We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Mound Key, just south of Fort Myers Beach, looks like all the other small uninhabited mangrove islands that dot Estero Bay.

But this isolated state park and kayak destination  is truly special; indeed it is one of a kind.

The 125-acre island was once the center of a civilization, the thriving Calusa Indian kingdom that existed when Europeans made first contact in the 1500s.

Not only was it the capital of the Calusa people and home to its chief, this place was so important that Ponce de Leon visited and the Jesuits built their first mission in the new world here.

Mound Key Archaeological State Park kayak landing
Kayak and canoe landing on south end of Mound Key. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Mound Key Archaeological State Park: The view
From the highest midden, you can see a tiny slice of Estero Bay and its islands in the distance.
Calusa Blueway marker
Calusa Blueway marker at Mound Key Archaeological State Park
Mound Key Archaeological State Park goats
As we hiked through the uninhabited island, improbably, there were goats.
Mound Key Archaeological State Park sign
Northern entrance has a sign-in log for visitors.

Today, the only signs of the Calusa era are the 30-foot-high mounds of shells and fish bones that make this island unusually hilly. Any treasures have been looted and even signs of the subsequent settlers are lost in the jungle.

There are no park rangers, no water, no restrooms — just a single trail across the island and some fascinating signage explaining the island’s amazing history. (Oh, and a few goats — more on that later.)

Kayaking to Mound Key

The kayak trip to Mound Key is about a 5-mile round trip from Lovers Key State Park, with a half-mile open-water crossing.

It’s a beautiful paddle, with broad views of water and mangrove islands and lots of wildlife.

On our April trip, we were lucky enough to see dolphins on three different occasions, including quite close to our kayak, a dozing manatee that we floated over and startled, a stingray, dozens of jumping mullet and scads of birds including osprey, egrets, heron, anhinga and pelicans that entertain with their aeronautical prowess.

We rented a kayak from the Lovers Key State Park concession. We opted for a half-day rental and we needed exactly that. It took us only one hour to reach the island  outbound when there was no wind. We swam a bit to cool down, had a picnic and a hike on the island, and paddled back against a strong breeze. Our return trip was about 90 minutes.

You also can kayak to Mound Key from the east, from Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, kayaking a little more than two hours down the Estero River. While it’s a mildly scenic paddle in one direction, it’s a long kayak back, accompanied by a steady stream of speed boats, and I prefer the trip from Lovers Key State Park.

Gopher tortoise on trail at Mound Key State Park.
Gopher tortoise on trail at Mound Key State Archaeological Park.

Both routes are part of the Calusa Blueway, whose trail maps are free and easy to order here.

Mound Key today

Today Mound Key is thick with native trees and plants, with two small beaches for kayak landings and a single half-mile trail weaving over its surprisingly tall mounds. There is an ancient cistern. And about a dozen goats in residence. Yes, goats.

A little Internet research on our return provided the explanation. After the Calusas, the Spanish and the inevitable pirates of Old Florida, Mound Key became a community of pioneers. Eventually, the state acquired all the land on the island except for a final tract owned by the McGhee family of Fort Myers. The McGhees want $15 million for it, according to the Naples News. The state has offered $500,000.

Perhaps as a way of occupying their property, the McGhees’ land is now home to a dozen healthy looking goats. (I must say: Stumbling upon a goat farm in the middle of an uninhabited tropical island is the kind of experience that keeps me exploring Florida.)

The property owners also built a dock on the west end of the island that is marked as private property.

On our most recent visit, we were alone on the island, and it felt like our personal kingdom. We didn’t see goats this time, but did see their enclosure. We hiked the single trail from one end of Mound Key to the other, marveling at the novel Florida experience of hiking up and down actual hills. (Because of the hill, you’ll want more than flip flops.)

Midway on the trail, Mound Key has several interesting sign/exhibits explaining a bit about the Calusa civilization. I’d recommend reading up on the place before visiting, though, to appreciate what a historic site this is.

Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, a nearby site also critical in Calusa history, has an excellent small museum about the Calusa that I recommend for those who want to learn more.

Mound House also runs regular boat trips to Mound Key for those who want to visit but don’t want to kayak.

Kayaking to Mound Key State Archaeological Park.
Kayaking to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

More about visiting Mound Key:

Here’s an interesting 90-second video overview:

More things to do in Fort Myers Beach area:

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