Believe it or not, in some parts of the country winter is the prime season for a bit of white-sand beach camping and watersports. Especially in South Florida’s Ten Thousands Islands, which is actually the outer edge of the Everglades. Come here any other time of year and you’ll be bombarded by unbearable masses of bugs, but the relative cool of winter takes the mosquitos down quite a few notches.
Sure the name is a numerical exaggeration, but when you find yourself at boat level, winding through the watery maze of the Ten Thousand Islands, it feels about right.
The Ten Thousand Islands chain comprises the northwestern edge of Everglades National Park, and it includes hundreds of sandy cays, mangrove hammocks and oyster-bed reefs stretched along the Gulf Coast between Marco Island and Chokoloskee.
This estuarine tangle is where the interior swamps of the Everglades spill into the Gulf of Mexico—a rugged and untamed place that boasts a dearth of civilization and flurry of wildlife. As a matter of course, you catch watch osprey alight from their seaside nests and snatch dinner from the shallow mud flats, or paddle alongside groups of dolphins and sharks roiling in the tidal rivers.
This is kayak country at its finest. When we made our paddling trip here, we saw plenty of people with powerboats, but shallow waters, sharp oyster beds, and exposed mud flats can hinder all but the sleekest flats vessels. As kayakers, we could slip over sandbars, nose through narrow mangrove tunnels, and ride the tides onto remote island beaches with ease.
We set out on a four-day adventure from the national park headquarters in Everglades City. You have to stop here to get camping permits, and it’s a good idea to show up early because beach sites are limited and they are only given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fishing and the Ten Thousand Islands go hand-in-hand. Whether you use a fly rod or heavy tackle, you can pick your preferred style. As we paddled our route, we’d stop whenever the mood caught us, pulling into secluded coves to cast a lure near the mangrove roots where tasty speckled trout practically bite on command.
To truly experience the remote wilderness of the Ten Thousand Islands, you’ve got to go overnight, three or four days is even better. The multi-day option lets you camp on different islands, as well as spend a full day or two enjoying the area (the first and last days of the trip are mostly spent paddling to and from Everglades City—to make good time, try to coordinate your direction with the in- and outbound tides).
Just pitch a tent above the high-tide line and gather abundant driftwood for nights around a blazing a beach fire. When you’re staging for the trip, make sure to load your kayak smart with everything you need, like food, water, camping gear as well as maps and redundant navigation equipment. Also make sure you can secure it all at night (inside the boat’s cargo holds is best) because crafty raccoons will take any food or water that’s not locked down.