You’re headed to Key West, dreaming about wasting away in Margaritaville. Leaving all of your worries (and the snow) behind. As you’re driving down Overseas Highway you can’t help but think: “Maybe I should do something active before I get to Key West. Because once I get there, I’ll be doing three things, and three things only: drinking margaritas, eating key lime pie, and listening to Jimmy Buffett.”
Rent a kayak! Don’t neglect all of the other keys on your way down to the crown jewel – Key West. Visit Islamorada, Key Largo, maybe even explore other gems of South Florida like the Everglades and Biscayne National Park. Then, afterwards, you can rest easy with a guilt-free conscience while you sip margaritas in your parrothead hat. Oh, and don’t forget to take a break from the key lime pie to eat a cheeseburger in paradise!
Florida is the United States’ flattest state, with its highest peak at only 345 feet above sea level. There are no mountains to climb, but Florida has over 1,300 miles of coastline to explore. Sun-kissed beaches beckon. Soak up some Vitamin D, play sand volleyball, go deep sea fishing, feast on seafood, or simply bask in the sun.
If you want to be more active and explore beyond the beach, consider renting a kayak for a day. Paddling around Florida’s coastline will allow you to delve deeper into the rich biodiversity that lives by, around, and under the sea. It’s a great workout too. There are an abundance of kayaking options: paddle in the ocean, bay, lakes, tributaries, and mangrove tunnels. Over the past month, I’ve visited a number of kayaking spots in South Florida, ranging from South Miami to the Florida Keys. Next time you’re in South Florida, get out on the water for a kayaking adventure. Here are a number of fun spots:
1. Indian Key State Park, Islamorada, Florida Keys
This is a great spot if you love the aquamarine of the Atlantic Ocean, enjoy history, and/or are on your way to Key West to see a Jimmy Buffett concert. Key West is great, and I think everyone should drive through the keys en route to the southernmost key listening to Jimmy Buffett. However, the other keys have a lot to offer as well and shouldn’t be neglected. Islamorada is one of those keys.
Islamorada is just south of the northernmost key, Key Largo, and has a great kayaking spot called Indian Key. There’s a parking area between mile markers 77 and 79 where you can put in the kayaks. If you need to rent kayaks, head a bit further to Robbie’s Marina across the bridge at mile marker 77. Once you’re in the water with your kayaks, paddle under the bridge towards Indian Key. It should take about 25-30 minutes to get out to the island. Keep an eye out for marine life in the turquoise water. There’s a kayak landing spot on the right side of the island. The landing isn’t anything official, or even obvious, but you’ll see a sandy/rocky area where you can “park” your kayaks. It’s probably a good idea to bring a lock or something to secure your kayaks to the trees while you explore the island (Note: there is a dock a bit further, but it’s too high to enter from a kayak).
Indian Key State Park has a fascinating history. It used to be a thriving wreckage settlement in the mid-1800s before being invaded by the Seminole tribe. There are signs and ruins throughout the island explaining its history. I think there is a small entrance fee ($2.50 per person), though I don’t know if it is ever really enforced (leave money in an envelope, keep your receipt).
2. Nine-Mile Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida
The road from Miami to Everglades National Park is worth the trip alone. You go from tropical South Florida to what seems like African savannah, before entering swampland. Take the road to the Flamingo Visitor Center and stop by the exit to Nine-Mile Pond. The pond snakes around in what can be a confusing maze at times, so it’s best to go with a friend. You will also be sharing the pond and its tributaries with alligators. There are more alligators during the drier season (typically the winter), though there is a good chance you will see them during the wet season too.
Numbered PVC pipes serve as markers on the trail. Be sure to follow them or it is really easy to get lost. The Everglades is a really unique ecosystem. Enjoy the birds and other wildlife. Don’t be afraid of the gators, they’re rarely aggressive. If a gator does attack, just channel your inner swamp person and you should be fine.
