Share the wild coast with shorebirds and marine life on this 49-mile loop. Park at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, pick up permits, and file a trip plan (you should have intermediate paddling and navigation skills). Launch from the boat ramp (1) and head southeast along the shore on a three-mile paddle to the town of Chokoloskee. Continue southeast 3.5 miles to Wilderness Waterway marker 127 (2), then turn Gulf-ward to pick your way through the mangrove maze of Rabbit Key Pass. Go past the white-sand paradise of Turtle Key (3) before the 2.3-mile crossing to Rabbit Key (4). Lunch on shell-covered shores before heading southeast for the 3.7-mile crossing to Pavilion Key's long, sweeping beach (5).
Make camp on the island's northeastern side. The next day, head southeast between two mangrove-covered islands, then it's an 8.2-mile open ocean crossing to Mormon Key (6). Follow the shoreline to the mouth of the Chatham River (7), then snake up sandbar-lined waterways to the upland campsite at Watson Place (8). (Tip: Gather wood for a fire to ward off bugs.) Continue .6 mile up the river on day three and veer left at the major fork (9). Continue until the water opens into Last Huston Bay and the Wilderness Waterway (10). Paddle northwest, reaching Sunday Bay in 3.2 miles, then turn north to the Sunday Bay Chickee (11), an elevated tent platform (with outhouse!). On the final day, head east-northeast to the Wilderness Waterway marker 125 (12). Paddle across Cross Bay, Shoal Mud Bay, and Hurdles Creek, then head west to the Turner River (13) and Chokoloskee. Take the canal (14) for a lazy two-mile cruise toward Everglades City, then turn under the causeway bridge (15) to reach the ranger station.
Driving From Naples, take US 41 32 miles south. Turn right on Collier Ave. and go four miles to a left on Copeland Ave. After .6 mile, turn right at Oyster Bar Lane to reach the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
Permits Reserve campsites 24 hours in advance
(November-April). (239) 695-3311; nps.gov/ever
Rent kayaks, paddles, spray skirt, PFDs, and pumps from Saltwater Sports: (239) 262-6149; saltwatersportsflorida.com.
Water Pack one gallon per person per day.
Key Skill: Channel Crossing
Ten- to 20-knot winds can quickly roil calm seas, turning the Gulf into a frothy, perilous waterway. Use these tips to navigate the open stretches between keys safely.
1) Assess If winds are faster than 20 knots or you see whitecaps, hug the shore.
2) Time it High tide holds the best conditions (slower currents, fewer exposed shoals and mud flats). Time your crossing's midpoint with exact high tide.
3) Plot a ferry angle (the angle you'll paddle to compensate for wind or current drift). On your map, draw a straight line from your present position to your intended destination. Then, draw a parallel line one inch long for each knot of traveling speed (average is three knots). At the distant end of that line, draw a perpendicular line to represent wind speed and direction (one inch per knot). Close the triangle to find your "ferry angle." (A)
4) Line it up Pick two points on the distant shore (one in the foreground, like a bend along the shore, one farther back, like a tall tree) that are on your ferry angle. Stay on track by always keeping these points in line as you paddle. (B)
The raccoons inhabiting these
mangrove-knotted keys might as well be pirates. "Some of them have gotten pretty smart over the years," says Joel Beckwith, a guide with 30 years' experience in south Florida. Think those round rubber hatch covers will do it? Think again. "They can open those faster than me," Beckwith says. Secure food in boat holds, then bungee or duct-tape them shut. Even unattended drinking water is fair game, so use hard-sided containers or stow water and food together, but leave nothing out, or else. "They'll get in your wallet and steal your Social Security card," jokes ranger Joe Sterchele.
West Indian Manatee
Everglades National Park is perhaps the best place on earth to see one of the 3,000 to 4,000 West Indian manatees remaining in the wild. Sea cows, which can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh 1,800 pounds, tend to congregate at river mouths, like the Chatham, where they have access to fresh water for drinking and salt water for grazing on sea grass. Look for the "manatee trail," which is the line of sand and mud they kick up during their foraging.
Dubiously known as "Swamp Bandit" and "King of the Everglades," John Ashley rained murder, robbery, and moonshine on southern Florida until 1924, when he and his gang died violently at the hands of the local sheriff. Though a judge ruled the assassinations justifiable homicide, they were widely criticized as being frontier justice. Crimes are rare in the wilderness, so hikers are usually left to police themselves. Discuss: Is there such a thing as trail justice? Should there be?
On the Menu
Breakfast 1 & 3
Bacon, egg, and cheese on bagel
Breakfast 2 & 4
Granola with milk
Lunch 1 & 3
Apples, peanut butter, two energy bars
Avocado and cheddar on bagel
Mac 'n Cheese
Snacks Trail mix
An energy-replenishing dish
1 cup potato flakes
1 piece bacon, crumbled
(from Day 1 breakfast)
1/2 cup cheddar, crumbled
1/2 head of broccoli, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
Bring two cups of water and the butter to a boil. Add broccoli and simmer for five minutes. Stir in potatoes, bacon, cheddar, and spices. Remove from heat; add Tabasco to taste.
The Grocery List (Aisle Number in Nearest Store Below)
1 package bacon (1)
7-oz. can corn (3)
potato flakes (3)
1 box of mac 'n
Tabasco sauce (4)
1 stick butter (4)
1 pouch tuna (5)
1 box granola (6)
dehydrated milk (6)
2 12-oz. packs of trail mix (14)
8 oz. peanut
3 bagels (bakery)
8 oz. Egg Beaters (dairy)
16 oz. cheddar (dairy)
2 apples, 1 avocado, 1 head broccoli, 1 potato, 1 red pepper (produce)
4 energy bars (health)
Nearest Grocery Store
12663 Tamiami Trail East,
Naples, FL; (239) 775-7703
The Seafood Depot. Nosh fried gator with a side of fries, slaw, and a Bud Light–just like the locals do. (239) 695-0075; evergladesseafooddepot.com