Journey through the Ten Thousand Islands

Gulf Coast Ranger Station to Tiger Key

An Everglades National Park Adventure

Trip Information

General description: An overnight trip through the Ten Thousand Islands. You'll pass through 15 to 17 miles of mangrove wilderness, and camp on the sandy beach of Tiger Key, a remote barrier island.

Starting and ending point: WGS84 - N 25 deg 50 min 43 sec, W 81 deg 23 min 13 sec Everglades National Park, Gulf Coast Ranger Station, Everglades City.

Tiger Key N 25.8286 deg, W 81.4915 deg Chart #41 Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands (information based on 2 NOAA charts--11430 and 11429). Use waterproof charts. Others can disintegrate when you need them most.

Contact information:

Everglades National Park Main number 305-242-7700, Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City 239-695-4217, Visitor Center at the Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City, 239-695-3311.

Rod and Gun Club 200 Riverside Drive, Everglades City 34139, 239-695-2101.

The Ivey House 107 Camelia Street, Everglades City 34139 239-695-3299.

City Seafood,702 Begonia Street, Everglades City 34139, 239-695-4700

Everglades Oar House (now called "The Last Frontier," its old name), 305 Collier Avenue, Everglades City 34139, 239-695-3535

This trip takes you into the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands. As the crow flies, it's 6.8 miles from the Gulf Coast ranger station to Tiger Key. That translates to about a 5-hour paddle.

Most of the "islands" of the Ten Thousand Islands aren't real islands at all, just clumps of mosquito-infested red mangrove growing out of the shallow Gulf of Mexico. There are a few islands, however, such as Tiger Key that have, over time, built up a sandy beach.Despite the name, there are nowhere near ten thousand islands in this region—just a few hundred. The name came about when some poor guy took on the task of counting each island. After a time, he simply gave up in frustration, saying "There must be ten thousand of them."

Navigation skills are a "must."

Top-notch navigation skills are a must for this trip. Within this mangrove wilderness lies a web of bays, creeks, and channels in which it is all too easy to lose your way. Carry a proper marine chart, based on NOAA charts. Don't consider carrying anything other than a waterproof chart. The regular paper charts tend to fall apart when they get wet.

Also, you'll need a reliable compass. The one I've used in the wilds for years is a Silva Ranger. I like its substantial base plate and its big 360-degree dial. It goes with me whether I'm kayaking, backpacking, or just out exploring for the day. If it ever conks out on me, I'm buying another one just like it.

Plus, I would highly recommend taking a (waterproof) GPS receiver. Naturally, you should know how to use all these navigational tools.

Start from charming and quaint Everglades City

Your adventure into the wilds begins in Everglades City, "a small drinking village with a fishing problem."

There's not much city in Everglades City, but that's what makes it charming. It has a laid back, quaint ambience that's all too rare these days.

To me, lunch at the Rod and Gun Club is always a treat—I like the gator tail and french fries. I also like poking around the Club's old dark-wood paneled lobby with its plantation shutters. It's the kind of place you'd expect to find Ernest Hemingway—if he were still with us.

Another memorable experience for me is lunch at City Seafood. This place is rustic and good. Buy your prepared seafood by weight. (The smoked amberjack is my favorite.) Then take your plate and beverage out to a bar and bench overlooking the water and watch the marine activity, which can include cavorting manatees. The food is delicious and the price is right.

For overnight accommodations before and after your trip, check out the Rod and Gun Club or the Ivey House. The rooms at the Rod and Gun Club are in little cottages next to the lobby and restaurant. In addition to regular rooms, The Ivey House has "dorm rooms" with separate men's and women's facilities down the hall. I felt like I was back in college, but after sleeping in a tent, it all seemed pretty luxurious.

For breakfast, try the Ghost Orchid Cafe at the Ivey House, or the Oar House in town. At least, that's what it used to be called. It has a different name now. It's on the main road. Ask around town. They'll tell you.

Let's get underway

The jumping off point to Tiger Key is at Everglades National Park's Gulf Coast Ranger Station in Everglades City.

Be sure to fill out a backcountry permit before you head out, selecting Tiger Key as your campsite. The only hitch is you won't be able to stay on Tiger Key if it's already spoken for by enough people, and you can't make reservations in advance.

This arrangement is not just for Tiger Key, it's the way Everglades National Park operates. If Tiger Key happens to be fully occupied, try nearby Picnic Key, or even a whole other destination. The point is, you have to be flexible.

While you're gone, you can leave your vehicle in a designated parking area at the ranger station. They even have carts you can use to carry your gear from your vehicle to the canoe/kayak launch area.

Navigating the Mangroves

The whole Ten Thousand Island area is like a big mangrove maze, and there are any number of routes you can take to Tiger Key. For the sake of illustration, here's the route I took.

