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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 1d ago

Stretching more than 250 miles from Titusville to St. Petersburg, the Coast to Coast Trail (C2C) is a network of paved bicycle paths touching on both rural and urban portions of Central Florida.

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Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden - YouTube

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.

Resources

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Overview

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
Difficulty: easy
Bug Factor: minimal to moderate
Restroom: at the visitor center
Phone: 305-296-1504

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.

Directions

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.

Get Directions

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 Hike

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.

Entry boardwalk to the Historic Butterfly Garden

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.

In the tropical forest along the Western Loop

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.

Desbiens Pond is a freshwater pond surrounded by buttonwoods

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.

Boardwalk along the Blue Butterfly Tour

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.

The pond in the center of the gardens

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.

Cuban palm collection at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

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.

Many Cuban chugs (handmade refugee boats) came to the Florida Keys during the Mariel boatlift of 1980

Trail Map

Website Photo Gallery

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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 2w ago

The Audubon House & Tropical Gardens in Key West, June 2018

When Hurricane Irma struck last September, we were lying low in a closet in our home as tornado sirens kept going off. We knew from social media that it made landfall and rampaged across the Florida Keys, but we did not see the damage reports until we got our own power back. Knowing that our information about Keys destinations was no longer accurate, we ceased selling our guide to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. As 2018 rolled around, we knew we’d need to see how both the infrastructure and the natural areas of the Florida Keys were healing. We did that by foot, car, and bike this June. Here’s an overview of what we found, from Key West to Key Largo.

KEY WEST

As bustling and carefree as ever, Key West shows minimal aftereffects from last year’s hurricane season. Reconstruction of the seawall and beach at C.B. Harvey Rest Beach Park is the most visible project underway. It will reopen this fall. As the first marker for the Overseas Heritage Trail is here, we’ve enjoyed the oceanfront at this park in the past. Beautiful Higgs Beach, on the other side of the White Street Pier, is still as busy as you’d expect.

John starting his ride along the Overseas Heritage Trail from Key West to Big Pine Key.

Inside the West Martello Tower Gardens, the loss of their giant banyan tree to the strong winds has things looking different, but as the volunteer at the front desk noted, “it opens everything up and you can see the historic walls better.” Quite true. Even nicer, the views from the high spots inside the gardens are even better across Higgs Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. A series of display panels inside the gift shop area show a comparison of before and after Irma.

The West Martello Tower Gardens are a must-see for botanical beauty

The tropical gardens at the Audubon House and in Bahama Village looked healthy as well, as did the trails at Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park and Little Hamaca Park.

In the lush understory of Indigenous Park, Key West

Down at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, all is well and there is a lot going on. First, there’s a new entrance through the new 28-acre Truman Waterfront Park on Key West, which features a children’s playground and splash park as well as an amphitheater. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is here as well (closed Sun & Mon, which always seem to be the days we are in Key West), with interactive exhibits about habitats and marine life in the Florida Keys.

You can still take a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park via the Yankee Freedom III from Key West. The park advises that certain areas on the island remain closed to the public and the surrounding waters have not yet been fully inspected so hazards may exit.

At the always-delightful Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, only a few reminders of the hurricane’s wrath remain, mainly as one boardwalk is being restored and the observation deck at Desbien Pond is roped off until it is repaired. It’s obvious that a good deal of work went into post-hurricane removal of fallen trees, and now the understory, receiving more light, is even more lush than on our last visit.

Wandering through the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

Checking in with Leo’s Campground and Boyd’s Key West Campground on Stock Island, both are in great shape and welcoming guests. They are the only places you can camp within an easy walk of Key West. On Geiger Key, the Geiger Key Marina RV Park is open but no longer accepts tent campers. Both tents and trailers are welcome at Leo’s and Boyds.

RVs, campers, and tents are welcome at Boyd’s Key West Campground

We saw no ill effects to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail on either Key West or northward onto Boca Chica and Rockland Keys, at least nothing that couldn’t be overcome on our mountain bike. Some pavement along the trail in the Lower Keys washed out, and you do have to be concerned about picking up sharp debris in your tires if you are on a skinny-tire road bike. Also, we ran across vehicles parking on the trail while repairing utility lines and boxes.

Utility workers parked on the bike path on Big Pine Key

Launching from the Geiger Key Paddle Hut with Key West Eco Tours, a paddling trip through the mangrove islands showed us that the sea level rose dramatically during the storm, as there is a debris line caught up in the mangroves well overhead. It was also a surprise to learn that mangroves can’t handle being innudated by salt water for long periods, so there are lowlying places throughout the Lower Keys where large patches of mangrove forest has died. You won’t see these from land, but they are obvious to boaters and paddlers.

