Editors Note: The Ten Thousand Islands are open to navigation, but the Everglades National Park Visitor Center and kayak launch in Everglades City are closed due to Hurricane Ian. Boaters and kayakers should exercise caution. Be aware that shoals and backcountry channels likely changed significantly due to the storm.
The tides are constantly on the move through the Ten Thousand Islands, going out even as it is coming in from channel to channel, island to island, and the currents can be challenging for paddlers.
At the peak incoming and outgoing tides in Indian Key Pass, the current is moving so fast that it ripples the surface of the water as it rushes through.
Timing is everything.
Check tide tables in advance and plan your adventure, especially important for a day paddle out to Indian Key from Everglades City. You want to leave Everglades City on the outgoing tide and return with the incoming tide.
If you venture out of the channel into the islands, be aware that the tidal currents seem to go every which way.
Your paddle begins at the Everglades City ranger station, between Everglades City and Chokoluskee on Route 29. You can access 29 from both U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) and I-75 (Alligator Alley). The Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center (25°50’49.03″ N 81°23’06.85″ W) is on the right, across from Glades Haven cabins and RV park. The ranger station is upstairs.
Important! All GPS coordinates are approximate. Do not rely on these coordinates alone for navigation. Get a chart!
When you arrive at the ranger station, you’ll see a large grassy parking area where you can unload your kayaks and canoes and carry them down a path to the boat launch on the north side of the ranger station. (There is also a large paved lot for day visitors, but it’s more of a hike to the launch.)
Go upstairs to visit the rangers and let them know your plans. Obtain a camping permit if you intend to camp overnight. Leave a float plan in any case.
Primitive camping permits are available only in person at the ranger station up to 24 hours in advance.
The trail I’m suggesting is especially good for first-timers. You paddle out through the well-marked Indian Key Pass, which is the main channel from the mouth of the Barron River in Everglades City to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bring a chart
I carry a waterproof “Top Spot” fishing chart for the Ten Thousand Islands (with GPS), which you can purchase online or at most tackle shops. You should consider a more reliable nautical navigation chart for Everglades and the 10,000 Islands. You can also download an official NOAA nautical chart here. Charts are also available for various mobile devices from your app store through private vendors.
Even a navigation chart may not be 100 percent reliable because of the constant shifting of shoals and mangrove growth that blocks channels.
The beauty of the “Top Spot” chart is that it identifies known fishing holes, so bring a medium-weight rod and bait!
Indian Key Pass/Everglades Channel is well-marked. You access the beginning of the trail by crossing Chokoloskee Bay diagonally, almost due West, until you see the Indian Key Pass channel markers. You are also likely to see motorboat traffic in the channel as you cross the bay.
You should be starting this trip shortly after high tide from Everglades City, so crossing the otherwise shallow, mud-bottom bay to the channel should not be a problem. Alternately, there is a channel that hugs the shoreline north from the ranger station to the mouth of the Barron River, where the channel begins.
Once you are out in the channel, paddle leisurely with the outgoing tide, following the markers for the 4.5-mile trail out to the end at Indian Key. Stay on the outside of the channel as much as possible to avoid the motorboat traffic, which is generally light but can be alarming as boats come speeding around the bends in the channel.
If you’ve timed this perfectly, by leaving about an hour or so after the tide has turned, you will get the best currents. You will see a few bays along the channel that are worth exploring, but don’t lose sight of the channel markers. If you do stray further, it’s a good idea to have a waterproof GPS so you can chart your trail and waypoints to find your way back.
Don’t try this trip in summer! It’s too damn hot out there and storms crop up on a moment’s notice. Mosquitoes can be brutal in summer, but they lay down in winter months. Still, bring bug spray.
Even with a map, it’s easy to get lost in these islands. They all look the same, and what may look like an easy pass to explore can quickly turn into a miserable day and night trying to find your way out. (This is also a good reason to leave a float plan with the rangers.)
