Identifying the Southernmost Point

The main goal of my eight-month trip around America was to become the first person to visit all 16 extreme geographic compass points in the contiguous United States (i.e., the Lower 48 states).  Before I left on my trip, I did some research using my computer mapping software to help me identify the exact locations, and most of the 16 points had been easy to locate (see My Methodology).  I left Portland, Oregon in the spring of 2016 and visited my first extreme point, the westernmost point of the U.S. at Cape Alava in Washington state, on April 30.  By early November, I had reached Florida and, after driving over 20,000 miles around North America, I'd visited 13 of the 16 extreme points.  

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Above:  That's me being a total tourist at Key West in 1995, thinking I was at the southernmost point of the continental U.S.  This was before my "Extreme Geographer" days when I was blissfully unaware of the cold, hard truth -- har, har.

The final three extreme geographic compass points in the contiguous United States – the southernmost, southeasternmost, and south-southeasternmost points – were all in southern Florida but were more problematic.  Where exactly were they?  Identifying these three sites was more challenging than the others because much of southern Florida is a marsh or swamp, which gradually transitions into the ocean.  How do you tell where the land ends and the marshy swamp begins?  And what about all the islands, like Key West, which according to the Key West Chamber of Commerce is purportedly the “southernmost point of the continental U.S.”? Should I include islands in this quest?  Before I left on my trip, I had to identify precisely where these 16 points were, but the swamps and islands in Florida made it difficult.

Therefore before I started this trip, I created some rules so anyone could identify the exact same locations that I had (see My Rules), and my first rule was to not consider islands.  That’s because if you include islands, the task of visiting the 16 extreme compass points becomes virtually impossible, for me or anyone else.  Once you start including islands where do you stop?  How do you distinguish between an island and, say, a small rock that sits a little further out in the ocean?  And then maybe there’s a partially submerged rock that’s even farther out.  I may be stupid but I’m not crazy (or perhaps it’s the other way around), so I’m not going to paddle out in the ocean, whether it be in Florida, Washington, Maine, or California, just to set foot on some partially submerged rock three miles from the coast. 

That’s why I set up my rule about no islands, which thus limits my quest to the “mainland contiguous United States.”  And therefore, sorry to say, Key West was eliminated from contention in this quest.  I visited Key West in November 2016 but didn’t bother to visit the ridiculous concrete buoy that boastfully claims it’s the southernmost point of the continental U.S.  Heck, that buoy isn’t even the southernmost point of Key West.  And truth be told, Key West isn’t even the southernmost island in Florida.  Nope, that honor goes to the privately-owned Ballast Key, which is 10 miles west of Key West and about two miles south and is owned by a millionaire who made his money by, ironically, selling real estate in Key West. 

So again, I’m not considering islands, just the mainland part of the United States.  That solves the “island issue.”  And using that criteria, Cape Sable on the Florida mainland in Everglades National Park, and not Key West (or Ballast Key) is the southernmost point of the contiguous mainland United States.    

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Above:  During my trip to Florida in 2016, I took a ferry to the Dry Tortugas National Park.  On the way there, we passed by Ballast Key, the southernmost point in the continental United States, which is about 2 miles south of Key West.  It's also privately owned, so you can't visit it.

O.K., that covers the southernmost point of the U.S.  But where are the southeasternmost and south-southeasternmost points of the U.S.?  If you look at a map of Florida, you’ll probably agree that those points are somewhere in southern Florida, but where precisely?  This is where it gets difficult because there are lots of marshes in southern Florida that gradually transition into the ocean, so like I say, how do you tell where the mainland ends and the marsh or ocean starts? 

Months before I started this endeavor, while I was still in Qatar, I studied aerial photographs of southern Florida, trying to identify the southeasternmost and south-southeasternmost points of the mainland contiguous United States. I realized that identifying these sites depended on your definition, so given that, I decided to create another rule:  to be considered part of the mainland, you have to be able to walk there at the highest tide (even if it’s along a highway right-of-way).  Otherwise I don't consider it part of the mainland.  This is a pretty standard definition of a "mainland" that's used by many geographers, I suppose, but I still wanted to state it.  

Using that rule, I was able to locate the southeasternmost point of the mainland contiguous United States.  Looking at the satellite imagery, I identified a point at a place on Card Sound south of the city of Homestead just before you reach the first bridge that heads to Key Largo.  This is the southeasternmost point of the U.S. mainland that you can walk to during high tide.  Likewise, I determined that the south-southeasternmost point is on the right-of-way of Highway 1 south of Homestead and just before you encounter the first bridge, which crosses a narrow waterway to a place called Pelican Key. 

