Paddle Florida

The Keys Challenge
January 12-22, 2012


Start: John Pennekamp State Park
End: Zachary Taylor State Park
Capacity: 100 people
Distance: approx 115 miles
Registration: $800/person (includes meals)
Or paddle by day: $90/person/day (incl. meals)

Before the great city of Miami existed, Henry Flagler envisioned a railroad across the sea that would promote a cultural and economic connection with Cuba, the Panama Canal and South America. Construction began in 1904. On January 22, 1912, Henry Flagler rode the railroad to Key West, where the project was heralded by the press as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

It was Flagler’s vision that makes the Florida Keys an economically viable destination. The Paddle Florida Keys Challenge will be held as part of the Centennial Celebration of Henry Flagler's railroad. We'll arrive at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park on the 100th anniversary of Flagler's arrival on his train from Miami.

Today the Keys are a paddler’s paradise, with shallow water in five shades of blue and green. We hope you can join us to revisit Henry Flagler’s vision!

View Keys Challenge 2012 in a larger map

Journey Details:

Day 1, John Pennekamp Coral Reef S.P. to Coconut Cove Resort, 18.3 miles
Dedicated in 1960 and named after the late John D. Pennekamp, a Miami newspaper editor and strong supporter of establishing the park, this was the first undersea park in the United States. While the famed coral reefs are considered too far offshore for a kayak, the park offers several types of tours in which to safely view the reefs and rich marine life.

The park also boasts a large aquarium and visitor's center, two nature trails, full facility camping, and 2.5 miles of marked mangrove trails for canoes or kayaks.

We will begin at Pennekamp's kayak and canoe launch along Largo Sound. We will be watchful of boat traffic as we make our way to the Atlantic along the park's canoe and kayak trail, heading south along a tidal creek through the mangroves. We will paddle along Key Largo to Harry Harris County Park in Tavernier for a rest stop, then on to Coconut Cove Resort.

In his History of Tavernier Jerry Wilkinson writes, "In early writings, the harbor between Tavernier Key and Key Largo is mentioned as a rendezvous area for Bahamian wreckers. It offered a haven from Atlantic gales and a good view of the Upper Keys reefs. In the early 1820s it is believed that slaves were gathered on Tavernier Key to be smuggled into the Bahamas by wreckers, but this has never been documented. It was used as a relay point for some escaped slaves enroute to the Bahamas."

The Keys history website, along with several good books, can inform you more about fascinating aspects of Keys history such as the wrecking industry, sponging, early native inhabitants, Flagler's railroad, devastating hurricanes and more.

Leaving historic Tavernier Key, it is a fairly straight shot along Plantation Key, once the site of a large Native American village. A huge Indian mound that stood for centuries on the island was leveled for construction in 1958. Coconut Cove Resort is on Windley Key in Islamorada, a village comprised of four main keys and often called the fishing capital of the world. The highest point in the Keys, 18 feet above sea level, is on Windley Key. The overall Keys average is less than 10 feet above sea level, a main reason why the Keys are so vulnerable to hurricanes.

Day 2, Coconut Cove Resort to Seabase Boy Scouts of America, 12.7 miles
A series of bridges and causways separate Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys in this section. On the Atlantic side is Indian Key, famous for a Seminole raid in 1838. The Seminoles killed Dr. Henry Perrine and several others. Many family members successfully hid in a turtle kraal beneath the house. The island is now a state park open seven days a week from 8 AM to 5 PM. Tours are available at 9 AM and 1 PM Thursday through Monday.

Just to the southwest of the park is the San Pedro Underwater Archeological Preserve. In good weather you can glide over or snorkel the remains of a 1733 Spanish treasure ship, which lies in 18 feet of water. Look for the five white mooring buoys marking the site approximately 1.25 miles south of Indian Key. You can tie your kayak to these while snorkeling.

On the other side of the bridge is Lignumvitae Key, famed for harboring now rare lignum vitae trees.The Latin phrase means "wood of life." The tree was used to treat diseases ranging from syphilis to gout, and its dense wood was used, among other things, for submarine propeller shafts due to its self-lubricating quality.

Rare orchids, tree cacti and a historic homestead can also be seen on this state botanical area. The park is open from Thursday through Monday, from 8 AM to 5 PM. Tours are available at 10 AM and 2 PM. Surrounding the island is the Lignumvitae Key Aquatic Preserve and the Lignumvitae Key Management Area.

