Your kayak slows over turquoise water only a few inches deep. Something shimmers ahead – a heat mirage? It looks like houses in crayon colors: yellow, green, red and blue, somehow hovering weightlessly over the bay.
Squinting now – no, these homes aren’t levitating at all; they are supported by pilings and suspended a few feet above the sea. Welcome to Stiltsville in Biscayne National Park, the gateway to one of the most interesting kayak trails on the globe.
Accessible only by flats boat or kayak, these seven wooden homes are a few miles off downtown Miami but light years from the city’s stress and hum. Stiltsville dates to the 1930s. “Crawfish Eddie Walker” built the first shack above the water. Over the years, larger homes were constructed, then enlarged, and the area took on an aura of mystery.
Florida Kayak Trail
Today, a kayaker can lean back and watch the currents carry bonefish across the flats; snorkel pristine coral reefs with only a few minutes’ paddle. Fish the shimmering flats or, at the end of an afternoon with the day’s catch on the grill, watch the lights of Miami blink on while the setting sun paints the sky in hues of orange. Above the paddler hangs an amazing array of birdlife: hawks, frigate birds, brightly-colored warblers and below, gin clear water only inches deep.
Elliott Key is just visible as you start to paddle. Beyond that is Key Largo and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park; after that countless small islands and 110 miles of turquoise water. Kayaker’s Heaven.
Paddling is a great way to experience the hundreds of islands that make up the Florida Keys archipelago. The Overseas Highway is sometimes a parking lot crammed with powerboats and rented convertibles. But from the low on-the-water vantage point of a kayak a paddler can experience the small islands that dot the coastline on either side of US 1, paddling on the Florida Bay/Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands of the Keys change by the mile. At times the paddlers’ trail takes kayakers through densely populated areas with heavy boat traffic; at other times serene and isolated estuaries and forgotten coves. Paddlers can find themselves gliding beneath dense overhanging mangrove tunnels and tea colored water, then skimming past waterfront restaurants and fishing villages and marinas where they can stock up or just stop in for a fresh drink.
Much of the kayak trail consists of uninhabited and undeveloped islands. Most are simply white ringed wild habitats for birds and wildlife, perfect for primitive camping. Much of the water depth surrounding these small islands and inlets is too shallow for most boats. Kayakers can weave their ways in and out of creeks and channels enjoying the true solitude and peacefulness of these tiny islands.
Glide inches above a rich array of marine life, passing over manatees, historic shipwrecks and sting rays. Some of the islands have historic remnants of settlers. Remains of Henry Flagler’s overseas railroad of the early 1900s can be seen in the decaying concrete columns of the old rusting bridges. Important sites such as Indian Key Historic State Park, Pigeon Key and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park are a short paddle off the trail.
Whether you are planning to paddle an hour or a week or more, seeing the Keys by kayak offers many rewards.
Before you Go
Start your trip planning by logging onto http://www.see-florida.com/florida-keys/ or www.fla-keys.com for a free planning guide. Carrying a hand-held GPS is recommended as many of the mangrove channels snake their way in and out of the keys. Several outfitters in the Keys can also assist you in renting or selling equipment or in guiding trips. Lodging is available in all of the Keys’ towns, and there are numerous private campgrounds. Up-to-date trail information can be obtained by calling or visiting Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo (305) 451-3018.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary covers most waters in the keys, encompassing 2900 square miles. Paddlers should be aware of regulations if planning to fish or snorkel.
Florida Keys Paddling Atlas (Paddling Series)
Florida Keys Paddling Guide: From Key Largo to Key West
Kayaking the Keys: 50 Great Paddling Adventures in Florida’s Southernmost Archipelago