FL - Biscayne National Park - 2007/12/01 to 2007/12/04

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Just a few miles from the three part skyscape of Miami, the often overlooked Biscayne National Park is a wonderful destination for kayakers. With all the natural features of the Florida Keys and some history thrown in as well, a trip to Boca Chita and Elliott Key makes for a nice unhurried weekday experience.

Day 1

Twenty two hours and twelve hundred miles after leaving Baltimore, we arrived at the Dante Fascell Visitors Center of Biscayne National Park at 1:30 in the afternoon. To us, so recently arrived from the cold and blustery north, the 83 degree air blowing in from the Atlantic felt hot and heavy with humidity. The midday sun beat down on us hard as we strolled around the small grounds of the park headquarters and walked out along the shoreside walkway to look out over the open waters of Biscayne Bay.

Located on the mangrove lined shores south of Homestead Florida, this park is one of those small, close to a major metropolitan center National Parks that gets no respect - the Rodney Dangerfield of south Florida. The visitors center is on the west side of the bay about half way down the nearly closed off bay with the teaming, growing Miami on its northern edge. Farms and housing development press in from the western mainland side. Only the designation of this park has preserved the thin line of mangroves that buffers this bay from the sprawl that would have otherwise overtaken it.

We went into the display area of the visitors center where many different types of animals and their shells, bones and feathers are on display. A short 10 minute movie about the bay is run on demand of the few visitors who show up even on a nice Saturday afternoon. The ranger staffed desk was fairly knowledgeable about the distances, amenities and fees of the two campgrounds located of Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key 8 and 10 miles respectively to the east. In fact they made the very good suggestion to reverse our planned itinerary and go to Elliott Key first as Boca Chita would be heavily inhabited by party boats for Saturday evening. We signed the form with our float plan and headed over to the boat concession to get the latest weather report. One of the major attractions here is a snorkel/dive tours that leave from the docks and travel 6 miles out past the keys we were headed for to the patch reefs along the edge of the continental shelf.

The report was for continued moderate winds of 10 to 15, but as usual, right from where we wanted to go. That would make the paddle over much slower than I had hoped for. We had arrived a little later than I wanted and now we would have to hurry to make it to the camp by sundown. We packed up the boats and launched from the kayak concession area which has an inexpensive and very effective kayak launch made from PVC pipe. The pipe was supportive and slippery enough to allow a seal launch off the shore. Two large mounds of stone awaited distribution to improve the launch site.

We paddled out and set our course to a little south of east. It was not possible to see our destination from the low vantage point of the kayak only three feet above the waves. But soon some foliage started to appear along the once unbroken horizon line. We paddled for an hour before arriving at a channel about one third of the way across. Our progress was slow against the headwind and with the boats loaded with camping gear. We had a decision to make - go on with the likelihood of arriving in the dark or turn back and try again in the morning. We discussed it briefly and decided to go on.

The wind kept up and even increased a little as we pressed hard to get to the other side of the bay as the sun sank into the cloudless western sky and dipped behind the horizon. I had set our course more into the wind for the first hour while we were fresh which allowed us to come off the wind a little in the last two hours. We pulled into the boat basin at Elliott Key in heavy twilight. There was a bright green light on the supplies dock to the south of the basin. The lights of the boats and their tent camps had guided us the last fifteen minutes. Still it was too dark to see any possible shore landing sites and all the immediate places near the boat basin were bulkheaded or covered in coral rock. It wasn't until morning that we found the swimming "beach" to the north of the boat basin that would have made a much easier landing spot. I headed into the basin and found a floating dingy dock that allowed us to pull ourselves up onto the armpit level platform, empty some of the gear out of our boats and pull the boats up into the grass beyond the seawall.

Immediately a horde of mosquitos and no-see-ums descended upon us. The mosquitos responded to chemical repellants but the no-see-ums paid no attention to any of the various concoctions we had with us. The only protection was to cover exposed skin, a very hot selection in the sultry night. I have heard that Avon's Skin So Soft will deter the little pests but I have no experience with it. If you had a bottle there that night you would have gotten a pretty hefty sum for it I think.

