Paddling Overview: Everglades National Park

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Mud Bay, Everglades National Park.
Mud Bay, Everglades National Park. (Rich Reid/National Geographic/Getty)

Everglades National Park, Florida

  • Ply the Everglades paddling region, hundreds of miles of waterways and 50 designated backcountry campsites from southern Florida bait to the famed Ten Thousand Islands region, the heart of the park.
  • Paddle Florida Bay, where incredibly clear water, good fishing, and amazing bird life prevail. North Nest Key and Little Rabbit Key each have a campsite that makes overnight trips doable.
  • Travel from Flamingo to Everglades City, a popular 100-mile-plus endeavor. Paddlers can follow the Wilderness Waterway on the "inside," or camp along the Gulf of Mexico on the "outside."
  • Nine Mile Pond offers a 5.2-mile loop in the freshwater Glades. The marked paddling trail passes by tree islands, explores sawgrass wetlands and mangrove tunnels, and shelters alligators.
  • Get the best of day hiking and kayaking on a trip out to Sandfly Island. Paddle open waters and a tidal river to reach an old Calusa shell mound, where a one-mile loop trail crosses tropical hardwoods and awaits eager hikers.
  • Turner River Canoe Trail traverses an area that transitions from freshwater to saltwater Glades, and offers the most botanically diverse paddling. Miles of narrow tree tunnels make for unique and challenging navigation.

The Everglades feature the most extensive warm water paddling area in the United States. Outings can range from two hours to two weeks. Settings range from the ultra-narrow Hells Bay Canoe Trail to miles-wide Florida Bay and even more open Gulf of Mexico. Fifty-two designated backcountry sites allow for years of paddling trips without repeating yourself. Day paddlers have several excellent designated routes that will give them a taste of what watery adventures the Glades have to offer.

Mud Lake Loop

This loop paddle gives you a good taste of some open water, some confined water, and quiet water. Leave Coot Bay Pond then pass beneath a mangrove tunnel to Coot Bay. Paddle a small creek enveloped by hundreds of fallen trees, sawn off just enough for your passage. Mud Lake, with its reddish-copper waters, is more appealing than its name suggests. The pungent waters are rich with decay, as vegetation continues its never-ending cycle of life and death. Take another creek to the Bear Lake Canoe Trail, tracing an old drainage canal to the newer Buttonwood Canal. Getting to Buttonwood Canal requires the portage of 160 yards. Head back to Coot Bay Pond via the Buttonwood Canal and Coot Bay.

Nine Mile Pond Loop

This day trip is actually five miles of multiple Everglades environments packed into one loop. This trail is marked with sequentially numbered poles to help you navigate among the mangrove islands, prairies, and tree islands of the region. Everglades prairies are open treeless wetlands, with sawgrass emerging from atop the clear and very shallow water. Keep your eyes peeled because Nine Mile Pond is a good place to see alligators.

Noble Hammock Loop

This marked trail offers quiet quality. Follow an intimate narrow canoe path through a mangrove maze past Noble Hammock, once a haven for moonshiners in the early 20th century. Encounter many fish that will stir the waters upon your arrival. Paddle slowly here—the sudden twists and turns of the trail demand it. There is a small landing at Noble Hammock where Bill Nobles once made moonshine.

Whitewater Bay Circuit

This loop offers open Gulf scenery and intimate creeks, camping on the beach, and unusual park service camping platforms known as chickees. Leave Flamingo and skirt Florida Bay to Clubhouse Beach. Continue through open water to Middle Cape, where there are great views of the Gulf of Mexico. Head inland via the tidally influenced Little Shark River to Oyster Bay chickee. Paddle to east Whitewater Bay and reach North River chickee. Make a final stop at Lane Bay chickee and return to Flamingo via Lane River, lower Whitewater Bay, and Buttonwood Canal.

Chatham River Circuit

This circuit offers all the Everglades camping experiences. Leave Chokoloskee Island near Everglades City and enter the Gulf to reach Rabbit Key. Head south to spend a second night at Mormon Key, a small island at the mouth of the Chatham River. Ride the tides inland past the Watson Place, an old homesite, to reach Sweetwater chickee. Trace the Wilderness Waterway north to spend a final night at the Lopez River, a ground campsite.

You can rent canoes at the Flamingo and Gulf Coast visitor centers, where you can also get maps and directions. If you've got a couple weeks and are an experienced paddler, the Wilderness Waterway between the Gulf Coast and Flamingo is an adventure into the heart of the Everglades. Of course you could do it in a day in the motorboat, but that's like eating a three-star meal at a pizza counter.

Which brings us to a sticky subject, even though its called a "wilderness," motorized boats are allowed throughout the Everglades, leaving paddlers to contend with noise and wakes. But rest assured, the Glades are off-limits to personal watercraft, popularly known as jet-skis... one small victory for humankind and manatees.


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