Everglades National Park Highpoint Trip Report

Turner River area - Shell Middens

Date: March 9, 2014
Author: Dave Covill

On March 9th, 2014, Beckie and I visited Chokoloskee Island, at the far northwest corner of Everglades National Park. We were visiting my parents, Ruth and Ray Covill, who live in Naples, Florida half the year. This was all brought about by Andy Martin’s recent post about shell middens and their height. John Kirk had raised the fact that there is a 19 foot contour within the park boundary, and was that the true park highpoint or not.

John Mitchler and I have been aware of the various shell middens (mounds) with their location and approximate heights for many years, over a decade in fact. Greg Griffith did original research, including Rattlesnake Hammock, an area deep within the Park, which had a spot elevation of roughly 9 feet. I noticed that the park boundary had expanded northeastward recently when I visited the Everglades Visitors Center at the north edge, near Shark Alley, perhaps in 2002 or so. I was perusing a USGS Topo map on the wall, and I saw a closed contour of 10 feet surrounding Chekika, a small developed area at the park's far NE corner a few miles from paved roads in west Miami. Inspection reveals that this area is largely natural, and that the high ground there is perhaps 12 feet high. Most Park Pointers consider this to be the park's true natural ground highpoint. It is also known as "Grossman Hammock" locally.

Shell middens exist throughout Florida's southern half. One on Monkey Key offshore of Fort Meyers is 31 feet, quite high on a very small island. Another is 51 feet high, on Marco Island, a rather large island. This would be the Collier County HP, if we considered middens as natural ground, as the high natural ground is about 45 feet high many miles north at the Hendry County line. There are many middens lying close to or within Everglades National Park. A high one of note is on Dismal Key, a few miles west of the far northwest corner, in Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Reserve.

As Andy notes and links to, a gentleman named William Sears performed archeological studies at Turner River a half century ago. There are two dozen mounds noted in his paper, per a survey done around then by a Mr. Thomasson, all lying along the Turner River's east bank, starting about one mile from the developed island of Chokoloskee. This lies at state highway 29's far south end.

From US 41, 25 miles east of Naples and its intersection with CR 951, turn south on 29 and drive 3 miles to Everglades City, a larger development with all amenities. Proceed through town a mile to a roundabout, then an additional 3 miles south along a causeway to the close edge of Chokoloskee Island. On the left, immediately upon gaining the shore of the island, you will see a boat ramp, and very small marina, then high dollar RV / Mobile home slots on the left, and larger condo buildings on the right (west). Look for the office to the marina, called Outdoor Resorts of America. I chatted with a few fellows in boats along the dockside, but quickly figured that was going nowhere. I needed to either rent a canoe or sea kayak, or a small boat, or find a person with a small boat willing to take me the one mile to the Turner River Midden site. I entered the office and was met by Kenny Brown, a very friendly fellow perhaps my age, who owned the operation. His family has lived in close proximity for many generations. Kenny was, in so many words, the perfect guy to run into. He knew everything and everyone locally. He had canoes and kayaks and small boats for rent. His rates range from $15 for canoes and kayaks to $85 for small boats, with about a 15 horsepower engine. Better still, he knew a few local fellows who might be interested in a one hour excursion. I of course was willing to part with some cash for “gas money”, and a deal was cut with one gentleman, Chuck McDevitt, a snowbird from New York state with a small outboard and a 15 horsepower motor. Another local, Kenny’s cousin Craig Daniels, was willing to drive his boat, but it was not in the water. He elected to come along as an observer. He was a fountain of knowledge, having grown up on or near the island. I recommend contacting him first, then Chuck. I of course recommend contacting Kenny if interested in self-propelled watercraft. I ended up giving Chuck $50 for gas money and his time.

It took perhaps 10 minutes to cross the bay at about 25-30 m.p.h. and reach the Turner River site. There is one obvious spot where the brush is cut back, and a small white sand beach is available for landing. There is a NPS sign there as well advising about do’s and don’ts. Craig accompanied me into the woods, while Chuck stayed with the boat or near to it.

We shortly found a very high mound, which we estimated to be about 20-25 feet high from water level. It lies past a few smaller mounds, in a line generally straight in from the shore. This mound seems to be the mound noted as 24 feet in Sears’ research paper and accompanying topo map. We walked on poor, wandering paths in every direction for quite some time, especially east and north, but the other mounds appear to be closer to about 10-15 feet.

There is semi-dense woods in all directions. I characterize the bushwhacking as moderate, perhaps a 4 of 10. No briars, no soggy swamp, just minor small trees and bushes. Next to the initial mound was an ancient water cistern of some sort. It was made of concrete, with shells mixed in, and an old roof covering now consisted solely of broken timbers. We noticed flagging along the pseudo-paths, and atop each mound. We met a young couple from Vermont who were doing Turtle research for The Nature Conservancy. Not sure how that all fit together, but they had traipsed all over the site, and agreed that people seemed to have been doing archeological research there recently.

When we had satisfied ourselves with the mounds in that vicinity, we got back in the boat and ventured farther upriver to the north. We went at least a half mile, and noted many more mounds visible through the brush, each perhaps 40-100 feet inland and 10-15 feet high. The difference between the height of these mounds and the initial mound, and its surrounding sisters, was quite noticeable. We did not go ashore in the northern half of the site. We could easily have beached the boat at any point and walked right in if we had chosen to. We ended up being gone about an hour and a half from the marina.

I believe the Turner River area to contain the highest middens in Everglades National Park. I have seen or heard of other mounds, which are usually noted to be 10-15 feet high. NPS rangers at the Everglades City Visitors Center believed that the Turner River sites contained the highest middens within the park as well.

I do not think a midden needs to be visited to claim credit for visiting the highest point within Everglades National Park. Much discussion has revolved around this issue. It’s a gray area, for sure, but to me, its either Man-Made, or Natural. I can’t buy into the British concept of “vegetated on top” or “a century has gone by…” To me, if it’s a coal slag heap {jumobo}, a trash mound, an Indian ceremonial mound, or whatever, it's still man-made. If the high spot is man-made, I look for the highest natural ground, even if that is immediately adjacent. Tuzigoot National Monument is a great example; the high ground lies at the lower edge of the structure made centuries ago.

I enjoyed the visit, and have some photos that Adam can link to off of this report. Nice pleasant half day adventure. I was told that the land was devoid of trees in the midden vicinity a century ago, and that farming was done. Hard to envision, as the trees are high.


Kenny Brown
Outdoor Resorts of America

Craig Brown (cousin or nephew?)

Chuck McDevitt

Florida Anthropology paper linked to by Andy
Map is on pages 2 and 3
On hitting the BACK arrow key, you go to the prior paper in the series,
which deals specifically with Grossman Hammock (Chekika Mound).