The islands' offshore ecosystem encompasses 10,000 acres of seagrass meadows, deep-water channels and hard-bottom communities. Look for tarpon, bonefish, permit, sea turtles, lobster and other marine creatures in the clear waters. Most of the seagrass areas are zoned off-limits to combustion engines. Our campsite is on the bay side of Lower Matecumbe Key.

Day 3, Seabase Boy Scouts of America to Long Key State Park, 6.6 miles
Past Lower Matecumbe Key, Long Key sticks out like a huge boot. Early Spaniards called it "Cayo Vivora," which means Viper Key because its shape is said to resemble a snake with open jaws. On Long Key, you'll see more remains of coral reefs formed 100,000 years ago, when sea level was 20 to 300 feet higher than today.

When sea levels dropped during the last Ice Age, the reefs died and formed the islands of the Keys. Long Key is famous for Henry Flagler's Long Key Fishing Club, which attracted such notables as western author Zane Grey.

Grey summed up his time spent on Long Key: "Into my memory had been burned indelibly a picture of a sunlit, cloud-mirroring, green and gold bordered cove, above the center of which shone a glorious fish-creature in the air." The original fishing resort was destroyed in the 1935 hurricane. Camping is on the Atlantic side in the state park.

Day 4, Long Key State Park to Curry Hammock State Park, 11.3 miles
In this stretch, we'll pass several small islands and cross the first long section of open water. Long Key Viaduct, at 2.2 miles, was the first long crossing bridged by Flagler's railroad. This spandrel arch bridge was Flagler's favorite and became the symbol for the Overseas Railroad. Duck Key, which was bypassed by both the railroad and overseas highway, is the first large island you'll encounter.

In the early 1800s, Charles Howe used the tidal creeks and pools of Duck Key for making salt. At that time, salt was the main element used in preserving meat. We will paddle to the outside of Duck Key to Tom's Harbor Keys and Grassy Key. Just past Grassy Key is Little Crawl Key and Curry Hammock State Park. Take a walk through the hardwood hammocks and view one of the largest populations of thatch palms in the United States.

Day 5, Curry Hammock State Park to Knight's Key, 11 miles
For our lunch stop, we will take a break at Sombrero Beach in Marathon. We will use the kayak launch site on the west side of the swimming beach. As a side trip, you can paddle through a labyrinth of shallow mangrove tunnels that wind through Boot Key, but be careful not to become lost! Our overnight stop is at Knight's Key Campground. We love it here!

Day 6, Knight's Key to Bahia Honda State Park, 10.8 miles (Day 7, Layover at Bahia Honda to sun, swim, snorkle and explore the island.)
This is the Seven-Mile Bridge crossing we successfully navigated during our last trip. You can view the new bridge, built in 1982, as well as the longest bridge segment of Flagler's railroad still standing.

Imagine the work that went into the original bridge. Top quality cement was imported from Europe. Huge floating concrete mixers had to be used. Cofferdams were built around each column to keep out water, as workers labored to bridge the span. Several hurricanes dealt serious blows to men and machines during the overall project. The fact that the bridge remains is a testament to the quality of workmanship and materials. The new bridge is also acclaimed as a major architectural and engineering achievement.

A little over two miles down the old bridge from Knight's Key, you can stop at Pigeon Key and tour a restored village and museum (There is a fee for visiting this facility – even by kayak). Pigeon Key originally housed workers for the Flagler Railroad. Eight restored Flagler-era buildings survive. Be sure to land on the beach on the north (Gulf) side of Pigeon Key.

Our lunch stop is on Molasses Key, a private island just over half way down the Seven Mile Bridge on the Atlantic side, but far enough away from the highway to avoid most of the traffic noise. Be mindful of swift currents and the potential for strong winds when crossing these open spans of water.

Some places just seem more graced with beauty than others. Bahia Honda State Park is one of them. Arching palms frame sandy beaches and coves alongside sparkling clear water. An impressive span of the Flagler railroad bridge (the only trestle bridge along the route) across the Bahia Honda Channel gives the park a historic flavor.

This is a very popular state park, considered one of the top beaches in the world. At the far end of Sandspur Beach, don't miss the nature trail that follows the shore of a tidal lagoon. Here, you can see two national champion trees: the silver palm, a threatened species, and the yellow satinwood. The endangered lily thorn can also be seen. The park boasts one of the largest stands of silver palms in the United States.

