Everglades National Park | SANDFLY ISLAND CANOE TRIP

Sandfly Island Canoe Trip map

Sandfly Island Canoe Trip map


See the Paddling web page for an interactive location map.

This report covers only the paddling aspect of the Sandfly Canoe Trail. For information on Sandfly Island and its hiking trail, see the Sandfly Island Trail review page.


Length: 5-mile loop
Time: 3-5 hours, depending on the tides and whether you stop at Sandfly Island

A paddling trip to Sandfly Island begins at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and crosses Chokoloskee Bay until reaching the fabled 10,000 Islands of Everglades National Park. If you don’t know where Sandfly Island is, ask a Ranger to point it out to you. With the destination in your sights, paddle straight for it and you should be there in an hour to an hour-and-a-half, depending on the tides.

A small gap in the island vista is the channel between Sandfly and the other islands

A small gap in the island vista is the channel between Sandfly and the other islands

It is roughly 1.5 miles to the first of the islands and another half mile to Sandfly Island where you have the option of stopping and hiking a 1-mile nature trail. This is one of the rare opportunities in the Everglades to visit an island, for most are lined with mangroves so thick that it is impossible to land and go ashore.

Typical shoreline of the mangrove islands in the Everglades

Typical shoreline of the mangrove islands in the Everglades

The landing point is marked by a dock with a portable toilet on it. There is a small beach to the right, and this is where you should land. The National Park Service does not recommend using the dock because algae has made the wood slick.

Dock at Sandfly Island

Dock at Sandfly Island

From the Sandfly dock, the route continues a little farther towards the Gulf of Mexico before looping around another island and returning to the Visitor Center, a total distance of five miles. The trip could take as little as three hours if you don’t stop at Sandfly and are able to paddle with the tides, and up to five hours with a stop and a fight against the tides.

The trip sounds easy enough, but there are four things you need to be keenly aware of: rough water, oyster bars, tides, and where to turn to begin the paddle back to the Visitor Center.

ROUGH WATER

Paddling across Chokoloskee Bay is paddling on open water. Waves can kick up rather quickly, so before departing, be sure to check at the Visitor Center for a weather report. Just because the water is calm when you leave does not mean it will be calm three to five hours later when you return. For an example, take a look at the two photos below. The first was taken when I left and the second when I returned. It certainly never got dangerous, but the waves were noticeably bigger later in the day; a day that was beautiful in all respects. Once you make it to the channels between the islands, the water gets much calmer because the mangroves block the wind.

View of Visitor Center at 11:30 AM

View of Visitor Center at 11:30 AM

View of Visitor Center at 4 PM

View of Visitor Center at 4 PM

OYSTER BARS

The water in Chokoloskee Bay can be very shallow at low tide. Oyster bars are common, and if you are not paying attention, you can run aground on one. The oyster shells are very sharp and can slice through the vinyl of an inflatable kayak, and can even tear into fiberglass and plastic hulls. Needless to say, no matter what type of boat you are in, you want to avoid the oyster bars. It’s easy enough to do if you pay attention. Try to stick to the deeper, darker water, and avoid the shallower, lighter-colored water if possible.

Oyster bar in Chokoloskee Bay

Oyster bar in Chokoloskee Bay

NAVIGATION

As you paddle past the Sandfly dock and continue farther up the channel, to follow the official water trail you must make a left turn around the tip of the island east of Sandfly (to your left) and loop back to the bay. The problem is that there are many places where you can turn left, and most just dead end into an inlet. So how do you know when to turn, especially when all of the islands look the same?

The easiest way to navigate the water trails in the Everglades is to use a GPS. A smart phone with a hiking app will do just fine as long as you can get a cell signal. While a phone’s GPS does not use a cell signal per se, it does need a signal to get the maps from a source such as Google, otherwise it just shows your position on a blank screen. The cell signal at the Visitor Center is good for most carriers, and the signal is adequate enough two miles out in the bay to download the proper maps.

The other option is to get a nautical chart and use a compass to navigate, which is the preferred method for longer trips such as one on the Wilderness Waterway. However, this is most likely a skill the casual paddler will not have, and thus for most people, using a GPS is the best method. Ultimately, if you are not sure of your navigational skills, you can turn around once you reach the dock at Sandfly and simply travel back the way you came. There is no shame in it, plus the entire trip between the islands is just “more of the same.”

TIDES


NOTE: If you are new to paddling on water that is affected by tides, please read the article How Tides Affect Your Paddling here on National Park Planner.


When crossing Chokoloskee Bay, you won’t notice a difference in whether the tide is coming in or going out, but once you get into the channels between the islands, if you happen to be going against a peak tide, you won’t be able to paddle. The water is REALLY MOVING. I experienced the water flow during peak tide—unfortunately from the wrong direction—and I can tell you it is the fastest moving water due to tides that I have seen on the east coast. In fact, it’s faster than any non-whitewater river I have been on. If I went five feet forward for every minute of the hardest paddling I could muster, that was progress. I was a tenth of a mile from the Sandfly Island dock when I gave up; it was simply an effort in futility.

I spotted a mangrove tree that had fallen over and stuck out into the water, so I angled my kayak so the current would pin me up against it. I had a lunch and then took a nap, overall spending a little over an hour waiting for the water to slow down enough so I could proceed. People paddling back to shore with the tide passed me like they had a motor on their kayaks, and it sure looked like fun. If you were on a calm lake and paddled as fast as you could, these guys were going faster by doing nothing.

Mangrove tree I used to wait out the strong tide

Mangrove tree I used to wait out the strong tide

Depending on when you leave, you could ride the tide out to Sandfly, but still be facing an outgoing tide when you make the turn to come back home. The trick is to time your departure so you catch the low tide on the way out and the high tide on the way back, or at least be paddling when the tide is slack.

By my calculations, the optimal starting time for a trip to Sandfly Island is three hours after high tide, when the water is flowing out at its maximum speed. It only takes an hour to get to the island, so if you spend an hour on the island hiking the trail, you still have an hour left on the outgoing tide, though at this point the flow is minimal and the tide won’t give you much help as you continue farther on the trail (won’t be against you either). By the time you make the turn around the tip of island, low tide should have passed and the water will just be starting to flow back towards the mainland. Granted, the flow will be minimal at this time and won’t help you much, but at least it won’t be hurting you either. In essence, you get some help on the way out and none worth mentioning on the way back, but at least you won’t be fighting the tides.

The only problem with this plan is that high tide might be at 2 AM and again at 2 PM. Obviously you won’t be making a trip at 5 AM, and there might not be enough daylight left for a 5 PM departure. Since a trip to Sandfly Island isn’t going to be on anyone’s bucket list, make the trip if your schedule coincides with the tide’s schedule. Otherwise, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over not getting to Sandfly Island, and I certainly don’t suggest paddling against the tides just to see it.

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Last updated on January 1, 2020
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