Into the Keys, the Fabulous Florida Keys

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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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41 thoughts on “Into the Keys, the Fabulous Florida Keys

  1. Looks like someone enjoyed snorkelling that she did again! 😀 It really is a fun experience. I kinda hoped the pelican was quick enough for his meal. 😀 Amazing sun pics, beautiful photograph-s! Those bare trees look woeful but beautfiul at the same time.

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  2. Another awesome place we need to go see someday once we retire and can take the RV cross country. Thanks for the post & photos!

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  3. Great post and beautiful photos, brings back so many memories of our Xmas 2011 visit there. One of my favorite all time places we visited. I could see myself living there full time if I wasn’t a Canuck. 😉

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  4. We are really looking forward to our time in the Keys. Thanks for this great primer. 🙂 I am also looking forward to some great, unobstructed sunsets for a change.

    You are becoming quite the birder MonaLiza. I had no idea there was such a bird as a Great White Heron.

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    • Thanks LuAnn, And no I am not a birder, I just happen to be in place where birds poses for me. Love them though. Had I known you are heading that way I could have kept all the KW brochures!

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  5. Hello. I just saw your comment on Vic and Pam’s (Traveling in the Big EZ) blog and realized we are neighbors. We’re currently also staying at Sunshine Key. Safe travels today.

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  6. So glad you made it to the Keys! You should definitely try kayaking some day if you get a chance, it’s so shallow in a lot of places you can see tons of critters and plants. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
    Brenda

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    • Yes Brenda, we did have a reservation but got cancelled. We had some wind and thunderstorms here. We were so bummed out. There will be chances somewhere.

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  7. You always know so much stuff! I love the photo of the great white heron. I wonder if we saw one and didn’t know it. We spent some time on Long Key, Bahia Honda and key West. Enjoyed your post. Have a great time!

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    • Thanks, I tried to infuse a little tid bit. That Great white heron was a surprise, it was in a corner posing for me.

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    • On your next wintering in FL make sure you swing by the Keys. I would strongly recommend a state park, the parks here are too crowded.

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  8. Love the butterfly photos and of course the rare Heron. Can’t wait to get my book so I too can recognize some of these unique beauties. Don’t party toooo hard in Key West!

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  9. Once again, great photos and a history lesson to boot. I loved the shot you were able to get of the Great White Heron, it really showcases the differences between it and the Great Egret. I also loved the cloud picture and especially enjoyed the colorful snorkelers looking at the colorful fish! Thanks for taking us along.
    Sue

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    • Sue, thank you glad you enjoyed the ride. The Great White Heron was a surprise and that was the only one I saw during the whole time.

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  10. Glad you two are having such a fun time exploring. I wish I had tried snorkeling before our stay in the keys. I would love to have seen the coral and fish. Can’t wait to talk all about your trip to the keys. Beautiful sunset!

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    • The refresher course was a big help and best of all there were a few of us. The corals were magnificent and the fishes were as beautiful as the one we saw at Barbados.

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  11. What a wonderful time you are having enjoying the good life. The photos are all fabulous. The butterfly photos are outstanding!

    We have never been to the Keys. We hope in two years to explore that area. Thanks for the great tour!

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    • We did have fun, thank you. There are really a lot to do here but quite crowded too in all the RV parks that we passed by. If you do come be sure to stay at a State Park and book a year ahead.

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  12. That Great White Heron is so gorgeous! Yes, I’m jealous, Mona. 🙂 The Key Deer is really pretty, and he posed so nicely for you. I enjoyed all your photos, and that sunset is just beautiful. When we return to Florida, The Keys are definitely on my must visit list.

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    • Oh yes, the GWH stood motionless for me for a few minutes until it saw a fish. And that was the only heron I saw during our stay.

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  13. Your photos are just magnificent… and that is one long bridge… I love all you RV ers that blog, I’m certainly getting to see a lot of places I’ll never see in real life… so for that I thank you…

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    • Ditto here, I would never saw those exotic animals that you have in Africa. Thank you. sometimes I just get lucky when these birds pose for me.

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  14. Loved all of your pictures, and this makes me want to visit all the Keys sometime. We have only been to Key West, but for now, I will live vicariously through your posts! 😉

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  15. Beautiful! Thank you for the tour of the Keys! We anchored there once, but didn’t get to experience it the way you did. Loved your photos!

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    • Wow this is the second place (Block Island) that I know of that you have anchored. It must be exciting living/sailing on a boat visiting island to island. I don’t think I can handle the swaying of the boat 🙂

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  16. Maybe one day we will explore all that beauty! You and Steve have a great way of “capturing the moment” wherever you are. I love your enthusiasm and energy and enjoy your beautiful photography!

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  17. I am enjoying your bird photos and pictures in the Keys… I am certainly getting the itch to get in our RV again! We don’t RV full time but after laying over for the winter at home, it’s time!

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  18. My only experience of the Keys was a stop over in Key West on a cruise. Looks like a neat place to visit and I am looking forward to your journey through the area. Maybe you’ll see the Miami Blue in the wild!

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