We can thank the namesake of the Jack C. Watson Wildlife Trail for bringing Key deer back from the edge of extinction.
The tale starts with hunters who’d worried poaching was deciminating the deer population.
In the early 1950s, the Boone and Crockett Club, a venerable sportsmans’ organization, donated funds to U.S. Fish and Wildlife to cover a game warden’s salary.
Hired to guard against poachers, Watson was named the first manager of National Key Deer Refuge before it was even established.
Carried on after his death, Watson’s strategies to eliminate poaching and protect deer from cars helped the population grow from 50 to more than 300 between 1954 and 1975.
Taken after Hurricane Irma, the last population count estimates around 950 deer throughout the Lower Keys.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Big Pine Key
Length: 0.8 mile loop
Trailhead: 24.7094, -81.3824
Address: Key Deer Blvd
Land manager: National Key Deer Refuge
Open daily from a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. Repellent is a must.
Bicycles are not permitted on the trail, and pets are not advised so as not to scare away wildlife.
Report wildlife emergencies such as injured or dead Key deer or aggressive animals to Florida FWC immediately at 888-404-3922; press Monroe County extension.
Stay within the marked path to avoid brushing into poisonwood or manchineel.
Poisonwood is found all over Big Pine Key and along this trail, and is much more irritating than poison ivy. With toxic sap, manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) is less common but also present in this forest.
Both tropical trees bear fruit, an important food source for endangered white-crowned pigeons. However, their fruit is deadly to humans.
From US 1, follow Key Deer Boulevard past the shopping center. Pay attention to the speed limits as they are slow for a reason: you may see Key deer cross the road along this stretch, especially at dusk and dawn. The turnoff for the parking area is on the left past Blue Hole, 3.2 miles from the shopping center.
A map is displayed at the Wildlife Trails kiosk. Start at the sign honoring Jack Watson. Surface limestone outcrops all around you as the trail curves left past a stand of poisonwood.
Unlike the Keys to their north, the ancient reef rock under the Lower Keys is overlain with a layer of oolitic Miami limestone, like the bedrock of the Everglades.
Exposed limestone dissolves into a rough karst landscape of pinnacles and solution holes where pine rocklands thrive.
Stay right at the fork to begin the loop, which leads into an expanse of pine rocklands.
The spindly pines are known as Dade County pine and are extremely resistant to insects and rot, which made them a prime target for logging by early settlers in South Florida.
The extremely rocky floor of the pineland frustrated those same settlers, who used dynamite to destroy it.
While this habitat once stretched across what is now Miami-Dade County, it is now as endangered as the deer themselves.
National Key Deer Refuge protects more than 80% of the remaining pine rocklands of the Florida Keys.
The tropical understory contains poisonwood, wax myrtle, scattered thatch palms, and occasional silver palms.
Both species of palms are very small compared to the cabbage palms commonly found elsewhere across Florida.
The trail turns past a side road that leads into another part of the refuge. As the trail curves, you see a sparkle of water through the underbrush.
A quarter mile in, freshwater wetlands accumulate in rocky depressions in the rugged karst terrain.
These solution holes trap rainfall, providing critical freshwater resources for the Key deer and cool microclimates where ferns and orchids grow.
Alligators are known to live throughout these wetlands, so be alert as you walk through the sawgrass.
Mosquitofish swim in the shallows, chowing down on mosquito larvae.
The trail rises, slightly elevated to prevent flooding. Deer trails are broken through the underbrush.
Notice the wonderful quiet, just the breeze (or Key deer) rustling through the palmetto fronds.
Buttonwoods grow out of a series of solution holes leading to the edge of a tropical hardwood hammock, which affords some patches of shade.
At a half mile, curve left past a satinleaf tree and some thatch palms. A cabbage palm rises out of a deep solution hole.
The landscape opens up into pine rocklands with a rugged rocky forest floor and scattered solution holes filled with water. Sawgrass grows along their edges.
Cross a culvert over a mosquito control ditch etched into this rugged landscape.
Past another small collection of silver palms, reach the end of the loop and continue straight ahead. At 0.8 mile, exit to the Wildlife Trails trailhead.
Learn more about National Key Deer Refuge
See our photos of the Watson Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Key deer browse the understory of a pine rockland explored on this short accessible interpretive trail within National Key Deer Refuge.
For the easiest wildlife watching at National Key Deer Refuge, visit the trail and observation deck at Blue Hole, a cenote-like pond that is the largest body of fresh water in the Florida Keys.
38.0 miles. Between Key West and Bahia Honda Key, this segment of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail crosses many historic railroad bridges in view of mangrove-lined shores.