Camping the Ten Thousand Islands

I can’t stop smiling thinking about the adventure we just had! To celebrate my birthday (and Valentines Day), Andres and I went on a camping trip in the 10,000 Islands at Everglades National Park.

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The 10,000 Islands are a chain of islands and mangrove off the coast of Southwest Florida. You can read more about them here. The only way to visit the islands is by boat, kayak, or canoe. Many of the islands allow you to camp there! So we decided to give backcountry camping a try.

Before the big weekend I was aware of 4 things:

  1. Canoe to/from Island can be up to 9 miles each way
  2. Must bring everything (including food, water, gear, etc) to survive for 3 days
  3. There may be mosquitos and alligators
  4. It will be very cold (yes, cold even for non-Floridians)

IMG_7793The Prep

A few things ran threw my mind as we began to prepare: What do you pack for 3 days on your own island? I’m in good shape but can I paddle 9 miles in a canoe? You’re supposed to run in zigzag when an alligator chases you, right?

First, we had to invest in some gear. We got a tent like this one on Amazon. We even built it in our living room to make sure we knew what we were doing – watch the video here.

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For food and water, we packed items that are easy to keep fresh no matter the weather. That includes: peanut butter, bananas, apples, pasta, trail mix, and Nutella (never leave home without it). The park recommends packing 1 gallon of water per person, per day. You can probably get away with less but if you have room to carry it, best bring it just in case.

We were able to squeeze everything into the trunk of my car. The big question was – will all this stuff fit into a canoe?

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The Adventure

I could provide every detail to help you get to and from the islands much more easily. However, I’m going to share the most important tips,  don’t want to kill the thrill of the unknown 😉

On Friday morning we made our way towards Everglades City. The total drive from South Florida to EC is about 1.5 hours. Once you arrive you will see the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and gift shop. The visitors center offers a variety of boat and walking tours around the park if you prefer to take a day trip instead of an overnight one.

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First step is to check in at the visitor center. To get a permit, the park requires you to have (and “know” how to read?!) a nautical chart, tide schedule and a whistle for emergencies – you can get all of this from the gift shop on the first floor for ~$10. The rangers can explain how to read these navigation tools.

The visitor center is also where you decide what island you will be camping on (aka how far you will be paddling!) We chose Jewel Key for our 3 day/2 night experience – a 5 mile distance 

We rented the canoe from the gift shop (~$30/day) and loaded up for our fun weekend. Look at that… our gear did fit!

According to the tide schedule, the water was going in a favorable direction, so we got off to a great start and even saw dolphins as we took off! Just us and the open sea:

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The challenge of this trip was not only bringing the right gear to survive the weekend, but also navigating to the right island! How do you know you are going in the right direction? That’s were the nautical chart comes in (Note: Light green means land, dark green is shallow water, blue is water. That blue dot on the bottom right corner is Jewel Key!)

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The 5 mile paddle out to Jewel Key is one straight line from the launching dock at the park entrance. Do your best to follow the map and stay on the path – its easy to get lost since all the islands look alike.

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Along the way we saw beautiful birds, fish jumping, and even a shark. After about 3 hours of canoeing, we spotted our island in the distance. Can you see the white sand? Were almost there!

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Yay, we made it!

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We immediately set up camp and went off to the explore the island!

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Sunsets on the west coast of Florida are always spectacular. After a long day of paddling, this was the amazing reward:

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After watching the sun go down, Andres built a bonfire while I made dinner. It was so cold that night! I think it dropped down to 40 degrees + strong wind so we were in bed by the late hour of 8pm.

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Next morning we woke up and had a delicious breakfast under the sun. As we were eating, we noticed a boat approaching the island. It was a group of people who hired a guide to take them and provide all the food and gear they needed. That night there would be 3 more tents filled with really cool people joining us on Jewel Key 🙂

Although taking the boat may seem like the easier option, I challenge you to make this a real adventure and take the canoe, I know you can do it!

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With all of Saturday ahead of us, we decided to explore some of the nearby islands. Along the way we found this awesome sand bar. I have to admit, after seeing a shark the day before I was a bit scared but couldn’t miss the opportunity to stand in the middle of the ocean like this:

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We made it to Jack Daniels Key and, since we had no bourbon, we warmed up in the mid-day sun:

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Got to spot some cool wildlife too: sea turtles, dolphins and Adventure Man Dre!

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After another full day of exploring, we made it back to home base so we could join our island neighbors for a low-tide mud walk. The guide was nice enough to include us in his tour as he explained all the sea life that can be found along the Everglades shoreline.

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After our walk we got ready for another stunning sunset.

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Can’t get enough of these colors!

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This time we got to share dinner and a bon fire with the other campers. And the weather warmed up a bit so we didn’t need to rush into our tents so quickly.

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Good conversation, delicious food, and the great outdoors – what else can you ask for? Once the sun went down the stars came out. The star visibility was incredible! It’s amazing how peaceful it was, just us and our island.

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On Sunday it was time to head back. We packed up our gear, had breakfast, and started making the 3 hour journey to the main land.  We timed our return according to the tide schedule, although the current was against us most of the time.

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I have to say this was one of the best trips of my life. The weather was great, the company was perfect, and the adventure… unforgettable.

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Tips

  • Address to park entrance here
  • Best times to go: November – February. Don’t recommend camping in summer because of the mosquitos
  • Other recommended islands: Tiger Key, LuLu Key, Picnic Key
  • You can reserve camp sites 24 hours in advance but you must be at the ranger station to do so. If there is a specific island you want camp on, plan on arriving the day before to reserve.
  • Store all food, water, and garbage inside plastic bins or tent. There are racoons that will try to eat through everything
  • Anything you take with you to the island must be returned with you – including all your garbage. Leave no trace!
  • Supposedly the no-see-um mosquitos get really bad – Luckily we didn’t feel them. I much prefer cold weather over mosquitos and suggest planning your trip based on that.
  • Click here to see the travel planner provided by the park
  • Bring gloves for paddling – helps prevent blisters on hands
  • Freeze some of your water to use as ice (a block of ice thaws slower)
  • DISCONNECT – make it a rule to not use your phones, even if you have signal.
  • If you need help with your packing list, contact me and I am happy to help!
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7 thoughts on “Camping the Ten Thousand Islands

    1. Thanks for reading 🙂 I think it would be great for day trips as well. Since the distances can get far, camping makes it worth while to stay out on the islands for longer. Let me know what you think when you make it out there!

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  1. What a great experience. I am curious about the whistle… You are really on your own most of the time, so why bother. Or maybe is it for the alligators? Finally how did you know you were in Jewell Key

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