When we arrived in the area Sunday afternoon the ranger station was closed due to a hurricane warning and they were not issuing any backcountry permits until Monday. After altering our trip plans several times to be off open water till later in the week because of the after affects of the hurricane, I was now beat out of the campsite for the 1st night and left with no other choice but to go against the park services advice and I booked Rabbit Key (an exposed island) for the 1st night.
So we launched out of Everglades City Tuesday AM with the wind at our backs, the tide with us. We had been told by the locals not to stay inland around Chokoloskee Island at low tide because it was really shallow and they have negative tides there. But with a small craft advisory and being that we were all novice kayakers I thought shallow was better than the 10 foot waves and 40 mph wind gust they were reporting. We did hit a oyster bed and had to walk the boats a little bit, it was not a big deal since none of us had fiberglass boats. Other than that we ran into no difficulty getting out to Rabbit Key. Despite the small craft advisory on the radio, the water looked like glass and the wind was with us. According to our GPS our average speed was 5.5 mph and we barely paddled. Rabbit Key was beautiful, we had most of the day to fish from the sandbar and explore. I pair of very bold raccoons bothered us a little throughout the night (we locked all food and water in the portapotty) they seemed to have virtually no fear of people. No-see-ums were bad at dust but then went away. The breeze helped keep away most of the mosquitoes.
The next day was a hard paddle against the wind and tide through Rabbit Key and up the Lopez River through crooked creek. At least the low tide gave us sand bars to get out of the boats and stretch our legs. At the entrance to the Lopez River we again had to walk the boats. We stopped at Lopez River ground site to stretch our legs, but very quickly retreated to our boats due to the infestation of mosquitoes. Be careful of motorboats in crooked creek, it is narrow and windy and those boats down even slow down when they pass within 15 feet of you. Finally we reached Sunday bay were it also was very windy. We paddled onto the 3rd cove hung a left (you can not see the chickee until you are in there). It was about halfway to high tide which made it interesting to get up on the platform, even more interesting getting your gear out. We all slept out under the stars that night, bugs were not too bad. We didn't worry about putting the food & water away that night since it didn't seem likely that a raccoon would swim out to the platform. We had been told by locals that sometimes dolphins feed there, but we saw none. We were however woken at 3AM by what sounded like a HUGE alligator bellowing. VERY SCARY, but I felt safe on the platform and it was very cool to hear.
Last day we left early in the AM and paddled hard. We went out of Sunday Bay through Coot Bays and Mud Bay down to Turner River and out to and around Chokoloskee Island and back into Everglades City.
I forget the exact GPS readings but I know the whole trip was 30+ mils and we did it in about 10 hours total of paddling. We were all novice kayakers and the only real obstacles were the shallow oyster beds and the possibility of rough water by Rabbit Key. I had booked 2 extra days for bad weather into the trip but looking back I was not prepared to alter the route when the bad weather went beyond that. I had several alternate trips planned but none of them avoided open water altogether. We had a great time, it was our 1st time in the area and we plan on going back next year. This time with more experience and more knowledge of the area. On this trip we saw lots of birds (list is too long to mention), alligators, raccoons, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs a blowfish, jumping fish and 5-foot snake.
Primitive and non-primitive campgrounds, several local hotels and Ivy House B&B. For $2 we used showers at a campground right on Rt. 29 (south bound side) in Everglades City, to get cleaned up before heading out of town.
Not during off-season, $10 per group in season. You cannot apply for the permit MORE THAN 24 hrs before your launch time, but do is as soon as you can because it is very common to be beat out. We learned a hard lesson, I was filling out the permit form when someone else came in the door and asked for a permit form. He leaned over my shoulder and saw the shelter and date I was applying for and asked the ranger to book that date and Chickee for him. Despite all the arguing I did that permits are on a first come 1st serve basis, that I was there first and already had it on my form, they gave it to him since he had asked for it to be entered in their book first. So demand they book your sites BEFORE you complete the form !!!!! Also another problem we ran into is that people commonly book the chickees for 7 people even when they have 6 or less in their party, like this guy who I found out later only have two of them and booked for 7. The chickees are close together and they want privacy and the park service seems to have no way to verify the size of the group. Have several trips planned in case you don't get your campsite, and have alternate routes depending on not only campsites but weather, too.
FYI another option is to launch from Chokoloskee Island, however there is a $3/ boat launch fee and $10 per car parking fee.
Everglades City Rt. 29 South to the Everglades City Park Ranger Station.
"The paddlers Guide to Everglades National Park" & Waterproof Charts 40E