3. Matheson Hammock Park: Coral Gables, Florida
Sounds like a great place to hang a hammock, open up a good book, and relax for a while, right? Well, yes, it probably would be. But these hammocks actually refer to stands of trees that form an island, and are typically surrounded by wetlands. You probably didn’t care for the ecology lesson, but figured I’d share so you aren’t disappointed to discover that there aren’t heaps of green hippies reading in their ENO hammocks.
There is an entrance fee of $5 on weekdays and $7 on weekends at Matheson Hammock Park. Head over to the parking lot by the bridge to start your trip in the canal. Go left if you want to start in the bay, or start to the right if you prefer the canal and mangrove tunnels on the front end. From the bayside, Kayak out past the peninsula toward the ocean for a view of Key Biscayne and downtown Miami. As you kayak in the bay, keep an eye out for ibises, cormorants, and pelicans flying out of the mangroves. Enjoy the mangrove tunnels, just be aware that it can get narrow at times. Watch your head on branches and use your paddle to fend off spider webs. The route is a loop, so you can finish where you started after kayaking in the bay, canal, and mangroves.
4. Spot With No Name, Key Largo, Florida Keys
I don’t know if this spot has an official name, but it’s in Key Largo near a restaurant called The Buzzard’s Roost. Take Garden Cove Drive to Atlantic Boulevard and the put-in spot will be on your right. The bay has beautiful, glistening water that is hard to beat on a calm day. Plus, this spot has a special place in my heart having seen a ray and giant sea turtle here. Limited sample size, but I’d say this is a great kayaking spot to view wildlife. Consider “‘Spot with No Name” another option to add to your list on your way to or from that Jimmy Buffett concert in Key West.
5. Deering Estate, Palmetto Bay, Florida
Deering Estate is a historic home and museum that was formerly owned by Charles Deering, a late 18th-early 19th century Chicago industrialist. It’s a beautiful home and setting, but you can’t put in a kayak on the property (it also costs $12 to enter if you want to visit the home). There is a parking area by a watershed slightly south of Deering Estate on Old Cutler Road where you can put in your kayaks. Go north (left) from the put-in spot, and hug the land side of the bay towards Deering Estate. You’ll gave a great view of the historic house and grounds before heading a bit further to explore a mangrove tunnel if you would like. This is a fun, relaxing spot. Plus, I saw a few manatees last time I was here.
6. Black Point, Biscayne National Park, Cutler Bay, Florida
Black Point is a popular fishing and biking spot for locals in the Cutler Bay/Palmetto Bay area (south of Miami). A long, narrow peninsula of small connected islands, the point and its surrounding waters are part of Biscayne National Park. 95 percent of Biscayne National Park is water. And you can only access its reefs and islands by boat or kayak. If you’re in the area, take a bike out to Black Point. It’s usually crowded, particularly on weekends, but if you go at a slower hour, it can be a pretty romantic spot. I’ve stumbled upon a few lovebirds. The peninsula is so narrow that you’ll see water on both sides of your peripheral vision. Pretty cool.
Now, kayaking. There’s a put-in spot in the parking lot at Black Point (not the parking lot by the canal, but the one just beyond it – though you can try either). You’ll start in mangrove tunnels for about ten minutes before opening up into the bay. Hug the mangrove coastline and you’re sure to stir up skittish birds, like ibises, herons, cormorants, and pelicans. It’s pretty cool to see these big sea birds fly away. The water isn’t very deep and you can see the bottom on most days. Keep an eye out for fish, small sharks, or other marine life. Kayak out to the tip of Black Point if you like, before returning from the way you came.
7. Chapman Field Park, Coral Gables, Florida
Chapman Field Park offers extensive mangrove kayaking that opens into the bay with great views of Key Biscayne and Downtown Miami. There’s a nice pond that you can navigate before getting to the bay. The bay can be choppy and difficult to navigate on windy days. If it is especially windy, you can seek shelter in the resilient mangroves. Be aware of the tide here, as it can create a current that makes it difficult to paddle back into the mangrove tunnels from the bay.