Hell's Bay Trails and Camping

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By: Mercedes Diaz

For adventure-seekers who want to get off the beaten trail – literally – one of the best ways to see Everglades National Park is by exploring its backcountry waterways. Adventurers will need a canoe or kayak and backcountry camping gear, as well as experience and a good understanding of safety measures. They’re all essential for an unforgettable adventure in some of the area’s 1.5 million acres of mangrove islets, forest hammocks, marshes, lakes and ponds. 

Kayaking through mangroves in Hell's Bay trail.
Kayaking in Hell's Bay

Canoeing and Kayaking in Hell's Bay

Meander along the twisty Hell’s Bay Trail, a popular paddling trail that features two primitive raised campsites called chickees. The trail, a 13.5-mile roundtrip with more than 160 PVC trail markers, wanders through mangrove creeks and ponds to a series of small bays. With the trail’s near lack of banks, alligator sightings are infrequent but dolphins, blacktip sharks and crocodiles may be spotted. Bird lovers should keep an eye out for pelicans and egrets roosting among the mangroves.

Although the trail is considered beginner-friendly, navigating through Hell’s Bay can be a bewildering experience due to its dense tangle of mangrove islands and maze of branching creeks. To stay on course, keep your eyes peeled for the numbered PVC markers sticking out of the water. The marked trail ends at the Hell’s Bay chickee and, unless you’re an experienced paddler equipped with a GPS or someone who’s familiar with the rest of the Hell’s Bay paddling route, it’s advisable to head back at that point. Otherwise, one wrong turn can lead into a backwater maze.

Just a few minutes from the Hell’s Bay launch is the area’s other marked canoe and kayaking trail, Nine Mile Pond, a day-trip trail known for prime wildlife viewing. The five-mile trail, laid out with PVC markers, is dotted with sawgrass, mangrove islands and a few mangrove tunnels. 

Pearl Bay Chickee
Pearl Bay Chickee, a camping platform.

Backcountry Camping in Hell's Bay

Backcountry camping along Hell’s Bay Trail isn’t quite as primitive as pitching your tent in the backcountry wilderness but it is rustic enough to get the full effect of sleeping in the middle of a mangrove estuary. Since camping on land isn’t an option along the mangrove-forested waterways, overnighters sleep on chickees. Somewhat different from the traditional Native American Seminole thatch-roofed chickees on stilts, the park’s version is elevated a foot or so above the water, depending on the tide, and is covered with a wooden roof. Its open design allows for waking up to fresh breezes and the sound of nearby dolphins surfacing for air.

There are a total of 17 chickee campsites across the entire park. Two of those – Pearl Bay and Hell’s Bay – are accessible to paddlers on the Hell’s Bay Trail. Each campsite features two chickees connected by a walkway with a shared portable restroom. Each chickee can hold up to six people or one camping party.

Chickee camping comes with its own set of rules that you should be aware of before embarking on your trip. First of all, fires are prohibited on the chickees, so keep track of expected weather conditions and pack warm layers if necessary. Most importantly, standard tent stakes and nails are not permitted. The preferred camping shelter is a standalone tent, or you can rough it in the open air with your sleeping bag.

Reservations for chickee sites are available through recreation.gov. Advance reservations are available on a rolling basis, starting three months ahead of travel dates.

Man setting up fire in primitive campground.
Research safety tips ahead of your visit.

Exploring Hell's Bay Safely

Heading into the backcountry always carries potential dangers with it. Proper preparation and thorough research can lower the chances of anything making your getaway less than magical. 

Here are some key safety tips:

  • Make sure friends and family know when and where you’ll be traveling in the backcountry. 
  • Be aware that cell service in the Everglades can be spotty at best. 
  • File a float plan so that park rangers are aware of your location and plans.
  • Keep your physical fitness level and any physical limitations in mind when venturing into the backcountry. Familiarize yourself with the terrain on the ground and in the water to be prepared for any potential challenges.
  • Be aware that the weather in the Everglades is often very hot and humid. Be sure to pack sunscreen, insect repellent and sun- and insect-protective clothing.
  • Do not feed any wildlife, including birds. 
  • Alligators and crocodiles may appear statue-still, but they can react very quickly. Stay at least 15 feet away from them. If they begin hissing, you’re definitely too close. These animals are most active at night, doing the bulk of their hunting from dusk until dawn. 
  • Be aware of poisonous plants, including poison ivy and poisonwood, which can cause severe skin reactions. 
  • Vultures can be attracted to rubber on cars and may cause damage to the rubber molding around windshields and sunroofs. Consider parking in full sun or covering your vehicle.

Best Times to Experience Hell's Bay

The dry season – November through April – is best for paddling through Hell’s Bay. During that time, temperatures are more moderate, daily rains have subsided and mosquitoes are at a minimum. The wet season, from May through October, marks the high season for daily thunderstorms as well as mosquitoes and biting flies, especially in mangrove habitat. Be advised: With the onset of the wet season, park staff hours scale back to intermittent availability.

Launching Your Everglades Paddling Adventure

When you arrive at the Homestead entrance, drive down the main park road, known as State Road 9336, for 38 miles, ending up at the Flamingo Visitor Center. If you’re all set with your own canoes, you can drive back down the main road to the Hell’s Bay Trail canoe launch, located about 30 miles from the park’s Homestead entrance. It’s marked with a large sign, and parking is available along the roadside near the launch.

Looking to rent a canoe or kayak? Drive to the Flamingo Marina Store, where rentals are available from the park’s outfitter, Flamingo Adventures. The outfitter will transport your canoe to the Hell’s Bay Trail canoe launch.

Before you pack up your camping gear and grab a paddle, check out the park map and take a look at the detailed Wilderness Trip Planner for everything you need to know, from pre-trip considerations and permits to essential gear and backcountry camping details and safety.

Everglades National Park Visitor Information

Park entrance fees are $30 per car, and all overnight stays require a $15 backcountry permit, which can be picked up at the Flamingo Visitors Center. Chickees can be booked no more than 24 hours in advance. A fee of $2 per person per night is charged.

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