Everglades National Park | HELL’S BAY CANOE TRAIL

Hell's Bay Canoe Trail Map (click to enlarge)

Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail Map (click to enlarge)

See the Paddling web page for an interactive location map.


Length: approximately 6.75 miles, one way
Time: 3.5 to 4 hours, one way

I departed on the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail in late February with my destination being the Hell’s Bay Chickee, one of the many backcountry campsites in Everglades National Park. I had previously attempted an overnight trip in the Gulf Coast Area, but the weather forecast called for high winds, and paddling in that area requires traversing the open waters of Chokoloskee Bay—not a place that you want to be when the winds kick up. Thus, I decided to take my chances on a backcountry camping trip a week later when I was in the Flamingo Area.

PREPARATION

The first thing to do when preparing for a camping trip into the backcountry of Everglades National Park is to book a campsite. Reservations are now accepted for backcountry camping, which makes things a whole lot easier than the old way of first come, first served one day before you wanted to depart. You can book a campsite up to three months in advance. See the Backcountry Camping web page here on National Park Planner for more information.

Tides do have an affect on the narrow channels and large lakes that are part of the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail, though they are not so strong as to make paddling impossible if you happen to be going against the flow. But why make things harder? If possible, depart somewhere between an hour before to two hours after low tide. Since the trip takes about four hours, the optimal departure time would be 1-2 hours after low tide when the water really starts picking up speed as it flows back inland. When coming back, try to leave within this same three hour window around the high tide mark. See the How Tides Affect Your Paddling web page here on National Park Planner if you are unfamiliar with tides and paddling.

While you can continue paddling into the backcountry far beyond the Hell’s Bay Chickee, it is only up to this point that the trail is marked with navigational posts. These are numbered PVC pipes that are anchored to the riverbed. In theory, you can see from one post to the next and can’t get lost, but I hate to report that of all the marked canoe trails I went on—which is every one in the Everglades National Park—the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail is the most poorly marked. The trail passes through many large lakes, and the posts are simply much too far apart to be seen without keen eyes, which I do not have. I highly suggest bringing a pair of binoculars with you—20-20 vision or not—and be sure you locate the next post before paddling off in an uncertain direction. I brought this up to the park Ranger after I returned, but I just seemed to annoy him, and I am certain that my complaint went no further.

PVC pipe marker

PVC pipe marker

If you have not paddled a marked trail before, here are a few tips:

• If you come to any type of intersection and do not see a marker, stay straight.

• If you come an intersection and a marker is at the mouth of the channel on the left, that means to turn left. You should see another marker a little farther down that confirms you made the right choice.

• Sometimes the markers are hard to spot because they were placed close to the mangroves and these trees have grown so much that they have overtaken the posts. You may have to scour the vegetation to spot them.

• In most cases, you should see a post at least every five minutes unless you are on a long, straight stretch with no option to turn anywhere. The exception on the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail is the third large lake that you pass through. This is where the posts are much too far apart to be effective.

While the idea of trail markers is so that people can paddle the trail without any navigational aid, I still recommend bringing either a GPS or a compass, both if possible, and picking up the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail brochure at the Flamingo Visitor Center. A map is on the back, and while small, you can at least see what direction you need to be traveling in and can use the compass to find the way. You don’t need nautical charters for this, it’s not that complicated.

A GPS is an even better choice as long as you have the battery power to last two days. Consider purchasing an external battery pack if you frequently make long hiking or paddling trips. A dedicated hiking GPS is great, but a smart phone with GPS and a hiking app will work just as well, provided you can get a cell signal. A phone’s GPS does not use a cell signal per se, but it needs a signal to get the maps from a source such as Google, otherwise it just shows your position on a blank screen. I had Verizon, and while I could not make a phone call, I picked up enough of a signal here and there to get the proper maps.

