4. Long Key State Park
Wending among the tropical hammocks and mangrove-fringed lagoons in this 1,100-acre park are a variety of self-guiding nature trails, including one that was designed for exploration by canoe. The staff offers interpretive programs, with an emphasis on birds, sea turtles, and the fragile environments in which they live. The area’s seaside campsites offer clear views of the ocean, making this a popular spot for swimming.
For a tranquil contrast to the hustle and bustle you’ll find in touristy Marathon, seek out the solitude of Crane Point Hammock. In addition to its wetlands and exotic hardwoods, the 64-acre preserve contains a few remnants from pre-Columbian times. The Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys, situated at the hammock’s entrance by mile marker 50, has a wide range of exhibits, from ancient artifacts to pictures taken from outer space. There’s even a re-created coral reef — an excellent place to explore undersea life and still stay dry.
As you leave Marathon to visit points south, you’ll come to the famed Seven-Mile Bridge. Traversing the blue waters of Moser Channel — where only the merest specks of land intrude upon far-off horizons — the bridge is perhaps the most astonishing stretch on the entire Overseas Highway.
6. Bahia Honda State Park
Although the Keys are not noted for large sandy beaches, the ones bordering the Atlantic Ocean at Bahia Honda are some of the island chain’s finest. Charter boats ply offshore waters in search of game fish — including the spunky tarpon, a favorite among sportsmen. Hikers along the area’s nature trail should be on the lookout for the endangered small-flowered lily thorn and one of America’s largest remaining stands of silver palms. Many wild animals — tree frogs, falcons, pelicans, loggerheads, and geckos, for example — also live within or just outside the park’s borders.
7. National Key Deer Refuge
The key deer, found in the Florida Keys and nowhere else, is a subspecies of the larger, more common white-tailed deer. The main difference between the two is their size; an adult key buck stands only about 2 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder. After near extinction the animals are slowly repopulating their 7,900-acre refuge.
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge also are located in the Lower Keys region. Although the shoals, reefs, and low-lying islands that make up these sprawling sanctuaries are reached mainly by boat, they reward visitors with solitude and miles of pristine wilderness.
8. Key West
Once a hideaway for pirates, Key West today is a colorful patchwork of gardens, alleyways, historic buildings, shops, museums, and lively marinas. The southernmost city in the continental United States, it attracts a heady mix of fishermen, shopkeepers, navy personnel, Cuban refugees, artists, and assorted eccentrics with alternative lifestyles. Two greats, Ernest Hemingway and John James Audubon, are among those who once chose to live and work here.
But what really separates Key West from most other cities is its island charm. Perhaps the best way to experience its unique flavor is to visit Mallory Square, where locals and sightseers congregate each evening, amid a carnival-like atmosphere complete with street performers, to celebrate and toast the glowing sun as it sets beneath the sea.