With carefully cultivated and curated collections against a backdrop of natural Florida Keys habitats, this expansive garden and woodland on Stock Island took root more than 80 years ago. Accented by annual showings of outdoor art by local artists, it’s a pleasant, dog-friendly place for a walk in nature.
Location: Key West
Length: 0.8 mile
Lat-Lon: 24.5729, -81.7491
Type: Network of loops
Fees: $7 adult, $5 senior, active military and members free, child free with adult
Bug Factor: minimal to moderate
Restroom: at the visitor center
Leashed pets welcome. Park your bicycle outside the gate. Please stay within the marked paths for your safety and to keep the plants healthy. Open 10-4:30 daily.
As you are approaching Key West on US 1, turn off on College Rd at the traffic light on Stock Island just before Cow Key Bridge. The entrance is a quarter mile up College Rd on the right.
About the Gardens
Set in a botanically significant patch of natural tropical forest on Stock Island, the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden is a natural wonder. While its roots stem back to a 1930s Federal project to build a tourism destination to help get Key West back on its feet after the Great Depression, it was neglected during World War II and portions of the land grabbed by government agencies for other uses. Not until 1961 did the city officially preserve what was left of the garden, and the Key West Garden Club, with assistance from civic organizations, began rebuilding.
Our first visit to the gardens was 18 years ago, and we’ve watched it blossom, ever-changing, from a central focus on a butterfly garden, Desbiens Pond, and a corner of dense tropical forest to a family-friendly, dog-friendly, accessible network of boardwalks and bridges that connect curated collections of tropical plants and native species in the Florida Keys and Caribbean. Two years ago, we discovered the Cuban Chugs collection – adjoining a collection of Cuban palms – and, not being from South Florida, marveled at the creative engineering and daring that immigrants used to cross the Florida Straits to freedom.
The gardens always seem to be expanding. Executive Director Misha McRae shares that even more expansion is in store, with more acreage available to continue to let the garden grow.
One of the ever-changing aspects of the garden is Art in the Garden, an annual display of natural sculptures by local artists, fit right into the natural environment. Now in its 8th year, the project features pieces utilizing recycled materials and “natural debris” collected by the artists. You’ll find these pieces of art tucked away along the trails as you roam throughout the complex.
A boardwalk restoration project is underway in one part of the gardens. One of the last major efforts for Hurricane Irma cleanup remains, the Desbiens Pond Overlook Restoration Project. We walked around both sides of the pond but you can’t make the loop because of the condition of the overlook. Feel free to donate to assist reconstruction of this popular location on a natural freshwater pond in the buttonwood marsh.
The pathways of Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden are broken into thematic walking trail tours, many of which are boardwalks but some of which are natural surfaces. Signage directs you along the thematic routes, each of which focuses on a collection of identified plants. Numbered posts correspond to information in the tour brochures. All tours can also be viewed on your smartphone by scanning a QR code on the signs, or by calling a phone number listed on the sign for an audio tour version.
0.0 > Start your walk from the courtyard just past the Visitor Center. After taking a look at the labeled tropical trees and epiphytes in this formal setting with its backdrop of a waterfall wall, turn right and follow the boardwalk to the left. It comes to a T intersection with the Boardwalk Tour, a boardwalk that loops the Butterfly Garden. Turn left.
0.1 > At the next T intersection, turn left to follow a natural surface pathway into the tropical forest for the Western Loop Tour. The trail winds between gumbo limbo, inkwood, blolly, and other tropical trees that were not planted here; they are part of a sliver of natural habitat that remains in Key West. The forest is quite dense and you’ll find yourself pushing palm fronds out of the way as you walk the loop. A short spur trail leads off to the left after you finish the loop.
0.2 > Returning to the intersection where you started the Western Loop Tour, keep left. You’ll walk beneath extremely large royal poinciana and some of the tallest poisonwood trees we’ve ever seen, reaching the sign for the Historic Butterfly Garden Tour. Follow the path to the boardwalk and turn left. Continue along the boardwalk through this original core portion of the gardens.
0.3 > When you reach the Desbiens Pond Tour, leave the boardwalk and follow the natural footpath along this buttonwood pond. As it’s fresh water, many birds are attracted to the pond, making this a great corner of the pond for birding. Currently, the loop trail ends at the overlook until it gets repaired or replaced. We backtracked to the sign and went around the pond in the opposite direction to the overlook as well, returning along the Hammock Tour, which showcases another portion of the natural tropical hammock.
0.5 > Where you see the boardwalk, take the mulched path to join it again to start the Blue Butterfly Garden Tour. This thematic garden showcases host plants for Blue butterflies found in the Florida Keys, such as the Ceranunus Blue and the rare Miami Blue. As the Northside Boardwalk was being rebuilt, we followed the Historic Butterfly Garden Tour boardwalk back towards the Visitor Center.
0.6 > Behind the Visitor Center, join the boardwalk that offers views across the large pond. It’s here you’ll find the North Side Pond Tour and the Keys Cactus Barren Demonstration Garden, as well as nice panoramas all along this walk. A bridge leads across the pond to the South Side Pond Tour, which incorporates many native Florida Keys shrubs and trees like the Black Calabash and the Seven-Year Apple. Backtrack to the Visitor Center to leave the complex.
0.8 > Walk up the entrance walkway past a collection of musical instruments set among the vegetation along the pond. Continue along this walkway past the parking area to walk to the labrynith, the Cuban Palm Tour, and the collection of Cuban chugs that adjoin a picnic pavilion. Return back along the same path to reach the parking area.