Kayaks are well designed to glide effortlessly along the calm “creek-like” waters of the Florida Keys. Paddling requires little skill and even less energy. As you snake through the narrow lanes of a mangrove forest, fish jump from the water and loggerhead turtles can be seen swimming in the shadows. An array of bird life flies up above and nests in the forest, including migrating hawks, brightly colored warblers and magnificent frigate birds swooping down in search of prey. When you stop---an eerie quiet surrounds you until little by little, the familiar drone of the cicada penetrates the air.
It’s no surprise that the Florida Keys has been chosen for the first leg or segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, a kayaking trail that will eventually encompass the entire state, passing 37 aquatic preserves. These preserves or “liquid parks” are protected habitat for bird rookeries and fish nurseries…freshwater springs and salt marshes…sea grass meadows and mangrove forests. The first leg, one of 26, will take the avid paddler some 10 days to complete… beginning at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo (US Hwy 1 at mile marker 102.5), the first undersea park in America, and ending in Key West at Fort Zachary Taylor (mile marker 0), a Union stronghold during the Civil War.
Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, combined with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, now encompasses 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps. Named for the late Miami newspaper editor John D. Pennekamp, Coral Reef State Park now enjoys over a million visitors per year who enjoy camping, fishing and swimming inside the park. Only 100 feet offshore of Canon Beach are remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck, easily seen by snorkelers and divers.
The living, shallow-water coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are vibrant with color and activity regardless of where you are. Pennekamp is no exception and divers from around the world enjoy diving amidst the area’s extraordinary wildlife. Coral Reef State Park offers both sea kayaking and canoeing to explore the wild, winding mangrove creeks and it’s obviously an ideal starting point for the 110-mile journey to Key West and Ft. “Zach,” as it is more commonly known throughout the Keys.
The ten-day journey is filled with history, including visual reminders of Henry Flagler’s railroad built in the early 1800’s, the remains of a wrecking community inside Indian Key Historic State Park, and ultimately the Old Key West Seaport. Along the way, the water is crystal clear, so snorkeling is always an option and don’t be surprised to discover a shipwreck… or two buried deep below the surface. The end of this first segment of the trail is marked by Fort Zachary Taylor, beautifully situated on the western side of Old Town, Key West. If you look carefully at the currents just off the tip of the long spit of rocks by the beach, you’ll actually see the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coming together. The best swimming is right here too … just to the left of these rocks.
Fort Zach is best known for its old Civil War fort and don’t leave before some serious exploration inside. Outside the park is filled with tall pines that not only create a great deal of shade, but are perfect for hanging a hammock and reading the day away. There are plenty of picnic tables, barbeque grills and remember, this IS Key West, so look for an array of large sculptures dotting the landscape and decorating the horizon. The park stays open until the sun drops below the horizon and this is one of the best spots to take in one of Key West’s famous sunsets…so plan accordingly! Duval street is only a couple of blocks away (by foot) so don’t miss soaking up some of that great Key West atmosphere…in and outside of Sloppy Joe’s… Capt. Tony’s… 801 Bourbon-the list goes on and on!
Completing the first leg of this trail is only part of the fun. Once completed, The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail will run all the way from Big Lagoon State Park just south of Pensacola… around the Keys to Fort Clinch State Park north of Jacksonville. This 3-year project will include comprehensive mapping of the route, recommendations for campsites and motel stays, as well as the establishment of a support network. Ultimately the trail will be to sea kayakers what the Appalachian Trail is to hikers. The trail will also enhance Florida’s reputation as a world-class destination and undoubtedly educate and enlighten both residents and visitors about Florida’s fragile coastal environment! Before long, every serious kayaker will be saying, “I paddled around the State of Florida!” Sounds like a good idea!
Call toll free 1-800-326-3521 or 1-866-I CAMP FL, or go online to ReserveAmerica.com.