Cedar Key is small and historic, one of the oldest cities in Florida.
It is amazing, then, that you can kayak 20 minutes over Gulf waters from the Cedar Key beach to a ghost town that is even more historic, an island called Atsena Otie.
It’s a wonderful half-day outing with easy kayaking, splendid scenery, scads of wildlife and fascinating history.
The hardest part, really, is getting your mouth around that odd name, Atsena Otie. It is pronounced aSEEna Otee, apparently a Muscogean Indian words meaning “Cedar Island.”
History of Atsena Otie, island off Cedar Key
Atsena Otie drew residents in several waves. It was originally occupied by indigenous people and then was used as an outpost during the Second Seminole War – until a hurricane destroyed the hospital there.
Its post office was established in 1845, the same year Florida became a state. The little town thrived with hundreds of residents and A.W. Faber opened a lumber mill, preparing red cedar wood to be shipped north to become pencils. Fishing, oysters and harvesting sea turtles contributed to the economy.
At its height, Atsena Otee had three factories, a school, a church and 297 residents, according to Cedar Key National Wilidlife Refuge information.
Then, there was the traditional Florida disaster: A hurricane swept across Atsena Otie with a 10-foot storm surge in September, 1896. It was among the worst hurricanes Florida had ever experienced. It washed away the town and factory, killed 31 people and left few structures.
The town was never rebuilt. The remaining buildings were floated to the better protected Way Key, the site of the current town of Cedar Key, where lumber salvaged from Atsena Otie was used to build back better.
Atsena Otie was never developed after that (although a housing development was proposed in the 1990s). It became part of Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge in 1997, a wild island preserved through the Florida Forever land acquisition program.
Kayak trip to Atsena Otie
On a sunny late October day, we rented a kayak from a kiosk at the Cedar Key town beach and paddled a half mile across the open water to the island, clearly visible in the distance.
This is a very easy 20-minute kayak trip. (Don’t worry, reaching the island is not the end of the kayak outing if you want more paddling.)
The first destination is a white sand beach beckoning to you. On our way to the island, we were thrilled to see the arch of a dolphin’s back ahead of us. On the beach, there were so many small stingrays visible in the shallows that it must be a nursery for them.
The beach also had carcasses of several horseshoe crabs, another interesting creature to spot in the water.
On a weekday afternoon, there were a handful of kayakers already on the beach, sitting in the shallow water, soaking up the beauty and solitude.
To explore Atsena Otie, from the beach, turn right and walk along the beach past a sign proclaiming it as part of the Cedar Keys NWR.
Watch the vegetation along the shore and you’ll see a small path leading to a boardwalk into the interior. A jungly trail leads to the few remnants of the town that once thrived here.
Along the trail, watch for a large round cistern located a few steps off the trail. (It’s easy to miss.) Nearby, an old windmill tower still stands and is easier to spot.
At the end of the path is the atmospheric and historic cemetery. In the 100 years since the island was abandoned, live oaks draped with Spanish moss have grown among the graves.
We loved wandering among the old grave stones and imagining the stories behind the markers, including so many people who died so young.
One warning: The interior of Atsena Otie can be buggy. Mosquitos were not a problem the day we visited, but the common advice is to be prepared with bug spray. Also, watch for snakes; cottonmouth snakes are not uncommon.
Kayaking through and around Atsena Otie
After a picnic on the beach and our exploration of the cemetery, we were ready for more paddling. If you look at a map of Atsena Otie, you will see it is made up of several mangroves islands grouped together. We loved kayaking through the interior lagoons and passageways, using Google maps to navigate our way through. (To reach the channels from the beach, paddle in the opposite direction of the path to the cemetery.)
When we come out on the other side, we traveled around the island on the side facing the mainland so that we could paddle by a long falling-down dock that is a magnet for flocks of cormorants, pelicans and other birds.
Although you can paddle to and from Atsena Otie in less than an hour, we spent three to four enjoyable hours on this outing. If we had completely circumnavigated the island in our kayak, we could have easily spent more time – and probably observed more birds and wildlife.
There are additional islands in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, but these are not common kayak destinations. They are another mile away over open water and the interior of these islands is closed to the public.
Keep in mind if you are planning to kayak to Atsena Otie, you should check the wind and weather. Because you are paddling over open water, you shouldn’t do it in high winds or if lightning is present.
There are two main kayak outfitters in town with comparable pricing:
- On the town beach: Cedar Key Adventures
- Located on the highway into town: Cedar Key Paddling.
If you bring your own kayak, head for the boat ramp and city beach, which are adjacent. Cars can find parking on the street nearby.
Other ways to reach Atsena Otie
Tidewater Tours, a boat tour company that offers coastal tours and sunset cruises, is based at a kiosk on the Cedar Key beach. It will take people to Atsena Otie and pick them up later for $20 each, with the timing of those trips built around their other boat tours.
The only dock on Atsena Otie is the hurricane-ravaged one, so power boaters need to anchor off shore and wade in.
More about Cedar Key
Kayaking to Atsena Otie is only one of the things we love about Cedar Key. Read our story about six great things to do in Cedar Key.
Florida Rambler has also camped here in an RV, and has advice in our guide to camping in Cedar Key.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.