Day Route for Paddling Backcountry lower Florida Keys

Hi! I’m taking a trip next month to Key West and my wife and I want to take a full day to go paddle in the backcountry. We are fairly experienced ocean kayakers and were looking to stay around a 10 mile paddle for the day. We would love to be able to snorkel a couple of times along the way. Any suggested routes, stops, advice, etc…would be more than helpful. Also I know it’s hurricane season, so this idea may go completely out the window due to winds and currents.

If “backcountry” means a wildlife refuge, no camping allowed.

What is the point of this comment? In the subject line it says “day route” - We are staying in Key West and I was hoping for suggestions to paddle on the gulf-side of the keys out to some of the more shallow and secluded parts. Wasn’t looking for a wildlife refuge in particular.

If you have transportation you might want to look a little north of KW as 10 miles around KW isn’t going to be very secluded.

We will definitely have transportation. We are flying into Miami and renting a vehicle. I figured Key West wouldn’t be as good as a little further north. We are will to drive 30min - 1hr back up the road to find a better spot if you have any suggestions. We don’t need it to be 10 miles from key west, we just wanted to get around 10 miles of paddling for the day.

I like launching from the Sugarloaf Marina at Mile Marker 17. $5 to launch and convenient to have restrooms and a small store when you get back. Not sure if you are bringing kayaks or need to rent? There are rentals available there as well but I am not familiar with them so would be best to call first.

This launch point puts you on the bay side of the Keys with miles of mangrove islands to explore. Lots of interesting shallow areas that would be good to snorkel. Tides can be confusing in the Keys so also good to ask for some local knowledge as currents can be strong. Paddling out to the Marvin Keys is spectacular but a bit further (more like 13-15 miles) than you might want to go.

Other good places to launch (although further up the chain) are at Bahia Honda SP, and at the end of Blimp road on Cudjoe Key. I haven’t done much paddling on the ocean side of the Keys down that far but the Coupon Bight area might be worth investigating as I think there are some kayak accessible snorkeling sites there. I can’t give recommendations for launch points unfortunately.

The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas by the Burnhams is what I use to plan paddling trips in the Keys. Lots of good info there. Also, a stop at Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo might be useful as well.

Not sure where you are coming from, but expect it to be extremely hot and humid, and keep a very close eye out for pop up thunderstorms. There is very little cover in the backcountry if you get caught in a storm. Bring lots and lots of water and/or Gatorade. Heat indices will be close to 100 degrees and water temps in the mid 80s. There is little relief at night, so paddling early in the morning will help slightly, but not that much.

Key West is a different planet from the rest of the Keys. I usually stay in Marathon or Islamorada and rarely venture to Key West. You’ll enjoy the ride down from Miami - it’s spectacular!


Thanks so much! Marvin Key from Sugarloaf is definitely one of the routes we have been researching. We will be renting our boats and I have found a couple of places that will deliver the boats to wherever we decide to launch. We are talking with a company called “Keys Kayak and Canoe Tours” who’s owner has offered help to better plan our route and work with the currents and tides. They are based out of Summerland Key. We will double up on our normal water packing and be sure to get some good headwear and clothing for the sun.

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Oh and be sure to stop at Keys Fisheries in Marathon for lunch or dinner - so good!

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Local knowledge is critical. You don’t want to get stuck on a oyster reef on the outgoing tide. Even though the tidal range is small, there is a lot of shallow water around the Keys. Nor do you want to get lost in the mangroves. A lot of winding passages and islands that all look the same. A GPS, compass, and charts can be useful. Some outfitters will give you a chart to use. Look back frequently so that you recognize your launch point. Take a VHF with weather alert if you have one. Keep a close eye on the weather. Afternoon thunderstorms are common and winds can pick up later in the day.

Haven’t been snorkeling or diving down there in many years, but learn to avoid Portuguese Men of War jelly fish, fire coral, and black sea urchins.

If renting a SOT wear long pants and long sleeves or the sun can fry you. Sun screen will probably not be enough.

Probably too many warnings, but there is a lot of beautiful paddling down there. Have a great time and hope the weather is perfect.

Thank you! All great tips, especially the long pants. I am definitely consulting a local paddler. I always use Gaia to download a map of the areas I’m exploring so I can use it offline. It lets me map the route in real time or preplan…I’m too much a freakshow about getting lost to explore without it.