Unlocking the Florida Keys

A constellation of islands located at the junction of two mighty bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico), the Florida Keys present an idyllic and varied playground for paddlers of all stripes.

Situated at the southern tip of the United States, this archipelago of more than 1700 islands traces an elegant arc from just outside of Miami all the way to Key West, and the short distances between the individual keys make them ideal for day trips and back-country tours.

Which route to choose

The paddling terrain of the keys is remarkably varied - some routes take paddlers through dense overhanging mangrove tunnels reminiscent of a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The appeal of other keys, meanwhile, lies in their sparse beauty: many are little more than a lone sandy outpost in gin-blue water.

For more experienced paddlers, Curry Hammock State Park to Molasses Key is popular. The 15 mile (23km) offers several places to rest, like lazy Sombrero Beach in Marathon and the labyrinth of mangrove tunnels of Boot Key.

Multi-day trips are also catered to through a network of waterfront hotels, campgrounds  and shuttle services offered by kayak rental firms. The route from John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Key West takes in 111 miles (178kms) of meandering coastline populated by manatees over an easy 10-day paddle.

The favourite route of Bill Keogh, a guide with outfitter Big Pine Kayak Adventures and author of the Florida Keys Paddling Guide, is a day trip from 7 Mile Bridge in a kayak fitted with a sail. 'We visit historic bridges and remote sandy islands,' he says, 'stop at Bahia Honda State Park for lunch…then a three-mile paddle to the take-out at the historic Old Wooden Bridge fishing camp.' While Keogh favors a sailing kayak for the ease and serenity of an easy downwind passage, kayaks rigged for fishing add an element of adventure: hooking a local tarpon or barracuda can certainly add an unexpectedly powerful element of propulsion.

Which kayak to choose

Open kayaks (without an enclosed deck) are the best option for beginners as they are easily righted if overturned. They're fun, not fast and best suited to mangroves and sheltered waters as the height makes them more susceptible to being blown off-course. More experienced kayakers, and those seeking longer routes, favor ocean-going kayaks with sleek, fast hulls and watertight bulkheads for food and camping gear.

When to go

The best time to go is winter (October to March) when the weather is warm and the bugs – which may be maddening but are vitally important for the ecosystem - are fewer in number. Summers can be stifling and bring the possibility of hurricanes. While the waterways may feel isolated, peak season can pack out campsites and waterfront hotels so it pays to book a couple of months in advance especially if embarking on a multiday itinerary.

To be safe, paddlers are best advised to get off the water by early afternoon…unless of course they're keen to embark on a Trans-Atlantic crossing  – which is one kayaking adventure we don't endorse.

Handy resources

This article was updated in Jan 2012.