We put up the tent and tossed our wet gear on the picnic table nearest our landing point. If we had arrived earlier we probably would have pitched the tent further out on the quays away from the woods and the whirring winged suckers, but we were too tired to bother. Instead we pitched between the two boat basins and out of the way of the boat campers. Wayne slumped down on the table, deciding against dinner, while I cooked a simple rice and curry meal under the solar lights of the campground.

The boat basin was about a third filled with camping Cubans from nearby Miami. The sounds of salsa, laughter and the generators needed to run it all made for much less than a wilderness experience. The ranger assured us that the music and generators would all go off at 10:00 P.M. which they did. But a few of the generators were back on by 11:00 P.M. (after the ranger retired) keeping the boat air-conditioners running. They ran all night. Unfortunately some were the older, much louder generators than the new little Honda generators which make almost no sound except when quite close to them.

The night was spent tossing about in the heat and being munched on by a few mosquitos which had invaded the tent during the set up. Wayne couldn't sleep and finally he got up about three in the morning and went outside where the mosquitos chewed on him some more.

Day 2

In the morning we walked some of the trails to the east of the campground through the trees. When the path was wide and the breeze blew down them, it was OK. But when the trails narrowed or at a junction where a trail opened up into a grassy area, the swarms of mosquitos made us run. They were really bad even with the repellant on. I returned to camp and pulled out my head net, which helped with the mosquitos, but the tiny no-see-ums went right through the too large mesh.

Out on the end of one of the quays was a pile of coral rocks that hosted a flock of small spiny lobsters enjoying their protection within the boundaries of the National Park. Under the watchful eye of the ranger, they seemed to be safe.
After breakfast we launched our boats into the water and repacked them while they floated next to the low dock. We added some water to our supply as there is none available at the Boca Chita campground. Here there is potable water, cold showers and flushing toilets. There would none of that where we would be for the next two nights.

Leaving the boat basin we turned north and paddled up along the western side of Elliott Key to a pass between Elliott and Sand Keys. Along the way we drifted over shallow seagrass beds. These meadows and the mangroves along the shore are the most productive areas for sea life. It is where many of the species of marine life get their start. Shrimp, fish and birds all depend on this place.

On the other side of the channel that varied from twenty feet to just a few inches, we faced the open ocean. The turquoise water gradually deepened as we made our way out to a patch reef some two miles offshore. Once again we were battling the wind which had returned into the common southeast wind pattern and directly opposed our progress once more. More sensible creatures spread their sails out and let the wind push them along, collecting a meal as they effortlessly drifted through the water.

We paddled against wind and wave and made it out to the patch reef marked by a large navigation marker. There were already two boats there tied to the two mooring floats provided for just that purpose. With the seas running a little and the strong wind overnight, the visibility was quite poor and we did not see much. Neither of us was tempted to go over for a closer look, preferring to stay in our kayaks.

Leaving the patch reef we crossed the boat channel again headed for the south end of Boca Chita Key. The wind and waves were now at our back and we enjoyed the easy paddle through the bright blue waters. We arrived on the north end of the island where we found a nice sand beach awaiting us. We pulled up onto the gentle shore and found a perfect spot for the tents under three waving palms. We had the whole campground nearly to ourselves, with a beautiful view over the water to the Miami skyline on the northern horizon. The boat basin however was jammed with boats docked two and three deep. Salsa and mambo music and the smell of barbecued pork, rice and beans wafted over from the busy area.

The development of Boca Chita was done long ago when Mark Honeywell, the industrialist entrepreneur who founded the company bearing his name, the thermostat/ HVAC controls company, created a retreat for himself and his corporate friends. Many industrialist made the rapidly growing Miami their winter retreats. Most remained in the more accessible Miami area, building imposing mansions out of the mangrove swamps. Honeywell retreated further south, building the boat basin, an ornamental lighthouse, a main lodge and several outbuildings. He visited his island in his large yacht, holding extravagant feast in the coral column pavilion that serves the same purpose today. The main house, a small house and lighthouse still survive, but the southern half of the island has reverted to nature and is not being maintained by the park service. The lighthouse, which is locked up, never functioned as a navigation aid, but served merely as a picturesque vantage point on the island. With the afternoon sun shinning through the empty glass dome on top, it does seem like the light is active.
The light house and all the buildings are constructed with coral blocks, probably harvested when the boat harbor was created.

