At Green Turtle Hammock Nature Preserve, less than a half mile of natural footpaths wind through a delightful rockland tropical hammock on 9 acres of Upper Matecumbe Key. While the trails are gentle, the habitat has some surprises for you on this walk.
Location: Upper Matecumbe Key, Islamorada
Length: 0.4 mile
Lat-Lon: 24.9106, -80.6446
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: portable toilet
Open 8 AM to 5 PM daily. Leashed pets welcome. Park only in the designated area just inside the gates. There is a canoe launch along the road that loops through the middle of the preserve, but you need to drop off your canoe at the launch and park back near the exit gate.
The preserve is right along the Overseas Heritage Trail, but bicycles are not recommended on the trail because it is narrow and has lots of poisonwood along it.
This preserve is at MM 81.2 along the bay side of the Overseas Highway (US 1) on Upper Matecumbe Key. Southbound, look for the driveway immediately after the entrance to the Kon Tiki Resort.
Acquired by the city of Islamorada in 2006 with the help of the Florida Communities Trust, this 8.7-acre gem is largely a dense thicket of tropical hammock surrounding two homes. One is a more modern one adjoining a boat basin where the canoe launch is now located; the condition of that home has rendered it unusable. The historic pioneer home just inside the gates is used by the city for offices, but it makes a lovely setting for a park. Playground equipment sits in the front yard, while picnic tables are under the shade of a royal poinciana tree adjoining the house.
While the hiking loop is less than a half mile, you see a lot along this very compact series of trails. Four hiker symbol signs note entrances to the trail network off the driving loop around the park. Start at the one closest to the historic home, on the right, just inside the gate.
0.1 > One thing about hiking in a Florida Keys tropical rockland hammock: you need to know your trees. On the first part of this loop, the trail is extremely narrow as it twists and winds between the trunks of the tropical trees, coming very close to the oozing trunks of poisonwood trees. Avoid brushing against them. This is not a habitat you should bushwhack through.
Keys tree cactus grows out of a rocky outcropping along the trail, and you’ll see it a little farther down the trail intertwined with tree trunks. If the trail briefly falls faint, look through the deadfall on it to find it again, just a worn groove in the leaf litter on the forest floor.
0.2 > One of the chief surprises of this trail is the distinct smell of sulfur arising from the earth. The trail loops around a karst depression, a solution hole that drops into a small cave. It’s from here that the aroma is rising, so we figure there is a spring beneath the rocks. No water is in evidence, however. There are now some pieces of rock along the edges of the footpath and it is much more well defined here as it comes up to the back side of a maintenance building. Turn right.
You pop out into an open area along the boat basin constructed by the homeowners. Signs warn of a known crocodile in the area. The American crocodile is native to the Florida Keys and prefers brackish waters like these. Alligators could be found here, too.
Where you see the hiker symbol sign to the right, turn right. The trail follows the ecotone between the mangroves and the rockland tropical hammock, eventually looping back around to join in with the trail you were on before. Continue straight ahead, emerging behind the building again. Walk across the open area this time, between the house and the boat basin.
0.3 > You’ll see another hiker symbol sign, this one accompanied by a smaller sign about the nature trail you’re about to join being an Eagle Scout project. While many of the plants were identified when the trail was established, rain and weathering has made most of the little handpainted signs unreadable.
Another well-built path, this one follows wood chips through a part of the hammock that shows more disturbance by human activity, starting with a lot of snake plants (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue) and other ornamentals in the understory.
0.4 > You pass more identification signs next to trees in the hammock, some of which can be read, like Inkwood. At the “Trail Split” sign, stay to the right.
This trail curves through the hammock and passes a bench before emerging out near the exit gate of the preserve, within sight of the playground equipment and parking. Cross the little park in front of the pioneer home to wrap up your walk.
According to an article in the Keys News, the preserve may later include a boardwalk and observation tower if Islamorada moves forward with master plans for the preserve. Keep us posted in the comments if any further improvements are added to the park.