Among all Florida state parks, the Keys have some of the best.
Havent been lately? Heres what youre missing in your own back yard if you havent visited a state park lately (Note: Hurricane damage to some remains, so call before visiting to find out the status of amenities and such).
The following information, listed alphabetically by park, is taken directly from the Florida Park Service Web site.
Henry Flaglers railroad to Key West turned the remote island of Bahia Honda Key into a tropical destination. Today, the island is known for beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling.
Visitors can picnic on the beach and take a swim, or simply relax and enjoy the balmy sea breezes that caress the shores.
Anglers can fish from shore or bring a boat and launch at the boat ramp. The parks concession rents kayaks and snorkeling gear and offers boat trips to the reef for snorkeling excursions.
Bahia Honda is also an excellent place to see wading birds and shorebirds. The nature center can introduce nature lovers to the islands unique plants and animals. Full-facility campsites and vacation cabins are available.
Every fall, researchers come to Curry Hammock State Park to count birds of prey such as merlins, American kestrels and peregrine falcons as they pass through the area on their annual migration.
This park is made up of a group of islands, with public access to swimming, a playground, picnic tables, grills and showers on the ocean side of Little Crawl Key. The hardwood hammocks support one of the largest populations of thatch palms in the United States. Mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and wetlands provide vital habitats for tropical wildlife.
Once slated to become a condominium development, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park contains one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the United States. The park is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals, including wild cotton, mahogany mistletoe and the American crocodile.
Exploring the parks trails gives visitors a chance to see some of these rare species of plants and animals. More than 6 miles of nature trails provide a wealth of opportunities for birdwatchers and photographers. Most of the trails are paved and accessible to both bicycles and wheelchairs.
Signs along a self-guided nature trail provide information about the parks ecosystem and wildlife; ranger-guided tours are also available.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park offers an opportunity to see and learn about American history, and also has what some call the best beach in Key West.
Unless there is unfavorable weather, you can snorkel off the beach and see tropical fish and live coral. There are picnic tables, grills, a short nature trail, and snorkeling equipment and kayak rentals.
Designated a national historic landmark in 1973, Floridas southernmost state park is popular for recreation, as well as U.S. military history. The fort was one of a series built in the mid-1800s to defend the nations southeastern coastline. Completed in 1866, Fort Zachary Taylor played important roles in the Civil War and Spanish-American War.
In 1836, the 11-acre Indian Key became the first county seat for Dade County. At that time, this tiny island was the site of a lucrative business-salvaging cargo from shipwrecks in the Florida Keys.
Accessible only by private boat or charter boat, visitors to Indian Key Historic State Park come to swim, sunbathe and hike. Canoeing, kayaking, boating and fishing are also popular activities. The perimeter of the island provides one of the few nearshore areas for snorkelers and scuba divers to see coral.
Ranger-guided tours are offered twice daily. Tour boat services, as well as boat and kayak rentals, are available from Robbies Marina.
Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first underwater park in the U.S. and encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles. While the mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the parks upland areas offer visitors a unique experience, it is the coral reefs and their associated marine life that bring most visitors to the park.
Most enjoy the view from a glass-bottom-boat tour, but visitors can get a closer look by scuba diving or snorkeling through the reefs. Canoeing and kayaking through the parks waters are popular activities; fishing is permitted in designated areas. Visitors can enjoy hiking two short trails, or picnicking and swimming at the beach.
The visitor center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and theater showing nature videos. Full-facility and youth/group campgrounds are available.
With the heat and rain of our summer months comes lush vegetation along with plenty of mosquitoes on the 280-acre Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park.
The virgin tropical hardwood hammock that thrives on this island was once common in the Upper Keys; most of these forests have been lost to development on other islands.
In 1919, William J. Matheson, a wealthy Miami chemist, bought this tiny island and built a caretakers home with a windmill for electricity and a cistern for rainwater. Today, his hideaway is the visitor center for this island forest. The park is accessible only by private boat or tour boat. Tour boat services, as well as boat and kayak rentals, are available from Robbies Marina.
The Spanish named this island Cayo Vivora, or Rattlesnake Key, because its shape resembles a snake with its jaws open.
In the early 20th century, Long Key was the site of a luxurious fishing resort that was destroyed during the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. Today, visitors to Long Key State Park can explore the island by canoeing through a chain of lagoons or hiking two land-based trails.
The Golden Orb Trail leads visitors through five natural communities to an observation tower that provides a panoramic view of the island and its profusion of plant and animal life. Some of the best bonefishing in the Keys is found here.
The campground received severe damage from the past two hurricane seasons.
San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park features a submerged shipwreck that is available for diving and snorkeling. Part of a Spanish flotilla, the San Pedro was a 287-ton, Dutch-built ship that sank in a hurricane on July 13, 1733. Her remains were discovered in 1960 in Hawk Channel near Indian Key.
After major salvage efforts in the 1960s, all that remains of San Pedro is a large pile of ballast stones covering an area 90 feet long and 30 feet wide. The underwater site has been enhanced with seven replica cannons, an anchor and an information plaque. Visitors can also appreciate the marine life that occupies the site.
Its located in 18 feet of water at GPS coordinates 24 degrees 51.802 north, 80 degrees 40.795 west. To prevent anchor damage, tie up to mooring buoys located at the site.
During the early 1900s, Henry Flagler began quarrying activities along the Florida Keys and his impression upon the landscape can still be seen today.
Typically, weather conditions from December through March provide the ideal setting for a self- or ranger-guided tour of Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park.
Formed of Key Largo limestone, fossilized coral, this land was sold to the Florida East Coast Railway, which used the stone to build Henry Flaglers Overseas Railroad in the early 1900s. After the railroad was built, the quarry was used until the 1960s to produce exquisite pieces of decorative stone called keystone.
Today, visitors can walk along 8-foot-high quarry walls to see cross sections of the ancient coral and learn about the quarry and its operation an important part of Floridas 20th century history. Samples of the quarry machinery have been preserved at the park.
Originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of Keys Living.