Paddling through a thinned mangrove canopy near Geiger Key

Lazy Lakes RV Park on Sugarloaf Key is open, but the Sugarloaf Key KOAis not.

BIG PINE KEY

Where you will see a massive patch of dead mangroves is along US 1 on the north end of Big Pine Key, near Long Beach Road. According to volunteers at the National Key Deer Refuge, the Long Beach Trail (at the end of the road) washed away. Visitors are still welcome to walk the beach, but this whole area is quite roughed up.

Dead mangroves stretch beyond the fence towards Long Beach on Big Pine Key

At MM 33, we stayed at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge , which has one of the largest campgrounds in the Lower Keys. While the tree canopy was stripped away and their small motel had to be demolished, their lodge, marina, and campsites are still in good stead and they are welcoming visitors.

In for the night at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge

Blue Hole and the Wildlife Trails at the National Key Deer Refuge show no obvious damage other than a thinning of trees in the pine rocklands. Recent rains meant plenty of water in the solution holes along both trails. While many people wondered what the Key deer do when a storm surge comes across the islands, the population wasn’t affected by the storm. We saw them along Key Deer Boulevard at dusk and elsewhere on the island the next day.

This Key deer came right up to us at the parking lot of Tom Thumb, so we know it’s been fed. Please do not feed them, as they lose their natural fear of humans and put themselves at danger.

A new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center sits along US 1 near MM 30.5. Volunteers tell us they expect it to open in the fall.

BAHIA HONDA

The worst damage we saw to any park was at Bahia Honda State Park. A chain-link fence now prevents visitors from accessing the Atlantic side of the island. The bayside beach, Calusa Beach, is open, as are the Buttonwood and Bayside Campgrounds and the park cabins. Sandspur Campground and Sandspur Beach washed away.

A chain link fence now cordons off the Atlantic Ocean side of the park

The park expects to reopen Loggerhead Beach on the Atlantic near the Old Bahia Honda Bridge Trail by August; the trail entirely lost its canopy. According to park staff we talked to, Sandspur Beach (Silver Palm Trail area) will not reopen until late 2019. While the park’s restrooms are gone and replaced with portables, the concession and snack bar are open. Dive tours continue operating, and you can snorkel or swim at the bayside beach.

To its north, on Ohio Key, debris was still being cleared from the large campground on Sunshine Key. The camp store was closed and bulldozers were in operation as we rode by. Infrastructure is currently being rebuilt throughout the campground. As of mid-June, they still do not have an estimated date for reopening.

From Scout Key northward to Islamorada, the Overseas Heritage Trail suffered scattered damage to both the paved path and the bridges along the route. We saw crews actively working on bridge restoration. In some places, particularly on Bahia Honda and the causeways between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, the pavement simply washed into the sea. Cyclists can ride on the highway, of course, as an alternative to these places where the path is missing or cordoned off from use. Heavy trucks are still rumbling up and down US 1 hauling debris and construction materials, so where it is necessary to ride with traffic on US 1, you have to be comfortable with sharing the road with trucks.

MARATHON

At the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge on the oceanside, Veterans Park was destroyed. It is closed off until further notice. Parking is now only available on the bayside, the access point for walkers and anglers for the old Seven Mile Bridge. We saw a lot of construction equipment on the north end of the old Seven Mile Bridge and around Pigeon Key, and from a distance it appears that some of the historic buildings were displaced by the storm surge. Historical tours still run daily at 10, 12, and 2 via the Pigeon Key Ferry from the Visitor Center at 2010 Overseas Highway. It is not possible to walk or cycle out on the old Seven Mile Bridge and ramp at this time.

While we did not have the time for a walk through Crane Point Hammock on this trip – it is truly a place you don’t want to rush through – the forest looks healthy from US 1. Their website states “Come see for yourself how nature heals after a hurricane.”

Sombrero Beach on Marathon

A side trip to Sombrero Beach clued us in that a bike path connects the Overseas Heritage Trail from US 1 over to this popular beach on the Atlantic. While a portion of the park is roped off while undergoing repairs, most of the beach and all of the access to Sisters Creek is open for paddlers and beachgoers to enjoy.

The length of the Overseas Heritage Trail is healthy along Marathon and its nearby islands up to the north end of the Grassy Key Trail, although the mangrove flats on the tidal rock barrens look pretty ripped up.

