These parks are closed due to extensive damage to the Florida Keys from Hurricane Irma.
Deep in a tropical jungle, Ranger Joseph Nemec points out some of the weirdest plants I’ve ever laid eyes on. “This is a whisk fern,” he says, gesturing to a spindly green slip of a plant jutting out of a ruin straight out of the Jungle Book..
…, the crumbling remains of an abandoned condo in Port Bougainvillea!
Over our heads, a massive narrow-leaf fig spreads its canopy to shade the cracked concrete and tile. Down on the salt flats, we spot a white alamanda, with unusual overlapping petals. We are exploring the backcountry of Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park, a little-known gem protecting nearly 3,000 acres of the largest tropical hammock in the United States. Think you know the Keys? You’ll learn a lot more if you hit the trails.
KEY LARGO HAMMOCKS BOTANICAL STATE PARK
KEY LARGO CARD SOUND ROAD, OCEANSIDE
Enjoy the 35 minute guided walks held every Thursday and Sunday morning at 10 AM, or strike out on your own on a 1.1 mile self-guided interpretive walk along roadways and pathways from the park’s main entrance off Card Sound Rd, just 0.5 mile north of US 1 on Key Largo. To wander the backcountry, check in first at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for a day pass—and stay on the cleared roads.
JOHN PENNEKAMP CORAL REEF STATE PARK
KEY LARGO MM 102.5, OCEANSIDE
Two nature trails provide a look at the coastal habitats of Key Largo. The Mangrove Trail is a 0.8 mile boardwalk loop along the mangrove-lined estuary, leading through tunnels of red mangrove to an elevated observation platform, and the Wild Tamarind Trail provides a 0.3 mile loop through a dense, dark tropical hammock. Look closely, and you’ll spot tree snails browsing the Jamaican dogwoods and other smooth-barked trees. http://www.floridastateparks.org/pennekamp
WINDLEY KEY FOSSIL REEF GEOLOGICAL STATE PARK
WINDLEY KEY MM 84.5, BAYSIDE
Journey back in time to visit the basement of the Upper Keys—the fossilized coral reefs that support these tropical islands, exposed here by quarries that were operational until the 1960s. A network of hiking trails leads 1.4 miles through and around the quarries along mangrove-lined shores and through a dense tropical hammock. Open 8-5, Thursday through Monday.
LIGNUMVITAE KEY BOTANICAL STATE PARK
LOWER MATECUMBE, OFFSHORE MM 78, BAYSIDE
It takes some effort to get here – a charter from Robbie’s Marina, or a rental sea kayak – but if you appreciate the unique in nature, it’s worth the journey. Rangers provide interpretive guided walks (no wandering on your own allowed) at 10 AM and 2 PM daily along the island’s 3-mile trail system, where you’ll see the world’s best examples of the unusual lignumvitae tree, with wood so dense it sinks, and with branches so strange they crisscross each other. The mosquitoes are fierce except in the dead of winter, as this is a botanical preserve exempt from mosquito control measures.
INDIAN KEY HISTORIC STATE PARK
LOWER MATECUMBE, OFFSHORE MM 78, OCEANSIDE
Once a thriving wrecker’s colony feeding off the remains of ships cast onto the reefs, this historic site is now a collection of pathways linking the foundations of the town with great views along the island’s edge. Join a guided walk at 1 PM daily, or wander the forested “streets” on your own. Use a charter, kayak, or private boat to access.
LONG KEY STATE PARK
LONG KEY MM 67.5 OCEANSIDE
The 1.2-mile Golden Orb Trail is truly one of the treasures of the Keys, a hiking loop that leads you through most of the major habitats found on the islands, including the eerie salt desert known as the coastal berm. Across US 1 and north towards Layton, the little-visited Layton Trail is a short loop popping out to a view over Florida Bay.
CRANE POINT HAMMOCK
MARATHON MM 50, BAYSIDE
Nearly 4 miles of hiking awaits you in this extensive tropical hammock surrounding a nature center and historic site in the center of Marathon, with trails leading you into both tropical plantings (in the Rainforest and Palm Forest) and through natural habitats out to Florida Bay.
BAHIA HONDA STATE PARK
BAHIA HONDA KEY, MM 37 OCEANSIDE
The 0.6-mile Silver Palm Trail leads you through the largest grove of silver palms remaining in the United States, providing glimpses of both the coastal lagoon and coastal dunes. At the south end of the island, a short trail follows the route of the Overseas Railroad to an overlook from one of the old railroad bridges.
NATIONAL KEY DEER REFUGE
BIG PINE KEY & LOWER KEYS
Stop in at the Visitor Center in the shopping plaza off Key Deer Blvd to pick up a map of the nearly 20 miles of backcountry trekking available to hikers who really want to get away from it all. Lonely abandoned roads lead into the wilds of Sugarloaf and No Name Keys, and to hidden beaches on Big Pine Key—for safety’s sake, hike with a friend. You’ll encounter everything from dense poisonwood thickets to bands of marauding raccoons, and with luck, the diminutive Key deer. Looking for a milder visit? Stick to the well-marked Wilderness Trails off Key Deer Blvd, 3.2 miles north of the visitor center on the left. The Manillo Trail is wheelchair accessible and leads to an overlook platform; the Watson Trail provides a wilder experience. Don’t miss a stop at Blue Hole, where the deer come to drink. Free.
TORCHWOOD HAMMOCK PRESERVE
LITTLE TORCH KEY, OCEANSIDE 305-745-8402
Call for directions and permission to access this tiny gem, a Nature Conservancy preserve that protects a coastal rock barren with unusual plants and great views of the salt flats. Interpretive markers along the 0.4-mile trail aid in your understanding of the odd species found in the hammock. Open to Conservancy members only.
KEY WEST TROPICAL FOREST & BOTANICAL GARDEN
STOCK ISLAND, 5210 COLLEGE RD
Wander for more than a mile through the southernmost tropical forest in the United States on a series of pathways showcasing a natural pond, wetland, and tropical hammock. Donation.
FORT ZACHARY TAYLOR HISTORIC STATE PARK
KEY WEST, MM 0
Laying claim to the southernmost hike in the United States, the 0.2 mile nature trail connecting the lower parking area near the beach concession stand with the fort takes you atop a spoil bank with tropical trees and great views.