Everglades National Park | WEST LAKE CANOE TRAIL

Alligator Creek, part of the West Lake Canoe Trail

Alligator Creek, part of the West Lake Canoe Trail

Length: approximately 9 miles, one way (18-mile round trip)
Time:  8-9 hours

The West Lake Canoe Trail begins at West Lake in the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park and ends at the mouth of Garfield Bight. The route crosses four lakes connected by narrow waterways. Most anyone making the trip is doing so to reach the Alligator Creek backcountry campsite. It’s a grueling 18-mile round trip if you don’t plan on camping, and if the wind kicks up on the lakes, paddling gets very difficult. And it will kick up as the day wears on.

Some of the channels that connect the lakes together are very narrow. If you are in a kayak and using a traditional kayak paddle, be sure you can break it into two pieces because at times you’ll need to use one half like a canoe paddle.

Once launching from the West Lake Boat Ramp, you’ll be in a small inlet. Immediately paddle to the right, following the shoreline, and you’ll quickly come to the main part of the largest lake on the journey, West Lake.

Paddling on Everglades National Park's West Lake at 9 AM

Paddling on Everglades National Park’s West Lake at 9 AM

West Lake is a long oval oriented in the east-west direction. Trail maps show the route hugging the shoreline, but we all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This entails paddling down the middle of the lake, eventually crossing to the other side. From what a local fisherman told me, hardly anyone goes boating on the lake, so you don’t have to worry about getting run over (I never saw anyone). If the wind is blowing, staying near the shore to avoid the brunt of it is probably your best bet, but hugging the shoreline is adding a lot of unnecessary distance to the trip. If you must do this, follow the south shore—stay right—for there is less shoreline than on the north side of the lake.

From the mouth of the inlet, the exit channel is diagonally across the lake at the southeast corner. The only problem is that West Lake is so long (3.5 miles across) that without a GPS you can’t figure out where the southeast corner is until you get nearer to the far end. Even with a GPS it’s hard to go in an exact straight line (see graphic below). By paddling nearly nonstop on perfectly calm water, the trip took my assistant and me one hour and fifteen minutes in an inflatable 2-man kayak.

Route across West Lake

Route across West Lake

The exit channel that connects to the next lake, Long Lake, is marked with PVC poles so paddlers can spot it more easily. However, you still have to scour the shoreline to find them. I highly suggest bringing along binoculars if you have some.

Entrance to exit channel at the east end of West Lake

Entrance to exit channel at the east end of West Lake

The risk you take on this trip is if the channels will be passable. There are no park Rangers coming out here on a daily basis to see if the coast is clear, so the only way to find out is to make the trip yourself. There were a lot of downed trees when I made the trip, but we were able to get by them. The water was very high, which helped get over underwater debris. If water levels were low, we might not have gotten through. Portaging around debris may not be possible, for I’ve seen people sink up to mid thigh in the muck at the bottom of some of these channels.

Debris in the channel between West and Long lakes

Debris in the channel between West and Long lakes

Channel between West and Long lakes in Everglades National Park

Channel between West and Long lakes in Everglades National Park

The channel is a quarter mile long, and within ten minutes we were at Long Lake.

Entrance onto Long Lake

Entrance onto Long Lake

After crossing the very long West Lake, I wasn’t looking forward to crossing a lake actually named Long Lake, but it’s actually not as long (2 miles). I think it gets its name from being long and narrow. When you enter it, stick to the left shore until the lake widens, then head straight down the middle. The exit channel is at the far end. There are a couple of islands near the middle that you must go around, and after passing them, the lake gets much narrower.

Route across Long Lake in Everglades National Park

Route across Long Lake in Everglades National Park

Long Lake in Everglades National Park

Long Lake in Everglades National Park

Just before we got to the east end, Long Lake was full of some sort of aquatic plant that grew tall enough to reach the surface (the lake is about three feet deep in this area). Paddling through it was not much of a problem, but it did slow us down a bit.

Grassy area on Long Lake

Aquatic plants on Long Lake

Aquatic plants in Long Lake in the Everglades

Aquatic plants in Long Lake in the Everglades

The exit channel was just a few minutes past the aquatic plant area. It is marked with a PVC pole as was the first channel. The trip across Long Lake took us one hour.

Exit channel at the east end of Long Lake in Everglades National Park

Exit channel at the east end of Long Lake in Everglades National Park

The channel is only about a hundred feet long and comes out at a small pond, but do not venture farther out onto it. Instead, immediately look to your left and you’ll see another PVC pipe that marks where the channel continues. You must make a 90 degree turn to get there. The marker you see when you first emerge from the short channel is the one you’d see when coming from the other direction, out of the channel you’re about to enter.

Make a sharp left upon exiting the channel at the end of Long Lake

Make a sharp left upon exiting the channel at the end of Long Lake

This second channel connects Long Lake to what is called The Lungs, a lake shaped like two lungs. This is the longest and widest channel up to this point: .3 mile long and perhaps 20 feet at its widest point. As with the other channels, there are a lot of trees down. If it weren’t for the debris that we had to constantly zig zag around, we could have paddled full speed. It took us about 20 minutes to navigate it.