The dense and fascinating Florida thatch palm hammock at Curry Hammock

We were surprised to discover that the Curry Hammock Nature Trail is now a loop instead of an out-and-back hike. This is a good thing! The signage directing you along the trail no longer matches the route shown on the map on their kiosk: see our revised writeup on this trail for an updated trail map. While still a short loop, it is one of the most pleasant intepretive nature trails in the Florida Keys and it’s free. Don’t miss it, but make sure you use bug spray before you explore the hammock.

At Curry Hammock State Park, all oceanfront facilities, including the campground, are open. Kayak and bicycle rentals are available, ask about them at the ranger station.

Colorful sea wrack along the Atlantic shoreline at Curry Hammock State Park

LONG KEY

We knew the campground at Long Key State Park washed away. What we weren’t expecting was the death of the mangrove forest that the boardwalk goes through. It’s quite a shock to see it like this.

The mangrove swamp that the boardwalk at Long Key traverses is dead.

They also lost the picnic pavilions on the oceanfront and the tent platforms off the boardwalk. The boardwalk now comes to a dead end. The Golden Orb Trail has been reconfigured, with some new infrastructure added. It now goes out and back from the parking area to the coastal berm on the Atlantic Ocean.

New boardwalk in the tidal rock barren on the..

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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 2w ago

Picnic area at the loop junction for the Port Bougainville Trail

At Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, enjoy the island’s bounty of champion tropical trees from the Port Bougainville Trail, a 2-mile loop you can hike or bike to explore the frontcountry of this 2,500-acre preserve.

Resources

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Overview

Location: Key Largo
Length: 2 miles
Lat-Lon: 25.1761, -80.3695
Type: loop
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee for Key Largo Hammock
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: annoying
Restroom: portable toilet

Bicycles and leashed pets welcome. Stay on the marked trails and do not bushwhack or ride your bike down narrow side trails! There are poisonwood and machineel trees throughout the hammock, both of which can cause severe reactions for anyone allergic to poison ivy.

Expect insects no matter the time of year. Always use mosquito repellent. We were advised by an FWC officer not to do this hike during the summer months due to the ferocity of the biting insect population. As this is a botanical state park, no mosquito control spraying is done here, unlike throughout most of the Florida Keys.

Directions

Driving north on US 1 from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, keep right at the fork for SR 905 (to Card Sound Rd). The trailhead parking area is on the right after 0.5 mile, in front of a large archway.

Get Directions

Hike

Unexpected archway at the state park entrance

0.0 > Park next to the archway and follow the pavement into the woods, stopping at the iron ranger to pay your state park entrance fee. If you’re wondering about the strange look of this entrance, welcome to the Port Bougainvillea that almost was, a 1980s condo development that collapsed just in time for the state to swoop in and save this incredible botanical wonder.

0.1 > The trail curves past a composting privy, and reaches a major intersection in the pavement, with an island of planted trees and a picnic shelter in the middle. It’s here you see the first Port Bougainville Trail sign. Turn right.

Following the broad path away from the picnic area

Pay attention to the plant identifications and notice the subtle differences between the various trees, which blend together to form a thick green screen on both sides of the old road. Not far off into the woods in this section are the grand champion roughleaf velvetseed and boxleaf stopper, at 17 feet and 19 feet, respectively. Of the all of the grand champion trees in the hammock, few of them reach 30 feet tall—the 34-foot blolly being a notable exception.

0.3 > As you walk past a bench to the start of a stone wall on the left, watch for a break in the wall. That’s the Nature Trail, which meanders off into the hammock. Pass that by (or explore it and add another quarter mile to your walk, if on foot – don’t take a bicycle down it) and stay on the paved path.

This bench marks the spot where you turn left to follow the natural footpath

0.4 > Pass a side trail to the left, where the nature trail loops back around to this trail. Up ahead, you can see an archway as this trail approaches where the model homes stood in Port Bougainvillea.

Archway along the Port Bougainvillea Trail

It’s been 16 years since we explored the full loop with the guidance of a ranger, so we’re not going to assume things haven’t changed. At that time, they’d hoped to raze the crumbling ruins of the condos, but had them fenced off. You can see on the map where the trail loops around the quarry. Keep following the obvious path and the signs around until you make the loop. While a great deal of the loop is paved, parts of it are rough limestone. It used to provide very nice panoramas across the quarry. We hope to return later in 2018 to make our way around this full loop to describe it all, when the insect population is not as intense as it is in the summer months.

Along with the mahoganies and ficus trees, gumbo limbo and poisonwood trees are the true giants, the high canopy of the hammock. But the dense thickets of the Key Largo hammock still guard botanical treasures: milkbark and red stopper, limber caper and saffron plum, a parade of tropical species like no other on this continent.

