Skip to Content

Atsena Otie: Cedar Key’s easy, fun & scenic kayak trip to an island

Last updated on December 1st, 2021 at 04:14 pm

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.”

Atsena Otie is a historic island a half mile off of Cedar Key. This is the beach where kayaks land with Cedar Key in the distance. (Photo: Bonnie Gross
Atsena Otie is a historic island a half mile off of Cedar Key. This is the beach where kayaks land with Cedar Key in the distance. (Photo: Bonnie Gross

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.

A trail that begins as a boardwalk leads to the interior of Atsena Otie, where you find what little remains of the historic village that predated the current Cedar Key. (Photo: David Blasco)
A trail that begins as a boardwalk leads to the interior of Atsena Otie, where you find the remains of the historic village that predates the current Cedar Key. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

Kayaking to Atsena Otie, you pass the city docks where fishermen attract hungry birds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking to Atsena Otie, you pass the city docks where fishermen attract hungry birds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Kayaks at Atsena Otie with Cedar Key in the distance. (Photo: David Blasco)
Kayaks at Atsena Otie with Cedar Key in the distance. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

The cemetery with graves that go back 140 years is a short walk into the interior of Atsena Otie. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The cemetery with graves that go back 140 years is a short walk into the interior of Atsena Otie. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

The cemetery at Atsena Otie. (Photo: David Blasco)
The cemetery at Atsena Otie. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

The ruined dock at Atsena Otie. (Photo: David Blasco)
The ruined dock at Atsena Otie filled with birds. (Photo: David Blasco)

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. 

Birders will see cormorants and more around Atsena Otie. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Birders will see cormorants and more around Atsena Otie. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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:

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.

Atsena Otie is the only island in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge where the public can access the interior. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Atsena Otie is the only island in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge where the public can access the interior. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Bob Harsh

Wednesday 1st of December 2021

If I bring my own kayak where do I launce and where do I park my car?

Bonnie Gross

Wednesday 1st of December 2021

Go to the city beach. Here's a link: https://goo.gl/maps/b5RAQA4iJg1rkmAC8 There is free street parking nearby where it's easy to get a spot if there's a not a big festival.

Chris Duerksen

Wednesday 10th of November 2021

Nice article. Thx!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.