Leaving the ranger station, I headed more or less west northwest through Chokoloskee (say chuck-a-lus-kee) Bay and on past Lane Cove. Somewhere west of Lane Cove, I struck out through the mangroves, initially in a southwesterly direction, making my way through the mangroves to Tiger Key. I used my GPS to mark as a waypoint every turn I took. If I'd needed to come back the same way, I could have used those waypoints to create a return route.

As it turned out, with the chart and the GPS, I lost track of my location only once, and then only for a few minutes. What would seem to be a simple navigation problem in the comfort of your living room takes on more difficult proportions when you're trying to make sense of a chart that a strong wind wants to blow out of your one hand while the other hand tries to use the paddle to keep your tiny craft from being blown into the mangroves. After a few minutes of utter confusion, I pinpointed my location, got my bearings and proceeded on my way.

After that, I was careful to keep track of my location on the chart. If I'd somehow lost the use of the GPS, I wanted to be able to continue on using the chart and compass. In the unlikely event that I'd lost my chart and the GPS, my last-ditch emergency navigation plan was to make my way to the northeast—the direction of the mainland— until I made it through the maze, and back to the mainland. Even without the compass that I always wear securely fastened to my wrist, I could have used the sun to determine northeast. (For more on navigation techniques, see Chapter 8 of my book Surviving the Wilds of Florida .)

In addition to the mangrove maze, you'll need to consider the winds and tides, and how these will affect your ability to make headway. Pick up a tide chart at the ranger station. If the tide's with you, paddling will be easy. But fighting against tidal currents through mangrove channels makes paddling that much tougher.

Other things to prepare for

The powerful sub-tropical sun can cause severe sunburn. Be sure to take sunscreen and have protective clothing (hat, long pants, and long-sleeved shirt) available when you need it.

This is a salt-water environment. No fresh water is available at your destination, so you'll have to take it with you—at least 1 gallon of freshwater per person per day. Protect your water supplies from the raccoons. They will chew a hole through a plastic water container to get at the freshwater inside.

Now, about the bugs. Mosquitoes and sand flies are bad here, except in winter. After all, this is the Everglades. So, take lots of insect repellant. And be sure your mosquito netting bars the tiny sand flies as well as mosquitoes.

Fishing is popular in the Ten Thousand Islands. You may wish to take along a rod and reel, and try your luck.

What the place is like

Picture of Tiger Key

After about a 5-hour paddle, you should arrive at Tiger Key. This is the last mangrove island. Ahead to the west now lies only the Gulf of Mexico. Your campground is a white sand beach with a few scrubby trees, under which you may pitch your tent.

I came to this island on a solo trip. After setting up camp, and looking around awhile, I settled in—just the island, the endless Gulf, my thoughts, and me. I felt like Robinson Crusoe.

After a time, a single raccoon appeared, intently scouring the tidal flats looking for any seafood morsel he could find. I wondered how he got here. Was he born on the island? Or did he swim here? No matter, it was nice sharing my beautiful but lonely island with some other living creature. In the end, he went about his business and I went about mine. But our eyes did meet a few times, in what seemed to be mutual curiosity.

At dusk in the Ten Thousand Islands, the sand flies and the mosquitoes came out in full force. It was in June, the time of year when you can expect bugs. The full moon rose that night, bathing the white beach in its soft light. I walked down the beach a while in an attempt to get away from voracious insects. As long as I kept moving, they weren't too bad. Later that night, I enjoyed a respite from the bugs as I lay inside my tent, listening to their incessant humming outside my no-see-um-proof netting.

As I lay there, I thought about what this place must have been like in the time of the Calusas. And then I thought of Juan Ponce de Leon, whose life was cut short by a poisoned-tipped Calusa arrow somewhere in this part of Florida, on a shore like this one—maybe even on this very beach. Seems the Calusas had heard about the Spaniards from islanders in the Caribbean, and had decided early on the best way to deal with Spaniards was to fight them. So, when Ponce made his second landing on Florida, the Calusas ambushed him and his men as they came ashore. The arrow found its way into Ponce's flesh, and he died a few days later in Havana.

The next day, I made my way back through the mangroves. This time the tide was with me, so it was an easy paddle through a long, narrow channel that led me back to where I could see the mainland. Soon I had paddled past Lane Cove. Shortly thereafter, I arrived safely back at the ranger station.

The Ten Thousand Islands present many opportunities to explore some of the wildest areas Florida has to offer. Be sure you're in good physical shape for what could be a challenging canoe/kayak trip (depending on winds and tides), and know your wilderness navigation. The Ten Thousand Islands await you. Bon voyage!

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