In the afternoon we launched our now empty kayaks and headed north along a series a small islands named the Ragged Keys. This collection of uninhabited and precariously developed keys lie due north of Boca Chita. Sitting in shallow water, they are surrounded by seagrass meadows. Drifting over the green fronds of waving turtle grass we saw starfish, both orange and yellow, through the calm water. On the other side of the little channel between our camp and the next island was a series of posts. On each post was a bird, mostly cormorants but also pelicans. They kept us entertain all day with their fights and diving for fish in the swift current running between the two keys. A flock of ibis wheeled in to walk along our little beach and hunt bugs. We wished them great success along with the dragon flies flitting here and there, landing on the palm trunks and picnic table tops.

After returning from our trip, we went over to the pay station and completed the self service payment by filling out a card and depositing $15.00, a fee that only recently was raised from $10.00. We had to borrow a pen as there was none provided and neither of us had a writing instrument. After we put our envelope in the steel payment tube, we walked around the basin looking at the very expensive yachts and drooling over all the good things cooking on the charcoal barbecues. It made returning to camp for our freeze dried dinners all the more difficult.

We spent the afternoon enjoying the warm sun and appreciating the sunset as the fire of the descending sun backlit the palms and cast a warm glow on the rocks in the lighthouse.

Day 3

The next morning was bright and calm with cumulus castellanus clouds parading north along the axis of the Gulfstream just 7 miles offshore. The calm morning scene belied the hell that we had been through the night before. We had left the tent screens open during the middle of the day to air out the tent. Apparently thousands of no-see-ums took the opportunity to invade and went to work munching on us as soon as it got good and dark. I hid under my light silk sheet spread out on top of my sleeping bag, but poor Wayne had no protection and was unmercifully chewed. This morning his back looked like it had been peppered with rock salt from both shotgun barrels of an irate father.
We wanted to paddle out in the bay today and we started by paddling down the seaward side of Boca Chita and Sand Key to the passage we had used the day before. With a calmer wind we could see down into the water much better, watching the waving sea fans, gorgonians and bottom life as we paddled by.

Passing through the cut again, this time in the opposite direction, we negotiated the shallow water and stopped for a respite in a small sliver of exposed sand. The fantastic colors of the shallow bay surrounded us. The life in the seabed could be seen all around. Rays, sharks and starfish were encountered within tens of yards of each other as we headed out to the slightly deeper water of the bay beyond.
We paddled out to about a third of the way across the bay to a shallows where we turned north and headed back up to the north end of the Ragged Keys before turning south once more along the outer coast.

With the winds now calm, the shallow water was like floating in a giant aquarium. We spent so much time looking over the side that our necks where in danger of locking up.
We returned to camp where we discovered about half the boats had left. I went out for a snorkel in the channel and saw lots of fish including parrot fish, yellow striped grunts, jacks and mangrove snapper. By six o'clock in the evening all but two boats had left and those departed some time after eight. We sat in the strong west wind under the lighthouse. The breeze kept the mosquitos away and we were thankful for it although if it stayed in that direction it would mean that we would be paddling upwind once again all the way back across the bay the next morning. We returned to the tent which we had successfully debugged and spent a much more restful night.

Day 4

Arising with the sun, we packed up camp and readied the kayaks for the return trip. The wind had shifted to the north and lessened during the night. We launched from the beach in front of our campsite and paddled one last time past the lighthouse. Rounding the point we could see the stacks of the power generation plant just to the south of our destination. I took a bearing on it and we started out across the bay.

By the time we had reached the shallows about a third of the way back, the weather had changed. The north wind had swung into the west north west, a quartering headwind. The air had gotten heavy and we could see rain back on the mainland. A fog had developed and the landmark smoke stacks were no longer visible. They stayed in the mist until we were quite close to them so it was good that I had an early bearing before they disappeared. it is always a good idea to take an bearing as soon as you can because you never know when things will change fro the worse.

We continued across the bay with the fog lifting only as we were just one mile from the visitors center. The paddle back was much easier in the relaxed pace and lower winds than we had on the way out. We pulled out at the kayak launch, used the water spigots to rinse off our gear and went in to sign out and close our float plan. Then we were in the car, headed back to Homestead and a solid restaurant meal. From there we drove down to John Pennekamp State park on Key Largo where we would spend the rest of this trip.

Continue to John Pennekamp................




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