The Ultimate Guide to Exploring the Everglades by Kayak

You could spend months paddling the Everglades without retracing the same path twice.

Cooking dinner with a BioLite BaseCamp Stove. Photo: Christin Healey

Sitting on a wooden platform raised four feet above the water, we cooked a calzone dinner and watched the sun set. We hadn't seen another person the entire day, paddling 9 miles from the put-in at Chokoloskee to our campsite, an elevated chickee stand.

We tied our kayaks to a support beam below us; most of our gear was hanging up to dry or in tents already. Not far away we could see congregation of alligators huddled on a bank. Minutes later we would hear splashes and loud chomps, as they took their turn eating dinner only a handful of yards from us.

A dense maze of mangrove trees separated by shallow waterways on the southwestern tip of Florida, Everglades National Park is unlike any other wilderness in the country. It’s huge – only smaller than Death Valley and Yellowstone – filled with nearly a quarter of a million alligators, and outside of the two main roads, completely empty.

The ecology is starkly homogeneous (mangrove after mangrove after mangrove) making navigation more than a little tricky. Tides run through the swamp-like maze, often surprising paddlers with strong currents. Without good map and compass skills you can easily get lost a couple miles from the trailhead. The Everglades are an unforgiving wilderness – maybe the last one on the eastern side of the Mississippi.

The park offers a handful of car campgrounds and dozens of short day hikes on wooden walkways, but the real gem is the complex water network within. Thousands of miles of lakes, bays, and thin water corridors allow visitors to explore via kayaks and canoes nearly endlessly. You could spend months traveling the Everglades without retracing the same path twice.

I’ve visited three times and have barely scraped the surface of what’s possible … but from what I’ve gathered, here are a few of my recommendations.

Kayaks tied to the ckickee stand. Photo: Christin Healey

What to Pack

Regardless of the season, you want to pack light, and prepare for possible damp conditions. I’m a big fan of the Space Cowboy bag from Thermarest and the Hubba Hubba tent from MSR.

Packing for paddling is similar to lightweight backpacking, with a few minor tweaks for safety and comfort. Because the water here is saltwater, you’ll need to carry your own hydration. I recommend a couple 10L Dromedaries from MSR. An ample selection of dry bags of various sizes will help you organize gear and keep food dry – Ziplocks are often helpful, too. Remember to store all valuables somewhere dry.

An InReach from Garmin will help make sure you get home. A reliable lightweight raincoat is also key – I love Mountain Hardwear’s Stretch Ozonic and often pair it with a Chillba from Kavu to keep the sun and rain off my face.

And on that note, you’ll want to remember ample sunscreen. I rely on water resistant zinc-oxide sunscreen for almost all of my trips. Lastly, always pack a headlamp and first aid kit, just in case. Remember to bring a spare paddle and life jackets for everyone in the group, too.

Paddling near an alligator. Photo: Christin Healey

Where to Go

I almost don’t know where to start. For beginners there are ample options on the south end of the park, from Flamingo’s Canoe Trails near the Flamingo visitor center to paddling around sandy keys on the Gulf side, weather permitting.

My favorite adventure on the southern end of the Glades is Hell’s Bay, a narrow creek through a web of mangroves that is challenging for all. It’s roughly 10 miles round-trip, if you go the entire way.

For those looking for something more relaxing, Nine Mile Pond is near Hell’s Bay and serene and shallow marsh that you can explore at your own pace.

On the northern side of the park, my top choice is Turner River Trail, which has a ton of variety from big marshy bays to thin, mangrove chutes. The granddaddy of all Everglades paddling routes is the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile north-south intersect that runs the entire length of the park. This 5 to 7-day journey offers complete solitude and an experience unlike any other.

Route finding. Photo: Christin Healey

When to Go

The best season in southern Florida is the middle of winter. Temps are cooler than usual and bugs are manageable. My last trip was in December and the weather was ideal.

How to Plan

If you plan to stay overnight on at a backcountry campsite, start by looking at open permits. I recommend at least one night on a chickee stand and another on a sandy Gulf Coast key. If you plan to just do day trips, no permit is required.

Once you’ve settled into a route, it’s time to figure out kayaks. You can easily rent at locations on the northern and southern ends of the park, or bring your own.

The park offers shuttle services and guided adventure tours, as well. As your trip gets closer, keep an eye on the weather. Try to avoid paddling in severe weather conditions such as lightning or strong winds, and take a look at tides if you are paddling on the coast or near creeks that are near the ocean – as currents can be faster than expected.

Lastly, remember that the Everglades is a wilderness filled with wild animals including alligators and sharks – good planning and preparation is key to enjoying your trip.

Late night on a chickee stand. Photo: Christin Healey

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