The secret to experiencing Everglades National Park is to get away from roads and to surround yourself with the sights and sounds of this special place.
One of the best ways to do that is to by boat, especially in a quiet, environmentally friendly kayak or canoe.
You can kayak Everglades National Park on one of a dozen kayak trails in the park and adjoining wildlife refuges of Big Cypress and Ten Thousand Islands.
These kayak trails range from short and easy “starter” trails to the truly daunting 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, a trail between Flamingo and Everglades City that requires lots of planning and back-country permits.
My recommendations: The best overall trail is Turner River off the Tamiami Trail. If you are going to the Everglades via the Homestead entrance, then Nine Mile Pond is my #1 choice. If you want to experience the Ten Thousand Islands — a maze of mangrove islands off the Gulf Coast — then I like Sandfly Island loop. All these trips are described below and in more detail in Florida Rambler articles that are linked here.
All three of these waterways are served by outfitters, so they are your best choices if you don’t have a kayak.
Here’s a quick look at the most popular kayak trails, including links to comprehensive Florida Rambler stories, which include information on renting kayaks.
Everglades kayak trails between Homestead and Flamingo
My favorite kayak trail along this stretch is Nine Mile Pond because it offers a mangrove tunnel experience, open marsh scenery and wildlife. For most of these, you can arrange kayak rentals with the Flamingo Marina.
Nine Mile Pond: Serene and lovely, a wide shallow marsh spiked with mangrove islands, sawgrass and the occasional tree island. A notable crocodile has taken up residence here. At 5.2 miles, this kayak trail is a good trip for beginners and it has the advantage of being one of the few trails where you can rent kayaks or canoes from the Flamingo marina.
Coot Bay and Mud Lake Kayak Trail: Some pretty mangrove tunnels but the open lakes can be windy and be a little monotonous.
Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail: Famously: “Hell to get into and Hell to get out of.” Through mangrove creeks and ponds. An out-and-back trail that can be as long as 10 miles round-trip, or you can turn around earlier. The trail through twisting mangroves is marked by polls. There are camping options (on platforms) along this route; permits are required for camping.
Noble Hammock Kayak Trail: a 1.9 mile loop through a maze of mangrove tunnels and small ponds, Noble Hammock is a shorter version of Hell’s Bay. It’s a good choice for windy days when you can’t go out in the bay. You’d never be able to follow this trail without the more than 120 numbered PVC pipes that mark the trail. Spotting the next PVC pipe is part of the fun. Some report seeing wildlife on this trail; our only sighting was spiders in the mangrove tunnels. The plus side of this trail: Once away from the highway, it is serene, quiet and the mangrove trees are beautiful, each one a little different. The minus side: The scenery doesn’t vary; wildlife scarce for us.
West Lake Kayak Trail: 7.7 miles one way to Alligator Creek through a series of large open lakes connected by narrow creeks lined with mangroves. West Lake is one of the largest lakes in the area and it can be windy and choppy. In January 2022, the West Lake launch area is closed for hurricane repairs.
Park brochure covers trails listed above.
Everglades kayak trails off Tamiami Trail and Gulf Coast
There’s no question: Turner River is the best of these trails, but you have to start early to avoid crowds and check water levels.
The kayak trails in Big Cypress off the Tamiami Trail are served by several oufitters.
Turner River: One of the most popular kayak trails in the Everglades because it’s everything the Everglades can offer in one trip. Outstanding scenery; can get crowded. In spring, it may be too shallow, but if water levels are high, you won’t get through the mangrove tunnels.
Halfway Creek: A kayak trail quite close to the Turner River; not quite as scenic as Turner River, but less crowded and no problem with low water in spring.
Sandfly Loop gives you a taste of the Ten Thousand Island. It’s a saltwater kayak trail with some open water to cross. A good first trip into the Ten Thousand Islands, with a specific and historic destination.
Indian Key Pass: A more ambitious Ten Thousand Islands kayak trip, which can include wilderness camping.
Backcountry trips and the Wilderness Waterway
For a more adventurous kayak-camping trip that doesn’t require extensive arrangments, I’d recommend an 11-mile paddle from Flamingo to Cape Sable, where you camp on a wilderness beach. You paddle along the coast, so there is no danger of getting lost and the wildlife is impressive. Here’s my report on canoe-camping Flamingo to Cape Sable.
The Wilderness Waterway, on the other hand, is a multi-day camping trail that requires you to arrange livery service to drive you back to your starting place and car. Here’s the park service’s brochure on the trail.
The national park authorizes these guides to provide tours in the park.
More about visiting Everglades National Park
- Admission has been increased at Everglades National Park and is $30 with a pass good for seven days. (As soon as you turn 62, get a senior pass. For $80, it offers lifetime admission. Also: Take advantage of these free days in national parks.) You do not have to pay admission, however, to launch at the Turner River or the Gulf Coast Visitor Center. You do pay admission at Shark Valley and the Homestead entrances.
- FREE admission to the park is available on winter weekends if you take the Homestead national parks trolley system. Here are details. (Unfortunately, the trolley will not take you to a location where you can kayak.)
- Insider tips from Florida Rambler on how to plan a visit to Everglades National Park.
- Fabulous Flamingo, the last outpost on the Homestead entrance
- Campgrounds in the Everglades
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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.