Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is truly a botanical treasure, with the highest concentration of champion trees in one place in the United States—and none are over 45 feet tall. Current and prior national champions include crabwood (Ateramnus lucidus), Bahama strongback (Bourreria ovata), spicewood (Calyptranthes pallens), wild cinnamon (Canella winterana), milk-bark (Drypetes diversifolia), Guiana plum (Drypetes lateriflora), inkwood (Exothea paniculata), wild tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum), blolly (Pisonia discolor), and tropical soapberry (Sapindus saponaria).
Although the nature trail is relatively short, you can request a backcountry pass (available at nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park) to roam miles of forest roads to see botanical treasures like wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), mahogany mistletoe (Phoradendron rubrum), whisk fern (Psilotum nudum) and wild allamanda (Pentalinon luteum).
In all, 84 listed plant and animal species are protected here. Manchineel and poisonwood are common in the hammock. Ranger-led interpretive hikes are offered, and are especially valuable for a good introduction to tropical hammock species
Location: Key Largo
Length: 1.1 miles
Lat-Long: 25.176100, -80.369500
Type: loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: annoying
Stay on the pathways—there are poisonwood and machineel trees throughout the hammock, both of which can cause severe reactions for anyone allergic to poison ivy.
Driving north on US 1 from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, keep right at the fork for SR 905 (Card Sound Rd). The trailhead parking area is on the right after 0.5 mile, in front of a large archway
Park next to the archway and follow the pavement into the woods. It doesn’t look like a trail at all—it’s the old paved access road to Port Bougainvillea, and is open to bicycles. In his novel Native Tongue, Carl Hiaasen played off the attempted development of the hammock with a zany send-up. When the faux “Mediterranean coastal village” finally went belly-up in 1985s, the state acquired the land and extended protection to 84 species of plants and animals living in this forest, the largest remaining tropical hammock in the United States.
Lignum vitae trees flank the front entrance. Listen for the rustle of palm fronds overhead, and look up: white-crowned pigeons nestle in the tree tops. These threatened birds come for the copious amounts of poisonwood fruit in the hammock. Although poisonwood isn’t something you want to lean up against – the toxicity of its sap is ten times that of poison ivy – these mottled tropical trees bear fruit with a high amount of lipids, perfect for the nourishment of the pigeons. Interestingly, poisonwood is in the mango family, just like cashew trees, as is manchineel, the most dangerous tree in the United States. Although you won’t brush into it if you stick to the trail, manchineel grows throughout Key Largo Hammocks, particularly in the backcountry. Its caustic sap burns through skin, and according to those who have survived the experience, its tempting yellowish-green fruits will tear up your insides as badly as a swallow of drain cleaner. Yet it’s a beautiful tree, easily mistaken for a slender ficus, providing a bounty for tropical wildlife adapted to its use.
As you walk along the ribbon of pavement, look into the forest, not at the trail. Identification tags help you pick out trees from the jumbled thicket. Keep alert for the scurry of rodents in the leaf litter. Both the endangered and endemic Key Largo wood rat and the tiny Key Largo cotton mouse make their homes in hollows at the bases of trees. Searching out these tasty morsels, indigo snakes slip through the underbrush. Pay attention to the smooth bark of the trees around you, where five different colorful varieties of the Florida tree snail, liguus, slip along sucking up algae and lichens. Jamaican dogwood seems to be a favorite perch.
The trail curves past a composting privy, and turns to the right past a picnic shelter. Pay attention to the plant identifications and notice the subtle differences between the various trees, which blend together to form a thick green screen on both sides of the old road. Not far off into the woods are the grand champion roughleaf velvetseed and boxleaf stopper, at 17 feet and 19 feet, respectively. Of the all of the grand champion trees in the hammock, few of them reach 30 feet tall—the 34-foot blolly being a notable exception.
As you walk past a bench to the start of a stone wall on the left, watch for a break in the wall. After 0.3 mile, turn left at the “Nature Trail” sign and follow the narrow footpath into the cool deep shade of the forest. The leaves of torchwood trees give off a citrus oil odor when crushed. These delicate trees serve as a nursery for the eggs of one of the rarest butterflies in America, the Schaus’ swallowtail. A subspecies of the giant swallowtail endemic to Key Largo, it spends most of its life in a pupal stage to survive the dry season, emerging to feed, mate, lay eggs, and die during the rainy season.
At the fork, keep left, walking past a number of small trees with interpretive markers. As the trail curves to the right, it comes out into an open, disturbed area on the edge of the forest, on the edge of a quarry created during the building of Port Bougainvillea. Walk down the short spur trail on the left for a sweeping view of the water. On the far side, wild cotton fills a man-made ravine. Considered the scourge of the agricultural industry in 1932, South Florida’s wild cotton harbored pink boll worms, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture assumed would infect domestic cotton crops. Now, in an ironic touch, it’s protected, and listed as one of Florida’s most endangered species. With showy creamy yellow flowers and fluffy cotton balls, it’s a beautiful shrub.
Retrace your steps back to the footpath and turn left. Make a right into the shady hammock at the four-way junction to complete the loop. When you emerge at the bench, turn left to parallel the wall back down to the pavement. Signs and fences warn you away from the crumbling ruins of the model condos of Port Bougainvillea, which the park hopes to raze under at some point. But just as the jungles of India bury ancient temples, this tropical hammock works to erase the more recent hand of man. Although the remaining buildings of the old condo complex are closed to the public, they burst with life, with whisk ferns growing at the bases of supporting columns, and narrow-leaved figs breaking up through the concrete to mimic banyan trees.
When you reach the pavement, turn right. Turn right again at the T intersection. You’ve walked 0.8 mile. West Indian mahoganies form mushroom-like canopies overhead. It only takes a few moments to return to the “Nature Trail” sign. Continue down the pavement, looking carefully at the parts of the forest that you haven’t yet seen. Along with the mahoganies, gumbo limbo and poisonwood trees are the true giants, the high canopy of the hammock. But the thickets still guard their treasures: milkbark and red stopper, limber caper and saffron plum, a parade of tropical species like no other on this continent.
Continue past the picnic area, turning left to follow the road back out to the parking lot to complete your 1.1-mile walk.
0.0 start @ parking lot
0.0 bench, turn left through wall
0.4 bench, start loop to left
0.4 fork, left
0.5 spur, left
0.5 4-way junction, right
0.6 end loop
0.6 end spur, left
0.7 emerge pavement, right
0.8 right, back to loop
1.1 end @ parking lot