1.9 > Return to the beginning of the loop at the picnic table and butterfly garden. Turn right to exit out to the parking lot to complete the 2 mile trip.

Where the narrower west side of the loop ends at the picnic area

2.0 > Return to trailhead.

Trail Map

The Port Bougainville Trail is shown in BLUE on this map.

Park website Photo Gallery

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Interpretive markers point out important species found in Key Largo Hammock

Covering most of the northeastern corner of Key Largo, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is truly a botanical treasure, with the highest concentration of National Champion trees in one place in the United States. On the Key Largo Hammock Nature Trail, tunnel into this tropical forest to enjoy its natural beauty while learning about its unusual trees.

Resources

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Overview

Location: Key Largo
Length: 1.1 miles
Lat-Long: 25.1761, -80.3695
Type: round-trip
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee for Key Largo Hammock
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: annoying
Restroom: portable toilet

Leashed pets and bicycles welcome. Stay on marked pathways! There are poisonwood and machineel trees throughout the hammock, both of which can cause severe reactions for anyone allergic to poison ivy.

Expect insects no matter the time of year. Always use mosquito repellent. We were advised by an FWC officer not to do this hike during the summer months due to the ferocity of the biting insect population. As this is a botanical state park, no mosquito control spraying is done here, unlike throughout most of the Florida Keys.

Directions

Driving north on US 1 from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, keep right at the fork for SR 905 (to Card Sound Rd). The trailhead parking area is on the right after 0.5 mile, in front of a large archway.

Get Directions

Hike

Entrance station on the old condo access road


0.0 > Park next to the archway and follow the pavement into the woods. It doesn’t look like a trail at all, as it’s the old paved access road to Port Bougainvillea, and is open to bicycles. Lignumvitae trees flank the front entrance. Listen for the rustle of palm fronds overhead, and look up: endangered white-crowned pigeons nestle in the tree tops. As you walk along the ribbon of pavement, look into the forest, not at the trail. Identification tags help you pick out trees from the jumbled thicket.

0.1 > The trail curves past a composting privy, and turns to the right past a picnic shelter. Pay attention to the plant identifications and notice the subtle differences between the various trees, which blend together to form a thick green screen on both sides of the old road. Not far off into the woods are the grand champion roughleaf velvetseed and boxleaf stopper, at 17 feet and 19 feet, respectively. Of the all of the grand champion trees in the hammock, few of them reach 30 feet tall—the 34-foot blolly being a notable exception.

This bench marks the spot where you turn left to follow the natural footpath

0.3 > As you walk past a bench to the start of a stone wall on the left, watch for a break in the wall. After 0.3 mile, turn left at the “Nature Trail” sign and follow the narrow footpath into the cool deep shade of the forest. The leaves of torchwood trees give off a citrus oil odor when crushed.

Nature trail through the dense tropical forest of Key Largo Hammock

0.4 > At the fork, keep left, walking past a number of small trees with interpretive markers. As the trail curves to the right, it comes out into an open, disturbed area on the edge of the forest.

The forest is particularly dense along the loop trail

0.5 > Walk down the short spur trail for a sweeping view of the water, on the edge of a quarry created during the building of Port Bougainvillea. On the far side, wild cotton fills a man-made ravine. One of Florida’s most endangered species, with showy creamy yellow flowers and fluffy cotton balls, it’s a beautiful shrub.

Wild cotton in the Florida Keys

0.7 > Retrace your steps back to the footpath and turn left. Make a right into the shady hammock at the four-way junction to complete the loop. When you emerge at the bench, turn left to parallel the wall back down to the pavement. When you reach the pavement, turn right.

Light at the end of the hammock tunnel

0.8 > Turn right again at the T intersection. West Indian mahoganies form mushroom-like canopies overhead. It only takes a few moments to return to the “Nature Trail” sign. Continue down the pavement, looking carefully at the parts of the forest that you haven’t yet seen. Along with the mahoganies, gumbo limbo and poisonwood trees are the true giants, the high canopy of the hammock. But the thickets still guard their treasures: milkbark and red stopper, limber caper and saffron plum, a parade of tropical species like no other on this continent.

Picnic area at an old junction of paved roads

1.0 > Continue past the picnic area, turning left off the Port Bougainville Trail. Pay attention to the smooth bark of the trees around you, where five different colorful varieties of the Florida tree snail, liguus, slip along sucking up algae and lichens. Jamaican dogwood seems to be a favorite perch. Follow the old road back out to the parking lot to complete your 1.1-mile walk.

Trail Map

The Nature Trail is shown in RED, but our mileage includes the walk to and from it along the Port Bougainville Trail, shown in BLUE.

