Protecting more than 6,700 acres of Key Largo to provide prime habitat for the endangered American crocodile, Crocodile Lake NWR has a small visitor complex along Card Sound Road where you can learn about species conservation at the refuge.
Location: Key Largo
Lat-Lon: 25.1916, -80.3566
Open: During daylight hours
The visitor complex is the only entry point to Crocodile Lake NWR at this time. The refuge is managed for wildlife.
Northern Key Largo along Card Sound Road (CR 905). The visitor complex is located 1.8 miles north of US 1 along CR 905 on Key Largo. Watch for the refuge sign on the left.
If you’ve ever driven down US 1 to the Florida Keys and noticed the sign for Lake Surprise before you reach Key Largo, here’s the surprise: it’s home to American crocodiles! Established in 1980 to provide a stronghold for this vanishing species, Crocodile Lake NWR is a vast refuge that you experience from a distance whenever you visit the Florida Keys. Primarily hugging the east shore of Barnes Sound on the northern extent of Key Largo, it also includes Lake Surprise and a portion of the shoreline of Little Card Sound.
Found only in South Florida, the American crocodile is less aggressive than its cousins and far more reclusive than the American alligator. We’ve only seen a few in the wild in our decades of exploring Florida. This refuge is one of their major protected nesting grounds. It is thought that nearly a quarter of the entire American crocodile population of the United States dwells here.
While the crocodiles tend to be peacefully away from public view along the marl beaches of Barnes Sound, this is not a one-note preserve. Adding to the dense blanket of tropical hardwood forest that is also protected by adjoining Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks State Park, Crocodile Lakes NWR is home to more than 120 species of trees and shrubs specific to extreme South Florida and Florida Keys habitats. Many of those found only in the Keys are at their tallest in this hammock.
This enables a protected space for other endangered species like white-crowned pigeon – we had one fly along with us as we drove up to the refuge gate – and Stock Island tree snails as well as ground-dwelling species like the rim rock crowned snake, the Key Largo woodrat – which build nests out of sticks – and the Key Largo cotton mouse.
In the Crocodile Lake Community Butterfly Garden, the role of the refuge in preserving endangered butterflies is also highlighted. Take a stroll through this garden of native flowering plants and shrubs to learn about the rare Schaus swallowtail butterfly, which only lays its eggs on the fresh new growth of wild lime and torchwood trees. Four other rare butterflies are also found on the refuge, including the Miami blue.
The visitor complex consists of a series of interpretive stations adjoining the headquarters building, along with the butterfly garden. Driving Card Sound Road north, you are able to see the refuge to your left. After the road turns from CR 905 onto Card Sound Road, both sides of the narrow highway will remain forever wild as part of the refuge, which extends to the bridge.