A couple of years ago, Bea, Norm and I did a weeklong kayak trip in Florida Bay, and we discussed a plan to paddle the length of the keys from Key Largo to Key West. When you get down to planning it, it would mean paddling 110 miles in 6 days, which while doable would mean there wouldn't be much time for relaxing etc. So, we decided that as we had already paddled from Long Key to Key Largo on the Florida Bay trip, we would plan to paddle from Long Key to Key West in 6 days. Armed with charts, my local knowledge, and the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas ( https://www.amazon.com/Florida-Keys-Pad ... ling+atlas
) we worked out a plan.
We would launch at Long Key State Park and camp at (1) Curry Hammock State Park at the paddlers campsite, (2) free camp on Molasses Key, (3) Enjoy hot showers at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge Campground, (4) free camp at Tarpon Belly Key, (5) free camp at Marvin Key on the far northern reaches of the outer keys, (6) and (7) party at the crowded Boyds Campground in Key West. Because the Florida Keys high season is Dec/Jan/Feb, we had to book campgrounds months ahead of time and hope everything would work out. We were all set until 2 weeks before the trip when I called Curry Hammock State Park to confirm our paddlers campsite and was informed that the site was now being used to house the temporary restrooms while the main restrooms were being rebuilt. Great. Alternative plans were made but it would mean we wouldn't be able to stick to our plan and would probably have to start from Marathon, which is halfway down the chain of Keys.
Bea and Norm arrived on Friday night and stayed with us, the following morning we left fairly early for the 4 1/2 hr drive to Key Largo. The weather wasn't looking good and it rained for half the trip down. We stocked up on last minute supplies (mostly rum), picked up our rental kayaks, Wilderness Systems Tempest 170's, from Florida Bay Outfitters ( http://www.paddlefloridakeys.com/
) and checked into the Sunset Cove resort. It was cold and wet but we had a great dinner next door at Mrs Macs Kitchen and a few adult beverages at the bar next to the hotel.
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Sunday morning dawned cold and windy. 30mph winds were forecast and even at 7am the bay was full of whitecaps. We had a huge breakfast at "The Hideout" and decided we would see if they had space for us to camp at Curry Hammock State Park and then do an afternoon paddle in the sheltered mangrove tunnels of Boot Key at the West end of Marathon. Luckily, probably due to the weather, someone had left the campground early and after a sob story from us we snagged a site. We set up camp, grabbed a sandwich from Subway and headed for Sombrero Beach in Marathon. There was a kayak launch at the end of the beach and we headed off for a few hours exploring sheltered mangrove tunnels, some pretty narrow, checking out some fancy Keys waterfront properties and the Iguanas sleeping in the sun. It was a great way to spend a windy afternoon. Back at camp we enjoyed a sunset on the beach and delicious sausage jambalaya dinner.
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Monday still windy and forecast to be 25mph or so. Also slight panic as no accommodation booked as yet. We drove down to Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge ( http://bpkfl.com/
) to see if they had a space for us. Luckily they did and we already had a reservation for the next night so that was our home for 2 nights. We found another sheltered area to paddle out of the worst of the wind. Coupon Bight is a preserve and I had found a tiny island (Picnic Key) that looked interesting. We launched from a tiny gap in the mangroves and headed out into shallow water through mangroves until it finally opened out into Coupon Bight. We set our compasses, and picked out Picnic Key on the horizon. Despite being sheltered it was still choppy as we slowly made our way across the open water, getting there in time for a relaxing lunch. It seems like Picnic Key is a popular place to party, hundreds of hand made signs with peoples names on and mileages to their home towns etc. Very cool spot. There were plenty of old plastic chairs etc to use so we settled in for long lunch. Despite the wind, temps were in the mid 70's so very pleasant....finally, welcome to sunny Florida ! We decided to paddle back on the other side of the barrier islands we had paddled along. It was pretty lumpy as we approached the gap between the last 2 island but settled down as we glided past a swanky resort that was on the last island in the chain. Most of the trip back was pretty sheltered and we eventually found our way back to the launch. A 2 minute drive and we were back at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge where we set up our gear for 2 nights in a pretty crowded campground. But there were hot showers and cold beer at the store !
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Tuesday the wind was beginning to let up a little so we decided to take a trip out to what would have been one of our primitive camp sites had we stuck to our original plan. The launch was at the north end of Cudjoe Key. While loading up we had a long chat with a border patrol officer who was interested in our trip. He was keen to get into kayaking so we were bombarded with questions about kayaking, what to buy, where to go etc. We asked him about the blimp that was floating above us and what it was for. He said he didn't know exactly but guessed it may be some kind of radar. We finally left and headed over to Raccoon Key to try to see any of the monkeys that are supposed to inhabit the island. Apparently they bred medical research monkeys there years ago and when they stopped the breeding program the monkeys were left there. We circumnavigated the island but no sign of the primates. From Raccoon key it was a fast downwind paddle to Tarpon Belly Key, 2 miles away. We picked a beach on the sheltered side for lunch and explored the island. There were two deep channels cut through the island, seems like no one knows why, one theory is that it was a shrimp hatchery, there was a lot of building debris and concrete pilings at the end of the channels. There were plenty of places to camp and we were sorry to have missed spending the night out there. As was usual the wind really started to pick up again after lunch so we paddled through both channels before heading back to the launch and our second night at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge.
