When Hurricane Irma struck last September, we were lying low in a closet in our home as tornado sirens kept going off. We knew from social media that it made landfall and rampaged across the Florida Keys, but we did not see the damage reports until we got our own power back. Knowing that our information about Keys destinations was no longer accurate, we ceased selling our guide to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. As 2018 rolled around, we knew we’d need to see how both the infrastructure and the natural areas of the Florida Keys were healing. We did that by foot, car, and bike this June. Here’s an overview of what we found, from Key West to Key Largo.
As bustling and carefree as ever, Key West shows minimal aftereffects from last year’s hurricane season. Reconstruction of the seawall and beach at C.B. Harvey Rest Beach Park is the most visible project underway. It will reopen this fall. As the first marker for the Overseas Heritage Trail is here, we’ve enjoyed the oceanfront at this park in the past. Beautiful Higgs Beach, on the other side of the White Street Pier, is still as busy as you’d expect.
Inside the West Martello Tower Gardens, the loss of their giant banyan tree to the strong winds has things looking different, but as the volunteer at the front desk noted, “it opens everything up and you can see the historic walls better.” Quite true. Even nicer, the views from the high spots inside the gardens are even better across Higgs Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. A series of display panels inside the gift shop area show a comparison of before and after Irma.
Down at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, all is well and there is a lot going on. First, there’s a new entrance through the new 28-acre Truman Waterfront Park on Key West, which features a children’s playground and splash park as well as an amphitheater. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is here as well (closed Sun & Mon, which always seem to be the days we are in Key West), with interactive exhibits about habitats and marine life in the Florida Keys.
You can still take a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park via the Yankee Freedom III from Key West. The park advises that certain areas on the island remain closed to the public and the surrounding waters have not yet been fully inspected so hazards may exit.
At the always-delightful Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, only a few reminders of the hurricane’s wrath remain, mainly as one boardwalk is being restored and the observation deck at Desbien Pond is roped off until it is repaired. It’s obvious that a good deal of work went into post-hurricane removal of fallen trees, and now the understory, receiving more light, is even more lush than on our last visit.
Checking in with Leo’s Campground and Boyd’s Key West Campground on Stock Island, both are in great shape and welcoming guests. They are the only places you can camp within an easy walk of Key West. On Geiger Key, the Geiger Key Marina RV Park is open but no longer accepts tent campers. Both tents and trailers are welcome at Leo’s and Boyds.
We saw no ill effects to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail on either Key West or northward onto Boca Chica and Rockland Keys, at least nothing that couldn’t be overcome on our mountain bike. Some pavement along the trail in the Lower Keys washed out, and you do have to be concerned about picking up sharp debris in your tires if you are on a skinny-tire road bike. Also, we ran across vehicles parking on the trail while repairing utility lines and boxes.
Launching from the Geiger Key Paddle Hut with Key West Eco Tours, a paddling trip through the mangrove islands showed us that the sea level rose dramatically during the storm, as there is a debris line caught up in the mangroves well overhead. It was also a surprise to learn that mangroves can’t handle being innudated by salt water for long periods, so there are lowlying places throughout the Lower Keys where large patches of mangrove forest has died. You won’t see these from land, but they are obvious to boaters and paddlers.
BIG PINE KEY
Where you will see a massive patch of dead mangroves is along US 1 on the north end of Big Pine Key, near Long Beach Road. According to volunteers at the National Key Deer Refuge, the Long Beach Trail (at the end of the road) washed away. Visitors are still welcome to walk the beach, but this whole area is quite roughed up.
At MM 33, we stayed at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge , which has one of the largest campgrounds in the Lower Keys. While the tree canopy was stripped away and their small motel had to be demolished, their lodge, marina, and campsites are still in good stead and they are welcoming visitors.
Blue Hole and the Wildlife Trails at the National Key Deer Refuge show no obvious damage other than a thinning of trees in the pine rocklands. Recent rains meant plenty of water in the solution holes along both trails. While many people wondered what the Key deer do when a storm surge comes across the islands, the population wasn’t affected by the storm. We saw them along Key Deer Boulevard at dusk and elsewhere on the island the next day.
A new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center sits along US 1 near MM 30.5. Volunteers tell us they expect it to open in the fall.
The worst damage we saw to any park was at Bahia Honda State Park. A chain-link fence now prevents visitors from accessing the Atlantic side of the island. The bayside beach, Calusa Beach, is open, as are the Buttonwood and Bayside Campgrounds and the park cabins. Sandspur Campground and Sandspur Beach washed away.
The park expects to reopen Loggerhead Beach on the Atlantic near the Old Bahia Honda Bridge Trail by August; the trail entirely lost its canopy. According to park staff we talked to, Sandspur Beach (Silver Palm Trail area) will not reopen until late 2019. While the park’s restrooms are gone and replaced with portables, the concession and snack bar are open. Dive tours continue operating, and you can snorkel or swim at the bayside beach.
To its north, on Ohio Key, debris was still being cleared from the large campground on Sunshine Key. The camp store was closed and bulldozers were in operation as we rode by. Infrastructure is currently being rebuilt throughout the campground. As of mid-June, they still do not have an estimated date for reopening.
