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Mound Key: Kayak to archaeological park, once center of its world

Mound Key, just south of Fort Myers Beach, looks like all the other small uninhabited mangrove islands that dot Estero Bay.

But this isolated state park and kayak destination is truly special; indeed it is one of a kind.

The 125-acre island was once the center of a civilization, the thriving Calusa Indian kingdom that existed when Europeans made first contact in the 1500s.

We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
We spotted dolphin in Estero Bay three times on our kayak trip to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Not only was it the capital of the Calusa people and home to its chief, this place was so important that Ponce de Leon visited and the Jesuits built their first mission in the new world here.

In 2020, archaeologists discovered the location on Mound Key of Fort San Antón de Carlos, built by the Spanish in 1566. On the island, researchers from the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and students from UGA’s archaeological field school used a combination of remote sensing, coring, ground-penetrating radar and excavations to uncover the walls of the fort and a few artifacts, including ceramic sherds and beads. This group had been searching for the fort’s location for seven years. Read more here.

Today, the only signs of the Calusa era are the 30-foot-high mounds of shells and fish bones that make this island unusually hilly. Any treasures have been looted and even signs of the subsequent settlers are lost in the jungle.

On Mound Key, there are no park rangers, no water, no restrooms — just a single three-quarters-mile trail across the island and some fascinating signage explaining the island’s amazing history.

Mound Key Archaeological State Park kayak landing
Kayak and canoe landing on south end of Mound Key. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking to Mound Key

The kayak trip to Mound Key is about a 5-mile round trip from Lovers Key State Park, with a half-mile open-water crossing.

It’s a beautiful paddle, with broad views of water and mangrove islands and lots of wildlife.

On our April trip, we were lucky enough to see dolphins on three different occasions, including quite close to our kayak,;a dozing manatee that we floated over and startled; a stingray; dozens of jumping mullet, and scads of birds including osprey, egrets, heron, anhinga and pelicans that entertain with their aeronautical prowess.

Mound Key Archaeological State Park: The view
From the highest midden, you can see a tiny slice of Estero Bay and its islands in the distance. (Photo: David Blasco)

We rented a kayak from the Lovers Key State Park concession. A helpful reader alerted us to a recent change: To rent kayaks that you can paddle to Mound Key, you have to do so from the bait shop near the boat ramps, across from the entrance from Lovers Key State Park, not the main kayak-rental concession inside the park. When you reserve a kayak, be sure to ask about this.

We opted for a half-day rental and we needed exactly that. It took us only one hour to reach the island outbound when there was no wind. We swam a bit to cool down, had a picnic and a hike on the island, and paddled back against a strong breeze. Our return trip was about 90 minutes.

Paddling from here, you must be aware of boat traffic from Jet Skis and motorboats, as you have to cross the boating channel.

You also can kayak to Mound Key from the east, from Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, kayaking a little more than two hours down the Estero River. While it’s a mildly scenic paddle in one direction, it’s a long kayak back, accompanied by a steady stream of speed boats. We’ve done both and prefer the trip from Lovers Key State Park.

Gopher tortoise on trail at Mound Key State Park.
Gopher tortoise on trail at Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Both routes are part of the Calusa Blueway, whose trail maps are free and easy to order here.

Another option for seeing Mound Key is to take a tour from the Mound House, which operates group boat tours in winter as well as guided kayak tours. Details are here.

Calusa Blueway marker at Mound Key Archaeological State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)
Calusa Blueway marker at Mound Key Archaeological State Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

Mound Key today

Today Mound Key is thick with native trees and plants, with two small beaches for kayak landings and a single trail weaving over its surprisingly tall mounds. There is an ancient cistern.

After the Calusas, the Spanish and the inevitable pirates of Old Florida, Mound Key became a community of pioneers.

The last of those pioneers had operated a goat farm on a parcel of the island, but Lee County finally was able to purchase the last 9.5 acres remaining in private ownership for $860,000 in September 2019.

Mound Key Archaeological State Park sign
Northern entrance has a sign-in log for visitors. (Photo: David Blasco)

On our most recent visit, we were alone on the island, and it felt like our personal kingdom. We hiked the single trail from one end of Mound Key to the other, marveling at the novel Florida experience of hiking up and down actual hills. (Because of the hill, you’ll want more than flip flops.)

Midway on the trail, Mound Key has several interesting sign/exhibits explaining a bit about the Calusa civilization. I’d recommend reading up on the place before visiting, though, to appreciate what a historic site this is.

Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, a nearby site also critical in Calusa history, has an excellent small museum about the Calusa that I recommend for those who want to learn more.

Kayaking to Mound Key State Archaeological Park.
Kayaking to Mound Key State Archaeological Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

More about visiting Mound Key:

Here’s an interesting 90-second video overview:

More things to do in Fort Myers Beach area:

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Amy Baron

Wednesday 30th of March 2022

I reserved a kayak from lovers key adventures in the park for Match 28, 2022, with the intention of kayaking to mound key. Unfortunately, when I arrived they told me they no longer allow their kayaks to go to mound key, but Jasons bait shop right across the entrance from lovers key state park does allow you to use their kayaks to go there. It’s just more of a roundabout way to get there, and you must cross the channel and deal with boat and JetSki traffic. I just wanted to let you know that, and also that I thoroughly enjoy reading all that the FloridaRambler has to offer! Thanks!

Bonnie Gross

Wednesday 30th of March 2022

Amy: Thanks so much for letting me know! That's a shame. I'll update the story to reflect that. I hope you had a good day of it!

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