Kayaking around John Pennekamp State Park

The Key Largo Kampground, while on the water, is separated from the open ocean by yards of mangroves. The only way out is by winding through mangrove passages. Despite 30 years of visiting the area, we have done very little exploration of these paths. This year, since we drove to Florida, we were able to bring all of our gear, including our kayaks.

In past years, we have borrowed kayaks and followed the tides along the shoreline. One year we encountered a rental kayak and this has been an recurring inside joke.

Them: Hey! About how far is the Christ statue?
Us: Um, about 3 miles out in the open ocean.
Them: What direction?
Us: Well, uh, that way. Are you think about kayaking there? Cause it’s REALLY not a good idea to head out there in a kayak. It’s open ocean. Like really far. There are currents. If you miss it, you could end up in Cuba. Or, you know, die.
Them: Oh… Do you know any good bars we could kayak to?

So we know something about what is in the ocean, but have explored little of the mangroves. We started our adventures by hitting up the kayak vendor at John Pennekamp and begging access to their kayaking maps.

This was great to give us a sense of where the best trails may be. The actual route we took is below.Kayak trails outside John Pennekamp

On our first attempt, we headed southwest from the KLK beach through the wide shallow flats, but ended in what we thought were dead ends. Our kayak paddles hung up in the branches and we thought the routes were impassable.img_7392

So we circled back, through where the Bridge to Nowhere used to be, to the channel that leads to South Creek. From there we realized that what we thought were dead ends were actually the trail. This was an amazing experience as we wound through trails barely wider than our kayaks. We quickly recognized the value of our paddles that could be taken apart and uses as short oars.img_7398

Mangroves arched overhead and crabs scrambled along the roots. img_7391

Occasionally, the narrow passages opened to shallow flats and allowed us to check out prairie warblers and belted kingfishers.


The most amazing moment was sharing the narrow channels with a juvenile nurse shark. I got to shout out, “Shark coming your way!” I could have easily reached out and touched it.

We found the route one day and I returned a couple days later with my mother to share it with her. She and I also investigated a side channel that took us out to south creek.

All in all, this was a fantastic adventure that brought us closer to the Key Largo ecosystem. While I have never rented a kayak from John Pennekamp State Park and technically the trails we followed are slightly outside the park boundaries, I highly recommend exploring this area of South Florida.img_7346



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