It took a pile of oyster shells, heaped by by the Calusa, to create Cabbage Key. Although it’s been a popular destination since the 1930s, its roots go much deeper.
Underlying this island in Pine Island Sound is a massive mound, created a thousand years ago or more.
It was built here by the tribes who lived on Pine Island in a city they called Tampa. A seagoing culture, their tools were based on shells, their diet seafood.
They built mounds atop their discards of shells to have high ground above the surrounding water where they could place their dwellings.
Only accessible by boat, Cabbage Key is home to the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant, with its mouthwatering cheeseburgers and renowned Key Lime pie.
But before you tuck into a meal on this quiet island, take a loop around the island on the nature trail to dig into the mysteries that lie beneath your feet.
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Location: Cabbage Key
Length: 0.5 mile loop
Trailhead: 26.6565, -82.2225
Address: Channel Marker 60, Pine Island Sound
Fees: The cost of getting there
Restroom: at the visitor center
Land manager: Cabbage Key Inn & Restaurant
While it welcomes guests daily, Cabbage Key is privately owned. Private boaters welcome. Pets are not permitted.
No smoking on the trail. Expect mosquitoes along the trail.
Accommodations include six rooms in the inn and a collection of cottages ranging from the historic 1930s buildings to larger multi-room stilt homes.
You can only get to Cabbage Key by boat. If you don’t own a boat, several tour operators include the island among their destinations. All of them make sure you have time for lunch on the island. Tours start around $40 per person and do not include your meal.
From Punta Gorda, King Fisher Fleet offers a full day journey from the mouth of the Peace River through Charlotte Harbor to Cabbage Key, departing at 9 AM and returning after 4.
From Pine Island, three different operators run trips to Cabbage Key and water taxi service to neighboring Useppa Island. You’ll find information about them from Tarpon Lodge, sister property to the Cabbage Key Inn.
From Captiva, Captiva Cruises runs regular tours to Cabbage Key. Theirs depart at 10 AM and return by 3 PM. Our most recent journey to the island was with their crew.
Edged with mangrove forests, Cabbage Key mirrors the coastline of Pine Island and other other interior islands of Pine Island Sound.
There are no beaches here. That’s because the barrier island of Cayo Costa sits to its west, capturing the waves off the Gulf of Mexico.
There are no roads here, either. Just a surprisingly steep pathway from the marina up to the restaurant, which sits atop the midden, 38 feet above the sound.
The island is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is the vicinity where Ponce De Leon sailed through in 1513, when the Calusa still thrived along these shores.
Contact with the Europeans, unfortunately, brought both disease and slavery. The last of the Calusa escaped from their ancestral homes along this coast in 1760.
A homesteader moved to the island from Punta Gorda in 1896, planting coconut palms and tropical fruit trees.
In 1936, the son of mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart bought the island and had a winter estate built, as was fashionable among wealthy Northern families.
The water tower, boathouse, and several cottages date back to that era. The home was converted to the inn and restaurant, opening in 1944.
Once you’ve climbed up from the boathouse and gotten a reservation set up at the restaurant, follow the broad path to the left of the porch towards the water tower.
Signs indicate where the trail is located. You’ll notice an osprey nest atop the tower. Save the climb for the end of the hike.
Keep following signs past the horticultural area, the cottages, and the side paths that lead to other lodgings.
Look for the Smokey Bear sign. It marks the beginning of the nature trail, which provides useful interpretive markers all the way around the loop.
The well-maintained footpath leads into the tropical hammock that tops the high ground of Cabbage Key.
The forest is edged by the dense mangrove forest that protects this island from storms. When you get to the Y in the loop, keep right.
On our first visit here, we were impressed by the obvious narrow canals through the mangroves, so we chose the counterclockwise walk to see those first.
Archaeologists agree that the Calusa who plied this coastline in their canoes dug their own canals in many places, not just on these islands but all the way to Lake Okeechobee.
As the forest opens up, the trail provides views of Pine Island Sound through the trees beyond the great blue heron interpretive marker.
When you’re reading these markers, don’t forget to look up and down. We kept encountering unexpected wildlife.
On the high ground, the sandy path continues between the tropical trees and palms, dappled in sunshine for a short stretch.
An interpretive marker talks about the Calusa mound and other excavations done on nearby islands, including the extensive dig at the Randell Research Center on Pine Island.
As the trail loses elevation, it reaches the edge of the mangroves again. One of the trees in the tropical hammock pointed out here is the Spanish stopper, which has a skunky aroma.
It’s unlikely there are skunks on Cabbage Key. But lizards, snakes, and gopher tortoises are common. Watch the trunks of the mangroves for mangrove crabs.
Where a side path goes off to the right around halfway around the loop, keep left as the sign indicates.
The trail is close to the shoreline, with lots of sea grapes overhead. More interpretive signs call your attention to native plants.
Shards of fossilized shells dapples the footpath as it climbs out of that low area up to one of the odder sights along the trail, a strangler fig with outstretched prop roots but no trunk.
If you look closely, you can see just a foot or so of the remains of the cabbage palm that it strangled, hanging below the tangle of roots.
Cabbage palms and sea grapes dominate this part of the walk, with the mangroves right behind them. There tend to be a lot of mosquitoes in this stretch.
Dark water glistens between the mangroves and buttonwoods. You pass a live oak tree as the trail ascends.
Coming back to the beginning of the loop, turn right. Walk back past the cottages and through the tropical plantings.
Take the time to climb the water tower for an panorama from the top across the islands of Pine Island Sound.
At the restaurant, it’s worth wandering around the interior to see a sight you won’t see often: thousands and thousands of dollars in cash.
The dollar bills started going up on the walls when the bar opened in 1971. Of course, rumor spread it was good luck to pin one on the wall. We added to the collection.
Inside the restaurant, it’s obvious this was once a home, a fishing lodge in one of the best destinations for tarpon in the world.
While many people who stop here to dine head right for their cheeseburger, said to have inspired Jimmy Buffet, we found their shrimp salad a delightful choice on a hot day.
Even better, the key lime pie. There are so many ways this Florida standard can be presented, but this one was semi-frozen and just perfect.
See our video of the Cabbage Key Nature Trail
See our photos of Cabbage Key
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
To spend a day or a weekend on your own deserted island? Heaven. This is one of the tougher and costlier state parks to get to, but well worth it.
Protecting a string of beaches along the Gulf shore of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, this far-flung outpost of Lee County is home to one of Florida’s most delightful lighthouse museums
A city park with dramatic sunsets over a beach on Charlotte Harbor, Ponce De Leon Park is a delight for birders and paddlers, too.