Here’s a little gem of a trip that may not be widely known, but should be on your list if you are looking for a deserted island paradise! Located 3 miles off the coast of Tarpon Springs, Florida is an island that boasts a 4-mile beautiful white sand beach, a picturesque lighthouse dating back to 1887, miles of lush mangrove, and a beach-front primitive campground. Anclote Key is one of the northernmost barrier islands on Florida’s West coast. It is reachable only by boat, with a kayak giving you the most access to all areas of the island. The island is truly a diverse
habitat, including beach, pine hammock, salt flat and marsh. It is home to close to 50 species of birds including the American Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Piping Plover. We saw a huge horned owl in June 2009! We have paddled to and camped on Anclote Key many times, and highly recommend it as a destination for a few hours of exploration, or even overnight camping! The fishing is good year round. Just off shore in the grass beds near the mangroves, you’ll typically find redfish, speckled sea-trout, snook, and sheepshead using live bait like shrimp, or pinfish. The entire western side of the island is expansive sugar-sand beach. Take a walk on the beach and discover sand dollars, lettered olives, conch shells, and even an occasional sponge. The southern end of the island is where you’ll find a meandering boardwalk trail, that leads to the historic 110-ft-tall Anclote Key Lighthouse.
Launching: From the mainland, there are several places to launch, within reach of Anclote Key. Since the island is almost 4 miles long, it might be easier to pick a launching spot that will reduce the distance across open water. If your goal is to visit the southern part of the island and lighthouse, the shortest crossing point is Fred Howard Park, located at 1700 Sunset Dr, Tarpon Springs, Florida, 34689. Enjo y your drive through downtown Tarpon Springs, as you work your way around the bayou to Fred Howard Park. You have 2 launch options from within the park. Follow the signs from the main entrance to the parking lot at the kayak trail, and begin your trip with a paddle through a winding mangrove tunnel, or continue driving across the causeway to the beach for a shorter paddle. Keep in mind that Howard Park closes at sunset and there is no overnight parking available. Once you enter the open water of the Gulf, you’ll see Anclote Key to the Northwest. It is approximately 2 1/2 miles from the beach at Howard Park to the Southern end of Anclote (add another mile from the kayak trail head). As you approach the island, a long dock will come into view. There are beach landing spots on either side of the dock, but the dock itself is reserved for state park personnel only. Continue around the left side of the island for the beach, continue to the right for mangrove, bayous, and fishing the grass flats!
Camping: If you’re planning on camping, you are advised to land near the north end, as this is where the primitive campground is located. A great launching point, giving you the shortest open water distance to the north end of the island, and providing free overnight parking is Anclote Gulf Park, located at 2305 Baileys Bluff Road, Holiday, FL. There is a fishing dock just beyond the parking lot, with anglers trying their luck all night long. From the fishing dock, you’ll see the north end of Anclote Key to the southwest. It is close to 4 mi
les of open water paddling from this point. As you apporach the north end, there is a shortcut to a great camping spot approximately 1/8mile south of the northernmost tip. You’ll enter a bayou just north of a small mangrove island called Dutchman’s Key. Continue west past Dutchman’s and you will enter a small bay. Cross the bay and you’ll discover the most narrow portion of Anclote. It is less than 100 yards through the pine hammock to the beach. Pick a spot, and set up camp! Primitive camping is free but you must call 727-638-4447 to check in. You will be asked to provide number of campers, arrival and departure dates and a contact phone number in case of emergency. Let them know that you are traveling by kayak. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you can avoid the weekend and plan your trip during the week, don’t be suprised to be the only tent on the beach. Campfires are permitted on the island, but caution should be taken. The ideal location for a beach campfire is down close to the waterline. It is impermissable to cut wood, but downed firewood is abundant as of this writing. This is because the park service is cutting down non-indigenous Australian Pine trees that have invaded parts of the island.
Tip: If it is a dark moonless night, walk along the water’s edge and look for bioluminescence. The water appears to light up, or "fire-off" as the gentle waves roll on shore. We really have enjoyed the light show walking down the beach at night.
Depending on the time of year, I would discourage a novice paddler from attempting the trek . The wind can provide some challenges, especially in the afternoon, with the likelihood of a strong sea breeze. Since most of the trip is over open water, there is also a lack of protection from choppy water created by larger boats. However, for kayakers with experience in these types of conditions, the destination is certainly worth the work! Get an early start since typically, the winds are less strong in the morning. For the return trip, a good strong sea breeze will "sail" you right back to the mainland. This is a great opportunity to troll a lure behind your boat, and catch more fish!