This isn’t just any island, though. It’s Indian Key, a historic ghost town which was, improbably, the county seat of Miami Dade County in 1836. It’s an uninhabited, undeveloped island where you still walk the roads of the original village, past the ruins of historic building foundations.

It’s sparsely visited, perfectly quiet and seems utterly timeless.

I’ve kayaked to Indian Key a number of times, but returned recently to update my Florida Rambler story and to try out a new detailed walking tour you can download onto your phone.

As in the past, I fell under the spell of Indian Key as soon our kayak approached its rocky, mangrove-lined shore.

Indian Key as it looks from the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Indian Key as it looks from the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. It makes a great kayak destination. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It only takes 30 to 45 minutes to kayak to Indian Key Historic State Park, located off shore in Islamorada. You can launch your kayak off the ocean side of the park area along the Overseas Highway between Mile Markers 77 and 79. If you want to rent kayaks, you start at Robbie’s Marina and its tarpon, a favorite Florida Keys stop. At Robbie’s Marina, The Kayak Shack will set you up and provide good advice on weather and tidal conditions.

Because of its rich history, the island is preserved forever as a state park. In 1836, Indian Key was the county seat for all Dade County. Like Key West, it was home to a community of wreckers — folks who salvaged goods off the many ships that ran afoul of the nearby reefs. It had two-story houses, a hotel where John Audubon stayed, a post office, stores and warehouses. Its founders established it to compete with Key West and for a while, Indian Key thrived and its residents got rich.

The paths at Indian Key follow the roadways of the 1830s town. (Photo: David Blasco)
The paths at Indian Key follow the roadways of the 1830s town. (Photo: David Blasco)

But simmering tensions with the Seminole Indians came to head on Aug. 7, 1840, when the Seminoles attacked. About 50 to 70 residents escaped, 13 were killed, including a well-known local, Henry Perrine, a medical doctor and botanist. The town never recovered. It had a brief second act as the site of a hospital for yellow fever victims and there were some residents in the late 1800s. But as a town, it was abandoned before the 20th century started.

What you’ll find on the Florida Keys island now is an evocative scene — ruins overgrown with jungle-like vegetation, streets signs marking paths that follow the grid of original streets and foundations of cisterns and buildings.

As you meander, informative signage offers details about the Indian Key community. There’s an observation tower with a view of the island and surrounding waters.


Indian Key State Park is the site of ruins overgrown with jungle-like vegetation. (Photo: David Blasco)
Indian Key State Park is the site of ruins overgrown with jungle-like vegetation. (Photo: David Blasco)

 

Florida history at Indian Key State Park
Overgrown ruins dot the Indian Key island park.

If you’re into history, I highly recommend you download to your phone the free detailed walking tour of Indian Key from the Florida Stories app produced by the Florida Humanities Council. More about these audio guides can be found here.

Some will find it a little too detailed – it offers lots of name and dates – but I learned so much.

For example, nowhere on the island’s signs do you learn that much of Indian Key was built by enslaved people. The 1838 census says it was home to “98 whites, 29 slaves and 14 free coloreds.”

On the audio tour, I learned that despite is remote pioneer-town status, Indian Key’s residents were well-dressed and socially active, holding “balls” about which visitors wrote home. And I was surprised to learn that Indian Key once had 3 feet of topsoil that has since been washed away.

When you’ve completed your tour of the island, it’s time to see what’s underwater.

Snorkeling at Indian Key State Park is excellent. (Photo: David Blasco)
Snorkeling at Indian Key State Park is excellent. (Photo: David Blasco)

Snorkeling at Indian Key State Park

Like the rest of the Keys, Indian Key is the remains of an ancient coral reef and its shoreline is made up of prickly, sharp-edged reef rocks. This makes for good snorkeling, but you need to be careful where you walk and it is difficult to find an easy place to get in the water. You definitely need to wear water shoes so you can scramble over the sharp rocks, and diver’s gloves might be handy for steadying yourself on the rocks.

The best snorkeling is on the ocean side of the island facing the Alligator Reef Lighthouse in the distance. We saw a variety of sea life, including schools of small fish and a few larger ones. As elsewhere, you’ll find the water clearer at high tide.

We chatted with other snorkelers , who said they saw more sea life here than in their other shore dives in the Keys.

The kayak dock.
It’s an easy paddle to Indian Key State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking to Indian Key State Park

The paddle over to Indian Key was a delight for us, as three dolphins swam ahead of us, surfacing repeatedly. Other kayakers have reported seeing manatees, sharks, rays and sea stars in the water in the seagrass flats, but we had never seen wildlife before.

It’s a safe and easy paddle. Once you leave the boating channel at the bridge, it’s too shallow for power boats.
As you approach the island, you’ll see the boat dock on your right. The dock was always too high for kayak use and now it’s closed because it was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017.


It’s easy to find the kayak landing; a small sign in shallow water marks it (before you reach the large dock.)

Be sure to bring water. There is none on the island. (With no fresh water on the island, it’s also a bug-free location.) There are also no restroom facilities.

We love kayaking out of Robbie’s Marina, where huge tarpon have come for handouts for 30 years. One of the delights of paddling here is the ability to paddle over and among those tarpons.

When you get back, Robbie’s has a good restaurant, the Hungry Tarpon, overlooking the water. (On a Christmas vacation in Florida a few years ago, Martha Stewart said she loved the fish tacos at Hungry Tarpon, where she said she ate twice.)

On this trip, we discovered the excellent key-lime-pie ice cream at Charli’s Shave Ice at Robbies. We recommend it!

Robbie's Marina from the water.
Robbie’s Marina is a fun place to depart and return from. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Indian Key Historic State Park

Kayaking to Indian Key off Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

 

Things to do in the Lower and Middle Keys:

This model of how Indian Key appeared in its heyday is at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
This model of how Indian Key appeared in its heyday is at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:

 

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