Once you have reached Indian Key (N: 25.8090 | W: -81.4657) at the end of the channel, stop for a picnic and relax on the beach and sandbar until the tide turns again, then ride the incoming tide back through Indian Key Pass. Your signal to leave is when the Gulf starts washing up higher on the Indian Key sandbar. Again, mid-tide in the channel gives you the best currents, and you can feel them push you along.
I’ve done many trips through Indian Key Pass in canoes and kayaks, and unless you have a motor to propel you, going against the tides can be a rough, slow-going paddle.
Wilderness campsites are on beaches about a mile north of Indian Key at Tiger Key (N: 25.8322 | W: -81.4907) and Picnic Key (N: 25.8231 | W: -81.4851). Picnic Key has a park-maintained outhouse, but I prefer its northern neighbor, Tiger Key, for its beauty and sheltered sites. There is an unmarked channel between the two islands that will take you out of the wind coming in from the Gulf. On the leeward side of Tiger Key is a beautiful crescent beach where you can pitch your tent.
Shortcut Tip: There is a backcountry shortcut through the mangroves that will take you to Tiger and Picnic keys via Gaskin Bay, but don’t try it without an experienced paddler who has already traversed this passage. It is unmarked and can be confusing, but it is sheltered from the wind. Best bet for first-timers is to stick to main channel and paddle the outside to the islands.
You can venture south of Indian Key to a campsite at Jewell Key, which has a small, narrow beach. Probably the best camping would be on the leeward side of the island. Jewell Key (N25 47.320 | W81 25.106) is about 3.5 miles south of Indian Key Pass.
Camping permits are required within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, but you can camp without a permit northwest of Tiger Key/West Pass on islands in the Rookery Bay National Estuary Refuge.
Camp Lulu, across West Pass from Tiger, is a popular destination, or paddle another three miles northwest to Panther Key (N: 25.85204 | W -81.545892). Both islands are outside the boundaries of Everglades National Park.
On New Year’s Eve, boaters and paddlers gather for an annual celebration on Lulu Key. You can see the fireworks from Tiger Key.
This is a wonderful trip, especially if you decide to camp overnight. The island beaches are natural, beautiful and isolated. The park service limits the number of campers on each island. If you go during the week, you will be alone. If you go on a weekend, be sure to get your backcountry camping permit promptly at 8 a.m., when the ranger station opens.
There is a concession at the Visitor Center marina that offers boat tours through Indian Key Pass. If you arrive a day early, this boat tour is a smart idea to familiarize yourself with the terrain and learn about the wildlife.
Hot Tip! Storms in the islands are truly unpredictable at any time of year. Be prepared. Always carry a rain parka if you’re paddling, and if you’re camping, make sure you have a waterproof tent that will stand up to stiff gusts of wind.
Supplies and other resources for your paddle trip
Across the street from the ranger station is a small general store and deli, where you can buy food and supplies for your paddle. This is a regular stop for us. The store also serves food, beer and wine outdoors in their screened patio. Kayak and canoe rentals are available, as well.
In Everglades City, at marinas along the Barron River, and on Chokoloskee Island, there are many fishing guides and airboat tour operators who will take you into the backcountry for some incredible experiences.
Capt. Charles Wright offers guided kayak fishing trips into the backcountry. Bring your own kayak, or rent one. Call (239) 695-9107 or visit his web site, Everglades Kayak Fishing, for more information and pricing.
Everglades City RV parks, camping and other places to stay
Collier-Seminole State Park, about 15 miles north of Everglades City on Tamiami Trail. This state park has its own kayak trail, fantastic off-road bike and hiking trails and 118 well-groomed campsites. On display in the park is a huge dredge that was used to build the Tamiami Trail across the Everglades.
*** Hotels in Everglades City ***
Florida Rambler stories about Everglades City
Things to do near Everglades City:
Ochopee Post Office: Smallest in US
Scenic drive across Florida via Tamiami Trai
Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park: Excellent trail for bicycling and wildlife viewing in Everglades National Park
Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery
Big Cypress National Preserve
Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park
Video Tour of Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.