Encompassing hundreds of mangrove islands in the Florida Keys, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect place to paddle. Stretching from north of Marathon to north of Key West, the refuge includes miles and miles of unique coastal habitat.
The refuge was designated in 1938 to protect birds and other wildlife. As the name suggests, herons and other wading birds are common here; so are nesting double-crested cormorants. Look up to search the sky for the soaring of magnificent frigatebirds, the wingspans of which can spread over 88 inches.
The mangroves themselves are worth a close look, and they are part of one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Here, mangrove prop roots rise above the bright blue shallow water as the tide retreats, revealing intricate nooks and crannies that provide habitat for a myriad crustaceans and fish species. Anglers can try their luck with snapper, barracuda, and more. Paddlers should keep their eyes open for sea turtles and dolphins feeding in the calm waters.
There are multiple boat launches that provide water access, and local businesses have canoes and kayaks for rent. When visiting for the first time, stop by the visitor center at 179 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key, to talk to a ranger about current conditions and possible launch points.
When paddling, keep a respectful distance from the birds and other wildlife; they can be sensitive to disturbance. A good rule of thumb is to remain 100 yards away, using binoculars or telephoto lenses for up-close views. Winds can whip through the watery spaces between the islands, and it’s important to acknowledge ability levels before launching on a long trip.