From Scout Key northward to Islamorada, the Overseas Heritage Trail suffered scattered damage to both the paved path and the bridges along the route. We saw crews actively working on bridge restoration. In some places, particularly on Bahia Honda and the causeways between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, the pavement simply washed into the sea. Cyclists can ride on the highway, of course, as an alternative to these places where the path is missing or cordoned off from use. Heavy trucks are still rumbling up and down US 1 hauling debris and construction materials, so where it is necessary to ride with traffic on US 1, you have to be comfortable with sharing the road with trucks.
At the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge on the oceanside, Veterans Park was destroyed. It is closed off until further notice. Parking is now only available on the bayside, the access point for walkers and anglers for the old Seven Mile Bridge. We saw a lot of construction equipment on the north end of the old Seven Mile Bridge and around Pigeon Key, and from a distance it appears that some of the historic buildings were displaced by the storm surge. Historical tours still run daily at 10, 12, and 2 via the Pigeon Key Ferry from the Visitor Center at 2010 Overseas Highway. It is not possible to walk or cycle out on the old Seven Mile Bridge and ramp at this time.
While we did not have the time for a walk through Crane Point Hammock on this trip – it is truly a place you don’t want to rush through – the forest looks healthy from US 1. Their website states “Come see for yourself how nature heals after a hurricane.”
A side trip to Sombrero Beach clued us in that a bike path connects the Overseas Heritage Trail from US 1 over to this popular beach on the Atlantic. While a portion of the park is roped off while undergoing repairs, most of the beach and all of the access to Sisters Creek is open for paddlers and beachgoers to enjoy.
The length of the Overseas Heritage Trail is healthy along Marathon and its nearby islands up to the north end of the Grassy Key Trail, although the mangrove flats on the tidal rock barrens look pretty ripped up.
We were surprised to discover that the Curry Hammock Nature Trail is now a loop instead of an out-and-back hike. This is a good thing! The signage directing you along the trail no longer matches the route shown on the map on their kiosk: see our revised writeup on this trail for an updated trail map. While still a short loop, it is one of the most pleasant intepretive nature trails in the Florida Keys and it’s free. Don’t miss it, but make sure you use bug spray before you explore the hammock.
At Curry Hammock State Park, all oceanfront facilities, including the campground, are open. Kayak and bicycle rentals are available, ask about them at the ranger station.
We knew the campground at Long Key State Park washed away. What we weren’t expecting was the death of the mangrove forest that the boardwalk goes through. It’s quite a shock to see it like this.
They also lost the picnic pavilions on the oceanfront and the tent platforms off the boardwalk. The boardwalk now comes to a dead end. The Golden Orb Trail has been reconfigured, with some new infrastructure added. It now goes out and back from the parking area to the coastal berm on the Atlantic Ocean.
Although camping at the state park is not an option, at MM 70, Fiesta Key RV Resort has reopened.
The infrastructure of Anne’s Beach, including the boardwalk, picnic tables, and restrooms, is gone. The park is closed until further notice. Robbie’s Marina is healthy, still renting kayaks and boats and entertaining visitors with tarpon feedings. Paddlers are still welcome to make their way to the two state parks, Lignumvitae Key and Indian Key, that flank US 1.
While driving up the island chain, we took the time to explore two City of Islamorada preserves that were new to us – Green Turtle Hammock and Plantation Hammocks – and stopped in at Harry Harris Park to confirm that beach access there remains intact. A portion of that park remains closed while repairs continue.
As a cyclist friend noted, there is very little of the Overseas Heritage Trail that is a dedicated bike path through the Islamorada chain. It’s mostly a road ride.
The Overseas Heritage Trail through Key Largo has no issues, other than being a very busy place where you need to exercise additional caution because of the many driveways that cross it.
The accessible Mangrove Trail needs to be rebuilt; there is no estimate on when it will reopen. The Blue Heron Cafe is closed for now but should reopen later this summer. All other operations are open, from the glass-bottomed boat tour on the Spirit of Pennekamp to snorkel and dive tours, the campground and marina, visitor center, and the two other nature trails. Nearby Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park and Crocodile Lake NWR look healthy.
While it’s still obvious that Hurricane Irma caused a good bit of damage in the Florida Keys and cleanup will be ongoing, the natural beauty of the region healed quickly. Many, but not all, of your favorite hotels, resorts, and campgrounds are open. We suggest calling ahead or checking their websites to confirm. Key West and Key Largo had minimal damage in that regard. All along the island chain, nature-based attractions such as Theater of the Sea, The Turtle Hospital, and the Dolphin Research Center are all open. Tour operators offering dive and snorkel trips are in business, too, so there is plenty to get out and see and do.
Most of the closed (or about to be razed) lodgings are in the Middle and Lower Keys. According to fla-keys.com, the official source for visitor information in the Florida Keys, 62% of accomodations between the Seven Mile Bridge and Big Coppitt Key had reopened by May. Some hotels and small businesses are still wrangling with their insurance companies, while others are taking the opportunity to renovate or rebuild.
Nature heals. Humans take a little longer. We look forward to seeing the Florida Keys continue to blossom this year as they put memories of Irma behind.
To review a series of videos and slide shows we made of our visits to the parks and trails, please see our Florida Keys playlist on our YouTube channel.