No doubt about it, identifying some of the 16 extreme compass points is subjective and depends on the definition and criteria you use.  That's why it's important to state your "rules" and methodology beforehand, which I've done.  So with these three locations identified – the southernmost point at Cape Sable, the southeasternmost point at the Card Sound bridge, and the south-southeasternmost point at the Pelican Key bridge – I was ready for Florida.

Visiting the Southernmost Point

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Above:  This is the southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States (well, the southernmost point that's accessible).  It's at Flamingo in Everglades National Park in southern Florida (2:03)
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The southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States, at Cape Sable in Everglades National Park, was my sixteenth and final extreme geographic compass point on my eight-month trip around America, and I knew it would be the most difficult.  I’d been to the Everglades before several times, including the village of Flamingo, which is at the proverbial “end of the road.”  In fact, I made the mistake of camping at the mosquito-infested Flamingo campground back in 1987, which was literally the worst and most uncomfortable night of my entire life.  I still itch when I think about all the mosquito bites.  Every time I visit Flamingo now, it’s understandably with a fair bit of trepidation. 

I have one word for you if you’ve never been to the Everglades:  mosquitoes.  You must remember this word – no, more than that:  imprint it into your mind – before you plan any trip to the Florida Everglades.  Otherwise your trip will be a disaster.  If you’re prepared, though, the Everglades can be wonderful.

I knew that driving all the way down to Flamingo and the National Park Service village there would be the easy part.  The hard part, I knew, would be getting out to Cape Sable, which is 11 miles west of Flamingo.  There’s a trail that goes part of the way there, but from studying my maps months before I visited Florida, it appeared that getting to Cape Sable would require a boat.  And preferably a motor boat, since I knew from previous visits that the headwinds here can be pretty strong, which would make paddling either a canoe or sea kayak untenable.  So with all that in mind, I was ready to hit the Everglades.

The evening after I visited the the southeasternmost and the south-southeasternmost points of the mainland contiguous United States, I camped at a state park in the Florida Keys.  The next day I left the Keys and headed north once again, this time going into the city of Homestead and then west to Everglades National Park.  I stopped at the impressive Everglades Visitor Center just past the park entrance and got some information about the Coastal Prairie Trail that extends about seven miles west of Flamingo towards Cape Sable, then I got back in the truck and headed south.

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Above:  The village of Flamingo lies at the southern tip of Everglades National Park.  The southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States is at Cape Sable, shown with the label "East Cape."  There's a trail that goes part of the way there, but visiting Cape Sable requires a boat -- and preferably a motor boat.
   

About an hour later I reached the village of Flamingo, at the southern end of the highway and on the shores of Florida Bay.  There’s really not much at Flamingo:  a Visitor Center, a marina and campground, and that’s about it, but it’s still a nice place.  My first stop was the Flamingo marina, where I learned that you could rent paddle boats here, including kayaks and canoes, but you couldn’t rent motor boats.  Then I walked over to the National Park Service Visitor Center and started talking to a friendly ranger behind the desk named Bob.  He’d worked here as a Park Ranger for many seasons and knew the area well. 

I told Bob that I was hoping to go out to Cape Sable but he frowned and told me the situation straight-up:  “You can’t really hike there because the trail is flooded and there’s lots of mud, and there are also lots of mosquitoes so you need a netting jacket.  Besides, there’s a wide canal that you’d have to swim across and it’s filled with alligators.  So you’d have to paddle out there, but it’s 22 miles round-trip and the winds are really strong, so it’ll take a few days.”

Although the news about reaching Cape Sable was depressing, we had a pleasant chat for 20 minutes and then I left.  From the Visitor Center, I drove over to the campground, not to camp there but rather to reminisce about that most unpleasant evening back in 1987 when I was eaten alive by mosquitoes and no-see-ums in the back of my former Toyota pickup truck.  It was breezy that morning, which thankfully kept the mosquitoes at bay, though it was warm, about 85 degrees, and of course, very humid.

After leaving the campground I drove to the nearby Flamingo picnic area which, according to my map, appeared to be the southernmost point of Flamingo.  After learning about the situation from Ranger Bob, I’d given up on my plans to either hike or boat out to Cape Sable, so I figured this was as far south as anyone could feasibly travel on the U.S. mainland.  I took some pictures and shot a video here on the shores of Florida Bay.  This was as close to Cape Sable, the southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States, as I could possibly get, I figured, so I called it good.