For those new to this, I was too when I arrived at the Everglades (and Big Cypress National Preserve right before it). I never got lost for good and only occasionally made a wrong turn, and every wrong turn came to a dead end, so my mistake was obvious and I turned around and eventually found the correct way. The only thing you need to remember while paddling the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail is that there are no mangrove tunnels on this route. If you get off the trail and find yourself in a pond and the only way to go farther is by venturing down a passageway so narrow that you must pull yourself through the mangroves, you are heading in the wrong direction. So, other than wasting time and energy with an occasional wrong turn, you will find your way to Hell’s Bay Chickee.

The Hell’s Bay Chickee is one of three campsites along the trail. A chickee is a dock out in the middle of the water, so if you plan to stay at one, be sure you have a rope so you can tie your boat to the structure. Chickee is the word for “house” in the Creek and Mikasuki languages, which are spoken by the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians of Florida. Such houses were built on stilts and had a thatched roof with open sides.

Hell's Bay Chickee

Hell’s Bay Chickee

My equipment consisted of a tent and sleeping bag, a jacket to keep the mosquitoes off of me, a wide brim hat and mosquito net for my head, a flashlight, life jacket, and extra clothing. Regardless of warm weather during the day, chickees can be exposed to very high winds, and I can tell you from experience that the winds can make it really cold. If you are camping during the winter, bring winter clothing. Also, most of the trail is out in the open, so bring sunscreen if avoiding the sun is of importance to you.

For food I brought two gallons of water and a can of cashews and some trail mix. I was alone and had no reason to prepare a large feast, or even enjoy myself for that matter—I was just doing my job as a travel writer and simply had to survive overnight, thus the bare minimum of food. If you are traveling with a friend, feel free to pack a cooler with a more elaborate assortment of food. Beer and alcohol is allowed. If you plan to cook you must bring a gas stove because there are no grills at the campsites, and no grill or stove can use charcoal, wood, or anything else that produces ash, sparks, or embers.

THE ROUTE

The Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail starts on a narrow waterway through the mangrove islands. The tightest place is right when you leave the dock.

Boat launch for the Hell's Bay Canoe Trail

Boat launch for the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail

If you are in a kayak and have a traditional kayak paddle, there are many places where the waterway is so narrow that you must pull it apart and start paddling like in a canoe. Do not attempt this trail if your paddle cannot be broken into two pieces. Paddling in these narrow sections is slow going, so don’t expect to travel at your normal rate. It took me 3.5 hours to get to the chickee, so I suggest leaving with at least five hours of daylight left just in case something goes wrong. I paddled the entire way, stopping only once just long enough to get some water, so if you need constant breaks, plan on 4-5 hours to make the trip.

Narrow, mangrove-lined waterways make up the first two miles of the trip

Narrow, mangrove-lined waterways make up the first two miles of the trip

The one-mile mark on the trail is at pole #50, and it took me 50 minutes to get there. That’s not much more than a mile an hour, down from my maximum speed of three miles per hour. The trail remains very narrow all the way up to marker #80. However, this is not to say that you won’t find wider stretches, but most don’t last very long, and just as you snap your paddle back together you must take it apart again to fit through another narrow section.

Many people hope to see an alligator on a backcountry trip, but when you are paddling through mangroves I doubt this will happen. Out of all the trips I made, I only saw alligators on Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve, and only because parts of the shoreline were void of mangroves. Alligators like to sun themselves on the banks of canals and creeks, and back in these mangrove islands there is rarely a single foot of open shoreline. However, I did find one nice spot for an alligator near post #79 (1.6-mile point), but no alligator. It even looked as if people had landed here and made a few trails, a rarity for an island in the backcountry.

Only landing spot on the entire canoe trail other than at marked campsites

Only landing spot on the entire canoe trail other than at marked campsites

From marker #80 on, the trail becomes wide enough to put your paddle back together. The two-mile point on the journey is near marker #95, and three miles comes at #140. It took me two hours to reach this point, which, if you do the math, is a marked increase in speed since the first mile. This is due to the trail widening at marker #80 and allowing me to paddle normally (for a kayak).