Day 8, Bahia Honda State Park to Sugarloaf Key KOA, 18 miles
As we leave Bahia Honda, we pass Scout Key, recently renamed for the two scout camps located there. The next island is Big Pine Key. Be on the lookout for endangered key deer, which roam freely on Big Pine Key. The Key deer is the smallest subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, having become isolated in the lower keys about 4,000 to 10,000 years ago when sea levels rose.

Big Pine Key also contains a high level of biodiversity, with 466 documented plant species. Part of the beauty of paddling this stretch is that once you pass Spanish Harbor, you can paddle alongside several remote islands more than two miles from the main highway, away from traffic noise.

You'll also cruise through the 6,000-acre Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve, located on both sides of Newfound Harbor Keys. On the Atlantic side of the keys, look for circular domed formations which are living coral patch reefs. By snorkeling, you can spot brightly-colored tropical fish along with larger grouper, snapper, snook and barracuda. Besides providing necessary habitat for marine life, patch reefs such as these baffle wave energy, thereby helping provide storm protection for the islands.

Coupon Bight itself is a shallow tropical lagoon where you can spot numerous wading birds and possibly key deer along the shore. Sea turtles nest on the preserve's beaches. These waters are known for harboring large numbers of tarpon in the spring. As you paddle in this section, you may see one to two white blimps on the horizon as you look south toward Cudjoe Key. One blimp is known as Fat Albert, a Navy surveillance airship, and the other transmits Radio Marti to Cuba. The blimps are only aloft in good weather, so take note.

We will spend this night at Sugarloaf Key KOA Campground. An 1850 census reveals only three males residing on Sugarloaf Key. One was known as "Happy Jack." Believed to have a fondness for whiskey, he survived by trapping deer and raising fruit. Other colorful Keys hermits of the time included Paddy Whack, Jolly Whack, Red Jim and Lame Bill. Sugarloaf Key is better known for a 35-foot, never-occupied tower.

In 1929, trying to control the hefty mosquito population, R.C. Perky called in outside help to build a giant bat house. Perky stocked the tower with imported bats, which promptly flew away. The tower failed to attract any new residents, but has become a magnet for tourists who, unlike the bats, flock to this national historic landmark. The tower is located on the west side of Sugarloaf Sound on the bayside.

Day 9, Sugarloaf KOA Campground to Boyd's Campground, 20 miles
On our way to Boyd's Campground, as we leave Sugarloaf Key we'll pass several scenic keys. Our lunch stop is on the Sammy Creek parcel of the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA) located on the east side of Sugarloaf Creek (see map).

The patchwork of WEA lands throughout the keys provide habitat for more than 30 state and federally listed animal species. Many of these species are found nowhere else and include the Lower keys marsh rabbit, silver rice rat, key deer, Big Pine ring-necked snake, Florida Keys mole skink, Lower Keys striped mud turtle, Stock Island tree snail, and Schaus swallowtail butterfly.

We paddle alongside Boca Chica Key through the Western Sambos Ecological Reserve, believed to contain the greatest habitat diversity in the Lower Keys. Nearshore patch reefs are accessible to kayakers while bank reefs and other coral formations may be too far offshore. Boyd's Campground is located on the east side of Stock Island about a half-mile south of the main highway. It boasts a heated pool, laundry facilities, game room and convenience store.

Day 10, Boyd's Campground to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, 7 miles
Cruise along several scenic beaches, such as the renowned Smathers Beach. You may want to stop for a photo at the southernmost point in the continental United States, identified by a huge red-topped metal marker just past South Beach.

The end of this segment is Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Construction of Fort Taylor began in 1845. Union forces occupied it during the Civil War to control blockade-running ships. This helped Key West to prosper during the war since numerous ships from several nations were seized and brought into Key West's harbor for disposition. The fort was used again during the Spanish-American War.

Today, Fort Taylor is noted for containing the largest buried arsenal of Civil War cannons in the United States. The old part of Key West is about five miles west of Boyd's Campground. Buses, taxis, or rental bikes (delivered to the campsite) can take you to numerous museums, restaurants and other attractions. Don't miss the sunset celebration at Mallory Square, where people-watching is an added bonus.