Debris in channel that connects to The Lungs

Debris in channel that connects to The Lungs

Channel between Long Lake and The Lungs in Everglades National Park

Channel between Long Lake and The Lungs in Everglades National Park

When you exit, you may be thinking that you’ve reached The Lungs. Nope. This is just a small pond. Paddle straight across and you’ll be at the next connector channel in just a few minutes.

Small pond between Long Lake and The Lungs

Small pond between Long Lake and The Lungs

The next channel is the one that connects to The Lungs. It is just like the previous channel—wide, but with debris. It narrows somewhat after a few minutes, and while never becoming a mangrove tunnel, there is a section where you may find it easier to pull yourself through by grabbing mangrove roots than by paddling. All told, this channel is a quarter mile long and takes about fifteen minutes to navigate.

Using mangrove roots to move forward towards The Lungs

Using mangrove roots to move forward towards The Lungs

Entering The Lungs

Entering The Lungs

The Lungs in Everglades National Park

The Lungs in Everglades National Park

While The Lungs is a sizable lake, the West Lake Canoe Trail only passes through a short section (see graphic below). At this point we had traveled 6.75 miles in three hours. Of course, your distance will vary depending on the directness of the route you end up taking.

Route through The Lungs and on to Garfield Bight

Route through The Lungs and on to Garfield Bight

When you first enter The Lungs, paddle straight down the middle of the narrow section you find yourself in. When it widens, just keep going straight, but stick close to the right shoreline. Try to avoid turning into a cove as we did. If you have binoculars, you should be able to spot the exit channel, which is marked with a PVC pole. The distance across this segment of the lake is .75 mile, and it takes about 20 minutes to cross.

The next channel actually has a name: Alligator Creek. There were a ton of birds in this area. I couldn’t see them, but I sure could hear them. It was like being in an aviary with invisible birds. The channel is much nicer than the others, and it’s easy to make good time. The trip down Alligator Creek is .4 mile (15 minutes).

Paddling on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Paddling on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Alligator Creek widens to form a small lake that runs in the north-south direction (I’ll call it Alligator Creek Lake to distinguish it from the narrower segments of Alligator Creek). The lake is very shallow, and you may find that your paddle often hits the mucky bottom. When you get onto the lake, keep straight ahead for a quarter mile, sticking somewhat to the right shoreline. You’ll eventually come to a spot where two small land masses jut out into the water and form a narrow channel. Pass through this, and when the lake widens again, follow the left shoreline. The exit channel, still Alligator Creek, is another tenth of a mile away.

Wide section of Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Wide section of Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Narrow section of Alligator Creek Lake

Narrow section of Alligator Creek Lake

Exit channel at north end of Alligator Creek Lake

Exit channel at north end of Alligator Creek Lake

This section of Alligator Creek is the channel that goes all the way to Garfield Bight. It is wide and largely clear of debris, so it’s an easy paddle. You will pass something that looks like it might be the Alligator Creek backcountry campsite, but this is just some sort of research station.

Paddling on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Paddling on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Research station on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Research station on Alligator Creek in Everglades National Park

Being so close to the Florida coast, I expected Alligator Creek and at least The Lungs to be affected by the tides. However, from what I was told, the tide doesn’t have much affect on Garfield Bight. Water levels may rise and lower anywhere from a few inches to maybe two feet, so there’s always plenty of water in it. I noticed the water in Alligator Creek moving a little faster as the tide went out, but the effect was negligible. Other than this, I never notice any tidal effects at any point on the trip.

The Alligator Creek backcountry campsite is actually on Garfield Bight. When you reach the open water, stick to the right-hand shoreline. The campsite is just around the corner, and according to the park map, 8.1 miles from the West Lake boat ramp. Our trip was 9.2 miles long (4 hours), so 8.1 is the distance if you always take the direct route between the entry and exit channels on each lake. I drew a direct route using Google Earth, and the best I could do was 8.25 miles.

Garfield Bight in Everglades National Park

Garfield Bight in Everglades National Park

Alligator Creek backcountry campsite

Alligator Creek backcountry campsite

Terrain surrounding Alligator Creek Backcountry Campsite in Everglades National Park

Terrain surrounding Alligator Creek Backcountry Campsite in Everglades National Park

If you are camping at Flamingo Campground, it is possible to get there from here. In fact, the distance is about the same as heading back to the West Lake boat ramp. However, you must pass through Snake Bight, and unlike Garfield Bight, which always has water in it, Snake Bight nearly dries up at low tide. If you plan to end your paddling trip at Flamingo, you must know when low and high tides are and depart at the appropriate time so that you hit Snake Bight at high tide. You’ll also need a ride back to your vehicle at West Lake.

For my assistant and I, it was time to turn around and head back the way we came. We were able to shave off a half mile by learning from our mistakes on the way out, but we were still a half mile off from the supposed 8.1-mile route. We also didn’t shave off any time. The winds had kicked up just a tad, and being in a light-weight inflatable kayak, paddling was extremely frustrating. We would both be paddling all-out on one side and still couldn’t keep the boat straight. We’d have to come to a complete stop, turn the boat, then start again, ad infinitum. I thought we’d never make it back. Overall, the round trip was about 18 miles and took a little less than 9 hours, which includes about an hour’s worth of stops.

Choppy water on West Lake later in the day

Choppy water on West Lake later in the day

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Last updated on February 23, 2021
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