Wider sections of the Hell's Bay Canoe Trail

Wider sections of the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail

If you must get out of your boat for any reason, you most likely will be getting into the water, for as mentioned, there are very few islands where you can land. In most places the water is not even waste deep, so that’s not a worry. The worry is jumping out of the boat and sinking knee deep in muck. Always stick your paddle into the water to not only see how deep it is, but also to check to see what the bottom is made of. I found that the narrow channels are almost always filled with mud, but when you come to one of the many ponds or lakes along the way, these may actually have a solid rock bottom. If you stick your paddle into the water and hear a clanking, you’re hitting solid rock…but don’t jump out just yet. There are also many holes in the limestone. Your paddle may hit solid rock in one spot and suddenly not hit anything at all because it found one of these holes. Test a number of spots before getting out.

The first major lake you come to is home to the Lard Can Campsite. The lake, which I will call Lard Can Lake for lack of a better name, starts at around the 3.5-mile point on the trail, and you won’t exit it until three quarters of a mile later. Regardless of nice weather, once you hit these large lakes the wind can really pick up, and if it is blowing against you, plan to have your paddling time cut in half again. Furthermore, extreme high winds create waves that can capsize your boat. If you find yourself facing such as situation, turn around and cancel the trip.

The trail markers are easy to follow across this body of water, but there are two types to be aware of. The tall ones are the trail markers. The short ones are the markers that points the way to the campsite, which is off to the east in an inlet. See the map below for an idea of the route.

Lard Can Lake trail markers

Lard Can Lake trail markers

Route across Lard Can Lake

Route across Lard Can Lake

The Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail does not cover Lard Can Lake in its entirety, but exits via a narrow channel about two-thirds down on the western side. Once on the channel you only have a quarter mile until coming to another large lake, Pearl Bay. It is here that I got temporarily lost. In this case a key trail marker was hidden in the mangroves. I ended up passing right by it and paddling almost to the end of the lake. Seeing that I was approaching a dead end, I headed for the Pearl Bay Chickee because I could see two guys camping there. They had a general idea as to where I should be going, but I told them that I did not see any marker. One guy pulled out his binoculars and was able to spot the marker, which was buried in the mangroves.

Entrance to the channel out of Pearl Bay (marker hidding on left side)

Entrance to the channel out of Pearl Bay (marker hidding on left side)

To avoid my mistake, when you first enter Pearl Bay, turn to the left and start paddling across the lake. You will pass one large inlet and then a second smaller one. When you get to the point where you can see the Pearl Bay Chickee, which will be off to your right at about the 2 o’clock position, start hugging the shoreline to the left. You will enter a third inlet, and it is here that the exit channel is located. You can see on the map below my incorrect route. The total distance across Pearl Bay is about a half mile.

Pearl Bay Chickee

Pearl Bay Chickee

Pearl Bay route and my mistake

Pearl Bay route and my mistake

Exiting Pearl Bay puts you back onto a narrow waterway, the last really narrow passage on the trip. At this point you have paddled approximately 4.75 miles. The Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail brochure claims the Hell’s Bay Chickee is 5.5 miles from the start, but that’s simply not possible, even if you never made a wrong turn and took the optimal route.

Channel between Pearl Bay and a large, unnamed lake

Channel between Pearl Bay and a large, unnamed lake

The channel is .3-mile long and spills out into a small pond. After zigging to the left and zagging to the right you will come to the largest lake of all, this one unnamed. It is on this lake that the posts are too far apart to see, but if you paddle in a southwest direction you will eventually find one.

Route across the large, unnamed lake

Route across the large, unnamed lake

After a .6-mile paddle across the lake you will come to one last channel, though this one is fairly wide, like a river. The channel is .3-mile long, and once exiting, the Hell’s Bay Chickee sneaks up on you really fast. The chickee is behind the left of two islands in front of you.

Hell's Bay Chickee is just around the corner

Hell’s Bay Chickee is just around the corner

During low tide the water level is far below the dock, so it can be quite difficult to unload your equipment. It is nearly impossible—not to mention impracticable and impolite if another camper is also at the chickee—to haul your boat out of the water and place it on the dock. Thus, you must tie it to the platform, and tie it up good. If you do not have a rope, you won’t be able to stay.

