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12 awesome outings for kayaking in the Florida Keys

Last updated on April 14th, 2022 at 03:29 pm

One of the most peaceful ways to spend any day is kayaking in the Florida Keys.

Paddle the shallows, eyes following ripples of sting rays gliding below and broad-winged osprey gliding above still waters, a tailing bonefish lightly cutting a trail into the turquoise blue junction of sea and sky.

kayaking the Florida Keys at Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park: One of our favorite places for kayaking in the Florida Keys.

It doesn’t get much better than this.


Kayaking the Upper Keys

Kayaking the Florida Keys through a mangrove tunnel off Key Largo.
Kayaking the Florida Keys through a mangrove tunnel off Key Largo.

Blackwater Sound (MM 104.5)

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

We’ve rented kayaks here and found the staff to be friendly and knowledgable. When wind and weather weren’t right for a long-planned outing, the folks at Florida Bay Outfitters discouraged us, putting safety before revenue. Staff never hyped or over-sold. (“Sure you can snorkel there, but you won’t see much.”)

We kayaked their 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. A second good trip in this area launches from Garden Cove Road on the oceanside. Florida Bay Outfitters runs kayaking trips here, or launch your own kayak. Here are details in our Garden Cove trip report.

Another well-regarded outfitter, Paddle the Florida Keys, which operates on Tavernier Creek between Key Largo and Islamorada, suggests these six different kayak routes and offers rentals and tours.

Kayaking florida keys Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Florida Keys kayak landing

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 park’s waterways attract crowds of kayakers on sunny weekends, not to mention motorboats and jet skis. The park has 47 campsites with full hookups for RVs and tents, although I don’t recommend tent camping here in summer, when it gets very hot and very buggy. Read more about John Pennekamp State Park.

Harry Harris County Park (MM 94)

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 (MM 77)

On the ocean side at MM 77, Indian Key Historic State Park is one of our favorite destinations for kayaking the Florida Keys. Indian Key is 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. You can rent a kayak at Robbie’s Marina or launch from the Indian Key fill island park. Read more in our Indian Key trip report..


Be wary of thunderstorm activity and dangerous lightning when kayaking the Florida Keys in summer.


Kayaking the Middle Keys

Long Key State Park (MM 67)

Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards will get you out into deeper water to cool off on a hot summer day. Bring a floating cooler and your snorkel gear, and you are set for the day to just hang out. It’s a ritual here for folks to anchor umbrellas in these flats to keep the sun off their floating parties. Using your kayak as a base, paddle in any direction, panning the shallow bottom for wildlife, and 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. Fly fishers patiently work these flats in early morning and late evening.

Kayak trail at Curry Hammock State Park
Florida Keys kayak trail at Curry Hammock

Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56)

At first glance, the kayak trail at Curry Hammock State Park may seem ordinary. But we think it’s ideal for many Keys visitors. It is an especially good place to rent a paddleboard because with the shallow clear water, you’ll have the best vantage point to appreciate the sea life underwater. There are two loops to the kayak trail, a 1.2 mile loop through the mangroves and a 1.3-mile loop from there around Deer Key.

Florida snowflakes? They’re upside down jelly fish and you can see thousands of them in the clear shallow water on the Curry Hammock kayak trail. (Photo: David Blasco)
Florida snowflakes? They’re upside down jelly fish and you can see thousands of them in the clear shallow water on the Curry Hammock kayak trail. (Photo: David Blasco)

The mangrove trail starts in a lagoon where manatees are sometimes spotted and then passes through a pretty, well-groomed tunnel of mangroves and under a bridge. When it emerges from the bridge, the waterway widens. Here the water is shallow and sparkling clear, perfect for admiring thousands of upside down jelly fish! These jelly fish (Cassiopeia) look like they could be dubbed Florida snowflakes. They carpet the shallow waters in a great variety of sizes and shades of color. If it’s calm, you can paddle out to the sandbar (about a quarter mile.) The sandbar is marked on the Curry Hammock State Park kayaking map available at the ranger station.Here’s more about Curry Hammock State Park.

