Paddling the Everglades

Carol M.
Courtesy Florida Offshore Adventures

At times when the wind blows through the stilt-like roots of mangroves deep within the Everglades National Park it sounds like music from the strings of a harp. This is just one of the lyrical moments Anne McCrary Sullivan has enjoyed in the over 20 years she has paddled the park’s 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, a system of creeks, rivers and lakes that connects Everglades City to Flamingo, FL.

“Only by paddling can you get into the deepest wilderness areas of the park, areas where sometimes there are whole days without any mechanical sound,” says Sullivan, who with co-author Holly Genzen wrote the guidebook, Paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway, from personal experience. “I love the challenge of navigating through the maze of mangrove channels, negotiating tidal shifts, being surprised by appearances of wildlife. Along the roughly 100-mile route, you can camp on a beach, on an island, or my favorite, on a chickee built over the water.”

The Wilderness Waterway is only one way to experience the park by paddle. Nearly a dozen authorized companies guide everything from two- to three-hour to full-day and multi-day guided kayak and canoe tours. Most of them also rent paddle craft, paddles and lifejackets, and some rent gear such as tents, sleeping bags and cooking equipment for DIY trips. A ranger-led canoe trip is also an option.

Since the Everglades National Park is the third-largest national park in the contiguous United States (founded in 1934 to protect 1.5 million acres of South Florida’s fragile ecosystem), it provides plenty of places to paddle. The sheer expanse, plus the natural daily changes in weather and wildlife, means no two trips are alike. Entrances to the park on Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts make it easy to reach whether docked at marinas in Homestead and Miami or Marco Island and Naples.

Explore from the East

The park’s main entrance at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center is in Homestead, FL, some 40 miles southwest of Miami.

“We offer pick-ups from Miami, Florida City, and Homestead,” says Stacy Wolfe, marine biologist and guide at Wild Lime Adventures, based in Hollywood. “One of our most popular trips is about seven hours and includes a two-hour kayak trip led by a naturalist and two guided nature walks in two different ecosystems. I always say that the most beautiful shells in Florida are on the trees — the tree snails. Midday, we stop for a catered picnic lunch overlooking the Florida Bay.”

The wildlife along the way gets people excited on paddle tours with Garl’s Coastal Kayaking, located at the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand in Homestead.

“Our tour is unique in that we experience paddling through both freshwater and saltwater on every tour, conditions permitting,” says owner Garl Harold, who served as an Everglades location expert for media such as National Geographic, Netflix and the New York Times.

“Some highlights in the freshwater mangrove kayak include paddling near gators, keeping a respectful distance, and spotting Croczilla, a resident croc about 14 feet long. We also do a wet walk/slog into the Cypress domes, where we find myriad wildlife and sometimes even a gator with her babies. Another guest favorite is seeing manatees as we launch into the saltwater and often seeing sharks and dolphins in Florida Bay.”

About 38 miles east of Coe Visitor Center is Flamingo, FL, and the Guy Bradley Visitor Center with a manned ranger info desk, educational displays and a gift shop. Rebuilding after hurricane damage, a new lodge and restaurant will open this fall.

“In Flamingo is a campground, marina, marina store, public boat ramp, canoe rentals, and hiking and canoeing trails,” says Allyson Gantt, chief of communications and public affairs for the Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.

A favorite DIY paddle is the 5.2-mile loop at Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail, north of Flamingo. Rental companies at Flamingo can provide drop-off and pick-up. The self- guided trail is marked with numbered white poles, winds through grassy marsh and mangrove islands, and takes four to five hours to complete. There’s a chance to glimpse the endangered snail kite here, a bird of prey in the hawk and eagle family.

“Many families like to rent a houseboat in Flamingo and two kayaks. This lets you get into the backcountry by boat, into Whitewater Bay, and then splash the kayaks and explore farther from there. The houseboats are like floating cottages with two bedrooms, a kitchen, AC and grill on the back to cook fresh-caught fish,” says Joe Pereira, national sales and marketing director at Guest Services, Inc., which runs the Everglades Guest Services in Flamingo.

Go from the West

Courtesy Florida Outdoor Adventure

The Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City is 30 and 36 miles northwest of Marco Island and Naples, respectively. Five minutes away from Marco Island, Rising Tide Explorers launch from the Shell Island Road Boat Launch for their 2.5-hour Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour of the Rookery Bay Reserve. This large stretch of protected waters and uplands borders the western Everglades.

“It’s pretty amazing to paddle into the Rookery Bay Reserve and watch hundreds of birds like herons, pelicans and anhingas return to their nest as the sun sets. Sometimes there is such a flood of birds that you can’t see any of the green leaves on the trees, only birds,” says Capt. Ryan Young, founder and lead explorer of the Naples- based company.

The Big Cypress National Preserve, which borders the Everglades to the north with its entrance seven miles from the park’s Gulf Coast center, is where Jack Shealy, a third-generation native Gladesman, guides kayak, canoe and old-time pole boat tours.

“I grew up here, so I know it like the back of my hand. I think one of our coolest trips is kayaking through the maze-like mangrove tunnels lined with air plants and bromeliads. It’s pretty incredible. On our half-day paddle, we also go through immense grassland prairies and cypress swamps,” says Shealy. “We also offer guided hiking and paddle fly and light tackle fishing trips. We target largemouth and peacock bass, pike, and bowfin.”

South of its base in Everglades City, Florida Outdoor Adventures runs three-, five- and eight-day kayak tours. These give up close and personal access deep into the remote backcountry where visitors see no signs of human impact.

“Our five-day trip is a loop itinerary where we visit several ecosystems including the Ten Thousand Islands, Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Wilderness Waterway,” tells David Kochendorfer, owner and guide. “In the day, we see exotic wildlife like sea turtles, alligators and manatees. Each night, we stay at park campsites from a wooden chickee platform to historic Watson Place shell mount and remote Gulf beach.”

What to know before you go

Paddle tours can fill quickly during the park’s peak November to April visitor season, so be sure to make reservations with a company ahead of time. Ditto for renting kayaks, canoes, and other equipment.

For safety’s sake on DIY trips, register a float plan with the company renting the paddle craft or with the park for those who bring their own kayaks and canoes. To camp in one of the park’s ‘chickees,’ make reservations online in advance.

The park offers maps at its visitor’s centers and sells guidebooks like Paddling the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. NOAA charts can be indispensable on long paddle trips. GPS is a big help, too. Cell service is often non-existent in the backcountry. Finally, the National Park Service has a new free app with interactive maps, on-the-ground accessibility info and trip-planning tips on its 400+ parks, including the Everglades National Park.

Companies Offering Canoe & Kayak Tours

Everglades Adventure Tours

Florida Outdoor Adventures

Garl’s Coastal Kayaking

Rising Tide Explorers

Wild Lime Adventures

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