Around Cape Sable
an Everglades National Park Adventure
General description: An approximately 50-mile trip around Cape Sable in Everglades National Park. About half the trip is "on the outside" of the Everglades in the Gulf of Mexico. The other half is "on the inside," through Oyster Bay, down the Joe River, into Coot Bay, down the Buttonwood Canal, and back to Flamingo. (Everglades sustained severe damage in 2005 from hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Check with Everglades National Park--see contact info--to determine the current status of backcountry trips.)
Starting and ending point: Flamingo Marina, Flamingo, Everglades National Park
N 25.14235 deg, W 80.92323 deg
Waterproof chart #39
Lostman's River to Whitewater Bay (based on two NOAA charts--11432 and 11433). Be sure to use waterproof charts. Others can disintegrate when you need them most.
Everglades National Park
Flamingo Lodge and Marina
(sustained extensive hurricane damage in 2005, check for latest updates), 800-600-3813, 239-695-3101
Camping Reservations (for campgrounds, not backcountry sites): 1-800-365-CAMP
This trip takes you out of Flamingo, around Cape Sable and through Everglades National Park into some of the wildest, most remote places left in Florida. You'll stroll lazily along deserted beaches, gather a few choice seashells, and sleep so close to the water you'll hear the waves lapping (or pounding, if the weather is rough) the shore.
With a bit of luck, you may even catch a few fish for dinner. Then, after leaving the beaches, the last half of your trip around Cape Sable will take you from the "outside" Gulf shores to the "inside" of the Everglades, where you'll eventually make your way back to Flamingo.
Leaving Flamingo, heading for the "outside."
Your voyage around Cape Sable begins at Flamingo, on the southern tip of mainland Florida, on the east end of Cape Sable, a wild and remote place the name of which is unfamiliar to all but a relative few. Leaving the marina (the picture here is pre-Wilma), you'll be on what's called the "outside" of the Everglades, in the open waters of Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
You'll head west past Bradley Key, named after a heroic Audubon warden, Guy Bradley, who in the summer of 1905 was gunned down in the line of duty, protecting Everglades rookeries from plume hunters. Bradley's body was found the next day in his skiff, adrift near this island.
It's ten miles to East Cape, and you'll probably want to camp there the first night. My suggestion: When you arrive at East Cape, be sure to round the bend completely, so you can camp on the miles of beach you'll find there. Sometimes people go to East Cape, camp on the south side, and never see what awaits them on the west side.
East Cape was the site of Fort Poinsett, established by Surgeon General Thomas Lawson in 1838, at least in part to help sever contact between the "Spanish Indians"—mostly Seminoles with perhaps a few Calusa—of the area and Cuban fishermen. This was in the midst of the First Seminole War (1835-1842), and it was feared the Indians were purchasing guns and powder from the Cubans, which would be used against the settlers.
Such fears were not unfounded for on August 7, 1840 renegade chief Chekika and his men raided Indian Key and brutally massacred Dr. Henry Perrine while his terrified family hid in the turtle crawl under the house.
In retribution, that same December, Lieutenant Colonel William S. Harney with the aid of some Indian guides, led a raid deep into the interior of the Glades to Chekika's hideaway. There, Harney ambushed and killed Chekika, and hung his body in a tree, making a rather forceful statement. Rather than returning through the sawgrass, Harney intended to lead his men to the Gulf by way of the Shark River. He missed the Shark, but discovered another water route which today is called the Harney River.
Made of logs and sand, nothing remains of Ft. Poinsett. A few ditches were evident up until the massive hurricane of 1935 swept the place clean.
Five miles to the north is Middle Cape, the old site of Fort Cross, established in 1856 during the Third Seminole War. Later, there was a marginally successful coconut plantation on Middle Cape which until 1889 was called Palm Point. As many as 8,000 coconut trees grew along the beach, but as early as 1911 they were reported to be largely neglected. Some coconuts were sold from here in the 1930s, but the same 1935 hurricane that destroyed any vestiges of Fort Poinsett also destroyed the stately trees.
Today, nature has reclaimed Middle Cape, but along the beach you'll still find a coconut tree here and there.
Just north of Middle Cape is the Middle Cape Canal. The tidal current screams through here. Paddlers should try not to get sucked into the canal on the incoming tide. Otherwise, you might be stuck in large Lake Ingraham for a while.
Another five miles to the north is Northwest Cape, perhaps the wildest, most remote dry ground in all of Florida.
The sunsets over the Gulf here (and all along the Cape for that matter) can be spectacular. Here, a sailboat eases its way past Northwest Cape, siloutetted by the red-ball setting sun. On a clear night, the lights of Miami are prominently visible against the northeast sky, and you'll see the faint lights of Key West over the southwest horizon.
Leaving Northwest Cape, your trip around Cape Sable continues north, along the mangrove-lined coast to the mouth of the Little Shark River. Along the way, you just may encounter a few porpoises as they swim by to check you out. I saw one jump at least a dozen times right out of the water.
The Little Shark River:Gateway to the "Inside."
After entering the Little Shark River, you'll be on the "inside." From here you'll head east into the interior, making your way over large waters and through a maze of mangrove islands to the Oyster Bay chickee to spend the night.
Everglades National Park chickees—named after the palm-thatched Seminole dwellings—are covered wooden platforms, complete with an enclosed portable toilet. There's precious little dry ground in the area, and if it weren't for the chickees, you'd have no place to stay.
Leaving Oyster Bay chickee, you'll head off to the southwest, where you'll enter the Joe River, which will take you to the southwest to Tarpon Creek. From Tarpon Creek, you'll enter Coot Bay, and make your way back to Flamingo along the Buttonwood Canal.
There are two possible campsites after Oyster Bay chickee—the Joe River chickee, located some 4 or 5 miles away, and the South Joe River chickee, located about 11 miles away from the Oyster Bay chickee. Both campsites are on the way back to Flamingo, and are plainly located on the recommended charts.
Before going around Cape Sable, check the weather forecast to make sure the Gulf waters will be calm enough to accomodate your watercraft. It can get mighty rough on the outside at times. I recommend taking a NOAA weather radio with you on your trip.
Mosquitoes and sand flies can be horrendous during the warmer, wetter months. You may wish to make your trip in the winter time. At any time, bring a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants to ward off biting bugs. In winter, bring a light-to-medium-weight jacket. Wintertime temperatures, which normally run into the 50s (Fahrenheit) at night and the 70s by day, can sometimes dip overnight into the 40s, or even the 30s.
Carry a proper marine chart and a reliable compass. I'd also recommend a GPS. If you don't know how to use a GPS, by all means learn how before you go to the Everglades. This is wild country, and it's possible to get lost. A GPS provides added safety because it gives you one more method of navigation.
Pick up a tidal chart at the ranger station in Flamingo. Winds and tides are very much part of Everglades waterways. It can be impossible at times to paddle against strong tidal currents. Plan your trip to make maximum use of favorable tides.
Lodging and camping
In normal times, lodging is available at the Flamingo Lodge. However, check with the Flamingo Lodge and Marina regarding when they will re-open from the hurricane damage.
Plus, there are 2 campgrounds in Everglades National Park—one at Flamingo and another at Long Pine Key, about 30 miles to the north, near the park's entrance. Flamingo has restrooms with sinks and cold showers. Long Pine Key has restrooms with sinks, but no shower facilities. (Check to see what's available post Katrina and Wilma.)
When the mosquitoes are bad at Flamingo, you might want to stay at Long Pine Key. It's over 30 miles from Flamingo, and more removed from the voracious saltwater mosquitoes that incessantly pester those in Flamingo.
Last revised March 2006
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