Sure, I was a little disappointed not to get to Cape Sable, but my goal for this trip was to get as close as possible to each of the 16 extreme compass points.  Some of the points were impossible to reach, like the southwesternmost point of the U.S. near Santa Barbara, California, which is located on an Air Force Base and thus off-limits to the public, or the points in northern Maine that were on private property.  I knew that I'd done my best:  I had gotten as close as possible to each of the 16 points.  I still hope to visit Cape Sable and perhaps someday I will.

This was the sixteenth and final extreme compass point.  My eight-month trip was now complete and after 25,000 miles it was time to head home.  I went back to the Keys that night and camped in a state park, then I left the next morning and headed back to Oregon.  My work here was done.

Summary:

  • I visited this site on November 27, 2016.  
  • The coordinates of this point are: 25° 08.177' N, 80° 56.049' W. 
  • To see a Google Map of the southernmost point, click here.
  • To see the panorama photo I created at this site, click here.

How to Get There:  

To get to this point, travel to Everglades National Park in southern Florida.  Continue on the road past the Visitor Center for about 45 miles until you reach the end, at a village called Flamingo.  Drive to the picnic area near the campground and walk a few hundred yards south to the shore of Florida Bay.  The southernmost point is by the tree near the small beach.

The Southernmost Point

 

 

Above:  The southernmost point of the mainland contiguous U.S. is at Cape Sable in southern Florida (green dot).  However, it's really difficult to get to Cape Sable.  It's 11 miles from Flamingo but you can't walk there due to a 200-foot wide canal with alligators, so I got as close as I could, shown with the red dot, at the Flamingo picnic area.  I created the blue line, with a bearing of 90 degrees, to help me determine the southernmost point.

 

Hold on a Minute… Here’s the REAL Southernmost Point of the United States

After I completed my journey around America, in the winter of 2017, I wrote and posted stories about my visits to some of the extreme geographic compass points.  That includes the southernmost point of the mainland United States, which is at Cape Sable, Florida.  Or is it?

For decades most geographers who are into this sort of thing (a strange bunch, no doubt), including myself, have agreed that Cape Sable, at the southern tip of Everglades National Park, is the southernmost point of the mainland United States.  You can Google it or read the Wikipedia page on Geographic Extremes or any of dozens of other reputable sources:  everyone "in the know" agrees that Cape Sable is the southernmost point of the mainland United States.  Some of these cerebral folks like to scoff at the lay people and tourists who consider Key West, Florida to be the southernmost point because they know the real truth:  It's Cape Sable.  And I was also one of these "in the know" folks -- though I don't think I ever scoffed or looked down my nose at any Key West supporters!

I recently changed my mind about Cape Sable, however.  That’s because after looking at Cape Sable more closely, I realized that it’s not on the U.S. mainland.  Instead, it’s on an island.  My definition, and the definition that many geographers use to define a site on a “mainland” is that the site cannot be surrounded by water; instead you have to be able to walk to the site at the highest tide.  But you know what?  You can’t walk to Cape Sable because it’s cut off from the mainland by a 200-foot wide canal, called the East Cape Canal, that was dug back in the 1930s. 

At one time Cape Sable was indeed the southernmost point of the mainland United States, but no longer.  Many canals have been dug in the Everglades, which isolates pockets of land and has turned them into islands (“man-made” islands, I guess you could say, but islands nonetheless).  Cape Sable and the land around it is an island, just like Key West and Ballast Key.  In my mind there’s really no difference.

After realizing this, I looked at my maps and satellite imagery of the Everglades area, trying to determine the southernmost point of land on the U.S. mainland (i.e., the southernmost point you could walk to at high tide).  I realized that the southernmost point is an unnamed point of land about six miles east of Cape Sable, roughly halfway between Flamingo and Cape Sable.  For lack of a better name, I’m going to call this site “South Point.”  In looking at my maps and satellite imagery, it appears that you can walk to South Point.  Yes, there’s thick underbrush which would make hiking here difficult, but it does appear to be on the U.S. mainland, whereas Cape Sable is not. 

Sorry to disappoint you, Cape Sable fans, but my vote for the southernmost point of the mainland contiguous United States is South Point.  And during my next trip to Florida, I intend to go there.

Above:  For decades, most geographers have considered Cape Sable (green dot), at the southern tip of Everglades National Park, to be the southernmost point of the mainland United States.  But I disagree.  Due to the canals that have been dug in this area, the area around Cape Sable is now basically an island -- you cannot walk there at high tide, which is the definition of a mainland.  Instead, I believe the site I've called "South Point" (red dot) is the southernmost point of the mainland United States.  It's clear from the satellite imagery that a person can walk from Flamingo to South Point, and the canals just west of South Point preclude any coastal point farther west from being considered the southernmost point.  I've also shown the site at Flamingo where I took the pictures above (purple dot).