Boat docked at the Hell's Bay Chickee

Boat docked at the Hell’s Bay Chickee

Once at the chickee, it was now time to set up camp. The chickee consists of two platforms connected together by a walkway. A portable toilet is in the middle. The platforms are 10′ x 12′ and can be occupied by only one group of up to six people, though six people would be like packing sardines into a can. I’d say that one large or two small tents and up to four people could comfortably occupy one platform. If I were camping with a friend whom I did not plan on sleeping with, I’d reserve both platforms if available.

When camping on a chickee you are basically sleeping on a dock, and I can tell you that you might as well be sleeping on a block of concrete—I cannot recall a more uncomfortable place to sleep. I highly advise making room in your equipment bag for some sort of cushion or camp cot to sleep on. It may also be very windy, and if so, there is no practical way to pitch a tent, especially if you are alone. Regardless of circumstances, you cannot stake the tent down, both by regulation and practicality. Thus, if you do manage to pitch a tent when the winds subside, be sure to fill it with your equipment to weigh it down.

The winds were too strong to pitch a tent during my visit, so I took my gear and stacked it up to build a wall facing the wind and then simply unrolled my sleeping bag and slept on the other side (oddly enough, the mangroves, just a stones throw from me, barely even swayed). This was all fine and dandy until about 10 PM when the wind stopped and I was awoken by the buzzing of mosquitoes in my ear—I managed to pitch my tent in record time. While nowhere near as many as back at the Flamingo Campground, in my opinion, one mosquito is one mosquito too many. Also, the humidity is very high, and by the time I was awoken by the mosquitoes, everything I had was covered in dew and certainly would have been soaked by morning.

If you are on your own and nobody else is camping next to you, camping on a chickee is a lonely existence. There is absolutely nothing to do but sit and wait for tomorrow. If this is your situation, plan to leave in the afternoon just in time to put up your tent, eat, and go to sleep as the sun goes down. After spending a lonely night at the Hell’s Bay Chickee, I can say without a doubt that backcountry camping trips will be much more fun if you have a companion. The guys I ran into at the Pearl Bay Chickee were doing it right. They were two friends with a cooler full of beer and fishing poles, and that’s what they were doing when I arrived—drinking, fishing, eating, and having a good time.

When departing Hell’s Bay Chickee, look for the two nearby islands and head off between them. If you made any wrong turns on the way, you should have learned from your mistakes…should have. The only problem I had came once I reentered the large lake where the poles are too far apart. I could not see the next trail marker, and I had it in my mind that when emerging from the channel into the lake that I should just head straight, which is not the case. Turn towards the 10 o’clock direction and then stay straight on that course. You can see my mistake on the map below. The point where I corrected myself is the point where I finally spotted a trail marker.

My mistake when leaving Hell's Bay

My mistake when leaving Hell’s Bay

There are a few cases in which the trail markers make sense on the way out, but don’t make sense on the way back. One such instance comes when you are on the mangrove-lined channel that connects Pearl Bay with Lard Can Lake. You will come to an island with a marker right in the middle. The creek flows around either side, but nothing indicates which way to go. As it turns out, it makes no real difference because the two channels simply flow around the island and reconnect on the back side. However, the right channel is much wider, so that’s the way I went. Other than this, there are no other tricky turns that you shouldn’t already be aware of having traveled the route once before.

Marker at an island situated in the waterway

Marker at an island situated in the waterway

One thing I did run into on the way back that I did not encounter the day earlier were biting flies. They aren’t too bad, but once one finds you it will follow you for the rest of the trip until you kill it. Once these pests showed up I put on my hat and mosquito net to keep them from dive bombing my ears, nose, and mouth.

Of all canoe trails in the Flamingo Area, the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail is definitely the best for those making their first overnight backcountry paddling trip, despite a few poorly marked sections. If you head up the Wilderness Waterway, you will need to know how to navigate with a compass and nautical charts, as the trail is not marked with PVC pipes. My only regret is not bringing an air mattress or camp cot, and I’d think twice about sleeping on a chickee again without one. And of course, having a friend along for the adventure would make the trip a lot more fun. Other than that, the overnight camping trip was worth the effort and certainly one of the highlights of a visit to Everglades National Park.

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Last updated on February 24, 2021
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