Explore one of Ten Thousand Islands on this easy adventure
Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge is one of the wildest areas in Florida, and that’s one reason it beckons to us.
The mangrove islands scattered off the Gulf coast in Southwest Florida are full of brilliant color — intensely green foliage, vivid blue sky – and abundant wildlife, from the flocks of birds to the manatees, dolphins and all sorts of fish in the water.
Kayaking Ten Thousand Islands is one of the best ways to see this vast wilderness. The kayak trail to Sandfly Island is the perfect introduction that even those with moderate kayak experience can tackle and enjoy.
The Sandfly Loop kayak trail has some great things going for it:
- It’s relatively short. At about five miles, it takes two or three hours of paddling (plus an hour to explore Sandfly Island.)
- On Sandfly Island, you can dock, have a picnic and walk a one-mile trail past vestiges of pioneer homes.
- You can extend the paddle as long as you’d like by exploring the many passageways, bays and islands around Sandfly Island.
The trail starts at the kayak and canoe launch at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center of Everglades National Park.
On the sunny December Saturday we paddled this trail, we had perfect conditions – no wind, no clouds, temperature in the low 70s.
A group of 20 kayaks launched in front of us, and I was concerned we’d contend with them on the trail. They headed southeast, however, and, except for one canoe and two or three power boats, we had the whole route to ourselves, including Sandfly Island itself. Solitude is one of the precious experiences of the Ten Thousand Islands.
When planning this trip, there are two things you must do: Check the tide tables in advance and get the trail map at the ranger station before you start.
The tides are important because the launch area gets very shallow and muddy at low tide and the changing tide generates a considerable current in narrow passes in Ten Thousand Islands.
The ideal time to leave is a few hours before low tide, so you kayak out with the falling tide and then return when the rising tide helps carry you back to Everglades City.
The trail starts with a 1.5 mile kayak across the open water of Chokoloskee Bay. You’ll see the channel markers nearby within which power boats stay. As you enter the islands, you’ll pass one with a sandy beach; that was the only beach we came across on our route. (There are beaches on several of the outer rim of islands reachable on more ambitious or overnight outings.)
While the Ten Thousand Islands can all look confusingly similar, it is easy to spot Sandfly Island – the portapotty on the dock is visible the whole way!
The island itself is covered with tropical hardwood hammock vegetation. If you like gumbo limbo trees with their peeling red bark, you’ll love Sandfly Key; it’s full of beautiful specimens.
The most fascinating thing about Sandfly Key is its human history.
The Calusa Indians created the high ground with shell mounds built over many years.
In the 1870s, white pioneers began inhabiting Sandfly. The Bogess family lived here in the 1920s, farming tomatoes and contending with what had to be the misery of thick mosquitos, clouds of no-see-ums (also known as sandflies), summer heat and dripping humidity.
We can see traces of the Bogess homestead; there are foundations, a cistern, a tamarind tree and papaya trees that they probably introduced.
At one point, a bubbling puddle is marked with a sign indicating that fresh water wells up here at the site of a well that the Collier Corporation dug – 384 feet deep – in 1922. Today, the slightly salty water is still popular with birds who have few sources of fresh water in the area.
The return paddle takes you through and around various neighboring islands. The route is not marked, but the map is very accurate and it’s not hard to follow. (Taking a wrong turn and ending up in a dead end is also part of the Ten Thousand Island experience.)
A guidebook I own suggested an alternative route that circles Sandfly Island. We didn’t take it but the ranger at the visitor center said that’s a fine way to go too.
A few precautions:
- Check the weather and avoid high winds or the possibility of lightning.
- Wear or bring shoes that can get wet and muddy; you’ll need them at the launch. Closed-toe shoes are recommended because of the sharp oyster beds and barnacles.
- If you were to consider doing this trip in the summer – and I wouldn’t — head out as early as possible to avoid the heat and afternoon thunder storms.
Planning your kayak trip to Sandfly Island:
- Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center is being rebuilt and operations will be limited in winter 2023-24. All operations at the Gulf Coast area are expected to return in late fall 2024.
- Canoe or kayak rentals are available from two local companies that deliver kayaks to the launch area at the Gulf Coast visitor center: Everglades Adventure Tours and Ivey House.
- Kayaking to Sandfly Key is part of an experience the park service calls the Tamiami Triathalon, which involves bicycling Shark Valley, hiking/slogging a 3.5 mile trail and paddling to the Island.
- Are you ready for an overnight wilderness experience? Here’s a guide to camping in the Ten Thousand Islands and paddling through Indian Pass.
- The Ten Thousand Islands NWR has a one-mile hiking trail into the coastal marsh and an observation tower.
Your visit to Everglades City
We love visiting Everglades City. It’s a small fishing village with fresh seafood, historic buildings and access to many outdoors adventures.
- Everglades City is the base for many stone-crab fishermen, so it’s a good place to indulge in the seasonal seafood. Here’s where to eat stone crabs in Everglades City plus general background on the city.
- Visit one of our favorite, off-the-beaten-track stops, historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee, just four miles away.
- We’ve stayed at Ivey House Bed and Breakfast in Everglades City, which also operates a kayaking outfitter.
- Nearby Ochopee Post Office on the Tamiami Trail is the smallest in the US. And cute.
- Scenic drive across Florida via Tamiami Trail.
- Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park: Excellent trail for bicycling and wildlife viewing in Everglades National Park.
- Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery: It’s always a thrill to view his large-format black-and-white photos of Florida’s wilds.
- Big Cypress National Preserve
- Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk: This is a beautiful spot worth a short walk.
- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park: Big wild and great for Everglades hiking and kayaking.
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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.