Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is a group of fragile coastal islands just off the town of Cedar Key, Florida. Established in 1929, Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge contains significant natural and cultural resources from pre-historic and historic times. Today, the Refuge consists of 13 islands ranging in size from 1 to 120 acres, totaling 762 acres. Ancient Indian cultures once used these off-shore islands as living areas – a place of shelter and where food from the Gulf of Mexico was plentiful and readily available. In more recent history, the famous Faber Pencil Mill was located on Atsena Otie Key where it’s remains can be seen today.
Wading birds, shorebirds, fishes, manatees, bald eagles, crabs, and even reptiles are some of the species of wildlife that find suitable habitat on the islands and marshes that make-up Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. An historic lighthouse, now operated by the University of Florida as a Marine Science Lab, sits atop Seahorse Key. Their goal is to conduct important research while at the same time educate future conservation leaders about the importance of this unique ecosystem.
Atsena Otie Key
Most public use at Cedar Keys is focused on Atsena Otie Key which is owned by the Suwannee River Water Management District and managed as part of the Refuge. Here visitors will find a dock, interpretive information, composting toilet facility, and a hiking trail that leads to an old cemetery. Historic ruins of the Faber Mill are readily visible from the island entrance from the dock.
Part of Seahorse Key, including the lighthouse, is leased by the University of Florid as a Marine Research Laboratory and classroom and is closed to the public. A few days each year, the Refuge and University host an Open House where the public is invited to visit the lighthouse.
Kayaking / Canoeing
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
Cedar Key, near Chiefland, Florida
Two hours or two days of paddling enjoyment in Cedar Key
by Dana Farnsworth, Outdoor Travels
Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge offers up a plethora of kayaking options for the novice or experienced paddler. Shallow easy to paddle water, plenty of bird life and the possibility of seeing dolphins are all calling cards of this refuge. Like everything else about Cedar Key, high paced, high tension, high blood pressure activities are not on their check sheet. The pace is slow at Cedar Key, really slow. Think Key West circa 1965, think Rumblestillskin on Prozac. Relaxation and the ability to slow things down a notch – or twenty – is key.
One you awake from your afternoon nap and decide to go paddling, you’ll find easy access to the water – if you enter via highway 347 (see map) into Cedar Key, you’ll be faced with a number of launching options that are all immediately accessible from the main road. For our short paddle, we chose the boat launch that is on the south side of the first bridge. With easy access and a lot of islands to explore, Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge is perfect for a multi day exploration or even a short afternoon paddle like we experienced.
Longer trips can be supported by camping at the campground on the northwestern portion of the refuge or by staying in or around Cedar Key at one of the hotels or privately owned campgrounds. Camping on the islands in the refuge is sadly, but understandably not permitted. In fact there is only one island with a hiking trail on it (see official description above). Our trip was for only a few hours, mostly in the area of Scale Key and the surrounding grassy islands. With a broad expanse of blue sky and its reflection almost perfectly mirrored in the shallow calm water, we explored around the islands finding, Egret, Heron and Gulls. Luckily, we were at the right place at the right time and were privileged to see several large fish feeding in very shallow water. Some odd shaped dorsal fins that stirred the surface left us wondering what types of fish these pointy fins belonged to.
There are really only two major things to plan when kayaking here. Watching the tides and planning accordingly. You don’t want to paddling against a stiff tide or get stranded on a mud flat a half-mile away from the boat dock. Where to eat and grab a cold one or two after you work up a hunger paddling around. Cedar Key is home to several quaint restaurants and bars.
That’s it! Planning a paddling adventure here is that easy. There are even a few places in Cedar Key to rent kayaks if you don’t have one. Overall, I was left wanting only one thing out of Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge and that was more time to explore the islands we didn’t have time for. I guess I shouldn’t have been in a hurry.
Trail(s): The Refuge consists 13 small, off-shore islands surrounding the community of Cedar Key.
Outdoor Travels Rating: 3 out of 5 for nice scenery, and easy access.
- Easy to navigate
- Lots of choices to paddle
- Cedar Key is interesting for dining, and hanging out
- Easy to paddle for a couple of hours or a couple of days
- No camping on any of the islands
- The interiors of all islands, except for Atsena Otie Key, are closed to the public to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Nuts and Bolts
Location: 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Florida, at the terminus of State Road 24.
Facilities: County campground, hiking trail, boat launches
Camping:All camping should be limited to the west bank along the stretch from Zolfo Springs to Gardner. Camping is prohibited on the east bank per the Peace River Ranch.
Note: When accessing the islands, it is important to pay attention to the weather and tide conditions. All islands are surrounded by shallow mud flats. During low tides, they become relatively inaccessible by boat.Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is accessible by boat only. Because of its small size and importance to wildlife, Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge can support only limited public use. The interiors of all islands, except for Atsena Otie Key, are closed to the public to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. The beaches of all other islands are open for public use with the exception of Seahorse Key from March 1 through June 30 annually when it is closed to all public entry, including a 300 foot buffer surrounding the island, to protect nesting birds. Interiors of all islands have thick undergrowth as well as poisonous snakes.
Activities: Canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, swimming, etc.
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