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File comment: Tarpon Belly Key
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Wednesday morning we packed everything ready to spend a couple of nights out at Marvin Key. The forecast was better, still windy but not as bad as the previous few days. At Sugarloaf Lodge we paid $10 per night to leave my truck and a $3 launch fee at the marina ramp next door. Finally we were getting out to the back country. Getting out of the bay the marina was in was the hardest part of the trip, but we finally found the right mangrove creek to go down and ended up in the open waters of the lower Keys. Marvin Key was at the edge of the lower Keys about 8 or 9 miles out and rarely visited by kayakers. We were following the edge of the Snipe Keys most of the way out and we thought if the wind picked up we could just switch over to the sheltered side if necessary. As we approached Marvin Key we could see the clear light blue Gulf waters and the many sandbars. It reminded us of Monomoy. We landed on the small beach and looked for a camping area. There was a nice sandy spot by another beach just round the corner from where we landed so we paddled round to it and set up our camp. This was home for the next two nights. Spent the rest of the day relaxing, and enjoyed sundowners on the beach, finally miles away from the RV parks of the Florida Keys.
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File comment: Marvin Key
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Thursday we decided to explore the outer Snipe Keys and the Mud Keys. After a leisurely breakfast on the sandbar, we headed directly to Snipe Point. The water was 2 to 4 ft deep, clear and plenty of fish were visible, including reef sharks, nurse sharks and stingrays. There were a few waves to surf on and once at Snipe Point we decided to continue on to the Mud Keys and find a beach for lunch. Like many areas with shifting sands the marked beach we were aiming for was no longer there. After floating along some of the mangrove creeks in the Mud Keys we managed to find a nice beach with a great view of the turquoise waters of the Gulf. After lunch, we headed back over to the Snipe Keys to explore the creeks that run through the Keys. It was nice to be out of the wind and drifting along looking down through the crystal clear waters. The wind was picking up again and we were heading right into it to get back to Marvin Key. When we arrived, about 3 powerboats were there with their occupants enjoying a day at the beach. We chatted with a few of them but by that time they were all getting ready to head back before the tide left them stuck. Out of all the places we had planned to paddle or camp on the Keys, Marvin Key and the surrounding area was No.1 on the list. It was better than I had imagined, we all agreed it was the highlight of the trip. Sundowners again on the beach with an even better sunset than the previous night.
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File comment: Mud Key lunch
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Friday started off a little cool and we decided to paddle back to Snipe Point and ride the tide through the crystal clear creeks again then follow the western edge of the Snipe Keys back to Sugarloaf Marina. It warmed up but was still breezy. We stopped a few times on the way back to get out of the wind and found a nice sheltered channel called "Five Mile Creek" which took us part way back. We eventually found the channel back to the marina after getting a little lost. After loading up it was a short drive to Boyds campground in Key West and back to Keys reality, small rock hard campsites and big RV's. Finally a night off for Chef Dave and out to eat at the Hogfish Bar and Grill, conveniently situated within a 10 minute walk.
File comment: Coffee on the sandbar
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File comment: Boyds Campground
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Saturday we decided to paddle on the southern shore of Key West. We drove through town to Fort Zachery Taylor State Park. from there we paddled east along the south shore past the super secret Navy base to the official "southernmost point" marked by a huge red and black buoy, on land ! Beyond that was the long, sandy Smathers beach. At the easternmost end we stopped for lunch and enjoyed an hour or two of summer sun in January. The trip back was lively and we managed a surf or two. It was a good way to finish our trip. Back at the campground we got spiffed up for a night out in Key West starting with sunset at Mallory Square, a Key West tradition, followed by drinks and dinner at the Schooner Wharf Bar. A quick stop at the liquor store on the way back then last cocktails at the campground.
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Sunday was a travel day, we got going early and stopped for coffee and pastries at Babys Coffee a few miles along Route 1, then dropped the rental kayaks off at Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo before leaving the Keys and hitting the craziness of Miami traffic. It had been a great week of paddling despite the wind doing it's best to keep us off the water and we were very happy we made it out to camp on the Marvin Keys. It was definitely an advantage to have guide books, we were able to salvage our weeklong plan and substitute it with great day trips from the info in the books.