Kayaks and SUPs can be rented at the ranger station. A ranger-led kayak tour is offered Wednesday mornings (call ahead).

Sombrero Beach (MM 50)

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.


Kayaking the Lower Keys

Spanish Harbor Boat Ramp (MM 34)

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.

Old Wooden Bridge & No Name Key (MM 30)

The Old Wooden Bridge Marina, home to Keys kayak guru Bill Keough, got whacked good by 2017’s Hurricane Irma, but the marina is back and ready for visitors. The cabins are gone, but you can stay in a houseboat and use the marina as a base for paddling around No Name Key and the uninhabited islands off Big Pine Key. Of course, the real reason to paddle here is to fish and observe the abundant wildlife above and below the surface of these calm waters.

Boat launch at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.
Floirda Keys kayaking: Boat launch at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Summerland Key (MM 25)

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 kayaking. 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 dips in the shallow bed where the bigger fish may be holed up. Best when the tide is on the high side. Otherwise, you could find yourself out of water. Yes, it’s that shallow.

Perky Creek (MM 21)

Your base is the Sugarloaf Marina, where you can rent your kayaks and get lots of advice, which you’ll need when the tidal currents run strong. Nothing serious for experienced kayakers but worthy of caution. You can launch your own kayaks here for a small fee, then paddle across Sugarloaf Sound to the entrance to Perky Creek, a little more difficult to find after Perky’s Bat Tower was toppled by Hurricane Irma. From open water to sheltered mangrove tunnels, the diversity of this environment offers a true taste of the Keys backcountry.

Geiger Key (MM 10)

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.


Buy one of these guides to kayaking the Florida Keys

We use these two authoritative Florida Keys kayaking guidebooks to explore new launch points, and we recommend either or both for frequent paddlers in the Keys.

  • Florida Keys Paddling Guide: From Key Largo to Key West by Capt. Bill Keogh. Owner of the Wooden Bridge Marina, Bill is considered the ultimate guide to kayaking in the Keys. A naturalist, he explains Keys critters and their unique environment, what you’ll see and where you’ll see it.
  • Kayaking the Keys by Kathleen Payton. Kathleen offers a detailed guide to 50 kayak trips you can experience in the Florida Keys. Along the way, she offers a few wild tales to pique your interest.



 

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Kris R

Thursday 14th of October 2021

I recently saw a TV special (pbs?) where there are abandoned fishing shacks all over the waterways in the keys. I want to do a kayaking trip and want to find where some of these are located. i've tried google but i keep getting nothing. Do you know what these stilted shacks are called? How can I find where they're located? Thanks!!!

Bonnie Gross

Thursday 14th of October 2021

I believe there used to be a few fishing shacks built over water in the Florida Keys, but I am not aware of any still standing. (I'd welcome other readers to comment if they are aware of any.)

In Biscayne Bay, off Miami, there are six stilt houses that are now part of Biscayne National Park. (There were once several more.) Here's our story about Stiltsville: https://www.floridarambler.com/southeast-florida-getaways/stiltsville-miami/

There are also a few stilt-house fishing shacks in waters near the Gulf in Florida -- off the towns of Cortez and in Pine Island Sound near Captiva, among other places.

MISHA MCRAE

Monday 18th of November 2019

How can I add the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden Canoe & Kayak Landing onto your list? Your system will not accept our URL: www.keywest.garden

Bob Rountree

Monday 18th of November 2019

You just did!

Ken Weyand

Wednesday 3rd of July 2019

Enjoyed reading your article. I could add a lot, especially about Indian Key & Lignumvitae Key. The former is an interesting site (with a fascinating history), but the put-in is difficult, with sharp-edged rocks and roots, etc. Lignumvitae has a great put-in and launch site, but if you take the tour, be sure and bring along a spray can of mosquito repellant, as the critters thrive in the Lignumvitae grove. Both sites can be visited in a day, from a (free) roadside launch on Matecumbe Key. (When I visited about 4 years ago, a large manta ray leaped out of the water and sailed through the air a few feet ahead of my kayak -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience.)

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