Into the Keys, the Fabulous Florida Keys

Just down the road from the Everglades is the island chain called the Florida Keys – also known as America’s tropical paradise.  Because there are so many islands (1,700 in all) within the Florida Keys, they are often divided into regions with each presenting its own version of island paradise.  On our way there, an obvious question was triggered, why is it called the Florida Keys?  We learned that the Spanish called these chains of islands “keys” from the Spanish word “cayos”, meaning “small islands.”   Today we know them as the Florida Keys and they are connected by 42 bridges.

The Florida Keys

Our scenic drive on the Overseas Highway (also known as US 1) combined multiple water views – Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west – and natural wonders with their history along the way.  We crossed the longest and most famous Seven-Mile Bridge, which is 35,716 feet long.

Seven Mile Bridge

Does this bridge (Seven Mile Bridge) remind you of scenes from True Lies, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Mission Impossible III?

Paralleling the Seven-Mile Bridge on our right was the previous automobile bridge, now a National Historic Site and being used as a fishing pier.

Old Seven Mile Bridge

Old Seven Mile Bridge

Our next stop was in the subgroup of islands called Lower Keys, which is anchored by Big Pine Key – our home base for a week.   Among the Keys, the Lower Keys is the largest.  It’s a laid-back area, perfect for viewing wildlife and a bit of history.  We checked out an area that showed extensive impact from the storm surge created by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.  That surge resulted in a widespread “salt-kill” of pine trees throughout Big Pine Key.

Big Pine Key

Storm surge killed all the pine trees at Big Pine Key

When driving there, we watched our speed as the limit is strictly enforced to protect the Key Deer. The Lower Keys area is the location of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, where these cute little guys are protected.

Key Deer warning

Speed is strictly enforced on this stretch, 45 mph during the day and 35 mph at night.

The Key Deer is the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer, standing only about 2 feet tall.    Their population is very low and under threat of extinction due to human interaction, which is why they are listed as endangered.  Folks around here take their Key Deer seriously!

Key Deer

A Key deer posed for me

Another nearby refuge was the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1938 to protect habitat for the Great White Heron and other migratory birds.  Lucky for me, it’s only here in the Florida Keys that you can find this beautiful white color-phase of Great Blue Herons, the Great White Heron.  At first I thought it was a Great Egret, but a closer look at its pale legs told me otherwise.  I’m sure all of my birding friends will be jealous of my only-in-the-Keys experience 🙂

Great White Heron

Great White Heron, note the pale legs compared to the black legs of a Great Egret

and for comparison I got a good shot of a Great Egret while at the Everglades.

Great Egret

Great Egret

With the continuing gorgeous – albeit a bit humid – weather, we planned our activities for this stop.  There was no shortage of things to do in this area.  The nearby Bahia Honda State Park has extensive sandy beaches and beautiful waters for snorkeling, plus unusual plants and history.  Riding our bikes and then walking through the park, we came across the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, which was originally part of the Overseas Railroad.  Also called the “railroad that went to the sea”, it was built at great expense by Henry Flagler and completed in 1912.  One of the connecting links which joined Key West to Miami, the over-the-sea railroad was short-lived as a category 5 hurricane wiped it out in 1935.  Only skeletal sections of it remain standing today.

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Originally a railroad bridge, an automotive road was later added to the top

Old Bahia Honda Bridge

Old Bahia Honda Bridge on the left and the new one on the right

We followed a trail onto part of the bridge that is accessible from the park.  When we got there we were rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the islands and the state park.

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park, viewed from the top of the old bridge

With our history lesson concluded, we began to get more active.  We cruised along the state park’s 3.5 miles on our bikes, then added a few more miles as we rode along US 1 to and from our RV park.

Biking at Bahia Honda State ParkWhile in the state park, we also walked along the Silver Palm Trail.  It looped through a hammock, mangrove area and the beach, where a mosquito found and bit me.  I hate those pesky critters!  The park is home to one of the largest remaining stands of Silver Palms in the U.S.

Silver Palm

The increasingly rare Silver Palm, it is illegal to remove them from their natural habitat

We also enjoyed the colorful butterflies at the Wings and Waves Butterfly garden. But I failed to encounter the “Miami Blue,” described as a small brightly colored butterfly, which lives only in Florida 😦

In the park, we also walked on what is boasted to be one of the best beaches in the Keys. Well, the crystal blue waters were certainly inviting and the white sand was very soft to walk on, compared to many other beaches we have explored lately.

Bahia Honda Beach

Bahia Honda Beach

Among the water activities offered at the park, we chose snorkeling.  A boat trip to the reef for snorkeling at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary was available.  I wasn’t too nervous snorkeling this time, as I was in Barbados.  Our guide gave a brief refresher snorkeling course to a few of us, which elevated my confidence.  But unlike Steve, I stayed close to the boat and enjoyed viewing the nearby coral reef and many colorful fish.
Our home base here was not exactly paradise.  It was crowded, very noisy and tight.  But Sunshine Key RV Resort is located just a couple of miles from Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys.  When I made our reservations seven months ago, I wanted very much to stay at the state park but was unsuccessful in getting a site for Betsy.  Despite our dislike of the RV park, its proximity to fun things we wanted to do made up for it.
Sunshine RV Resort, Big Pine Key

Can you spot Betsy?

A few more pictures of our activities:

Barracudas

Barracudas brought in by local fishermen

Pelican

A pelican making his move – a fisherman shooed him away just in time!

Lastly, the Keys are known for spectacular sunsets.  So back to the state park I went, climbing to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge just to capture a gorgeous shot for my friends.  At first the clouds were covering the sun…
Sunset from Old Bahia Honda Bridge
…but 30 minutes later I was rewarded!
Sunset from Old Bahia Honda Bridge
Next up:  A long day at Key West

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