Park website Photo Gallery

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Nature trail through the dense tropical forest of Key Largo Hammock

It’s “The Land of Little Giants,” according to American Forests magazine, and we can be thankful it was preserved in the 11th hour. Once slated for clear-cutting to build oceanfront condos, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park has the highest concentration of National Champion trees in one place in the United States.

Resources

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Overview

Location: Key Largo
Lat-Lon:
Fees: $2.50 per person at honor box. Includes per-person Monroe County surcharge
Phone: 305-451-1202
Open: 8 AM until sunset daily

Leashed pets and bicycles welcome. Stay on the pathways! There are poisonwood and machineel trees throughout the hammock, both of which can cause severe reactions for anyone allergic to poison ivy.

Expect insects no matter the time of year. Always use mosquito repellent. During the summer months insects can be extreme. As this is a botanical state park, no mosquito control spraying is done here, unlike throughout most of the Florida Keys.

Location

Driving north on US 1 from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, keep right at the fork for SR 905 (to Card Sound Rd). The trailhead parking area is on the right after 0.5 mile, in front of a large archway.

Details

In his novel Native Tongue, Carl Hiaasen shared a zany, imagined version of the goings-on he witnessed on his favorite island as a development called Port Bougainvillea started carving into the tropical forest north of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Fortunately, after the faux “Mediterranean coastal village” went belly-up in 1985, the state of Florida acquired the property and other adjacent lands, which now total close to 2,500 acres. Together with adjoining Crocodile Lake NWR, the Key Largo Hammock is by far the largest remaining tropical hammock in the United States, crucial to the survival of endangered species such as the American crocodile, the Key Largo woodrat, and the Key Largo cotton mouse.

Rare tree snail at Key Largo Hammock

With the exception of the white-crowned pigeons, catching a glimpse of an endangered species here is a rare event. However, as the northernmost tropical hammock in the Florida Keys, it is a cradle of botanical diversity, the northernmost extent of Caribbean trees that grow to National Champion heights in this dense forest.

Most incredibly, none of the National Champion trees in this park are over 45 feet tall. Some of the current and prior national champions found in this forest include crabwood, blolly, wild cinnamon, and wild tamarind. In all, 84 listed plant and animal species are protected here. Manchineel and poisonwood are common in the hammock. Ranger-led interpretive hikes are offered, and are especially valuable for a good introduction to tropical hammock species.

Interpretive sign for a poisonwood tree. Look for the splotchy oozing black spots on tree trunks.

There are three options for roaming this very large park, most of which is off-limits to the public. First, following the old entrance road for Port Bougainvillea, you reach the Port Bougainville Trail, a loop through the former development, partially on the paved roads. Hikers will prefer turning off on the Key Largo Hammock Nature Trail to burrow more deeply into the hammock to an overlook over an old quarry.

Man-made pond in a quarry at Key Largo Hammock

Finally, botanists, biologists, historians, and others with a reason to explore deeper into the preserve can check with the manager at nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for a backcountry permit to roam miles of old forest roads. This is not an expedition to take lightly or for a casual hike, for there are dangerously toxic trees throughout the hammock, and endangered species (flora and fauna) that could be affected by your presence. While we mentioned this permit in 50 Hikes in South Florida nearly 20 years ago, we understand that it’s no longer handed out for just casual exploration of the backcountry.

Trail Map

Explore the park
  • Key Largo Hammock Nature Trail - On the interpretive Key Largo Hammock Nature Trail, tunnel into the largest tropical forest in the United States to enjoy its natural beauty while learning about its unusual trees.
  • Port Bougainville Trail - At Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, enjoy the island's bounty of National Champion tropical trees from the 2-mile loop of the Port Bougainville Trail.

Park website Photo Gallery

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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 2w ago

Sombrero Beach - YouTube

In the Florida Keys, large natural beaches are a rare sight. Most of the islands are surrounded by mangroves. The coral reefs that hold the Atlantic Ocean at bay also hold back the wave action that forms a beach, and the sand in this part of Florida comes from sources you would not expect. At the southern tip of Marathon, Sombrero Beach offers beachgoers a natural strand within sight of the Keys’ largest lighthouse.

Resources [xgsfl] Overview

Location: Marathon
Length: 0.7 mile
Lat-Lon: 24.6925, -81.0846
Type: Loop
Fees: Free
Open: 7:30 AM until dusk

Leashed dogs are welcome. For health and safety reasons, always pick up after your pet. Please pay attention to marked-off areas where sea turtle nests are and do not let your pet disturb those areas.

A small portion of the beach remains closed after Hurricane Irma, pending repairs of damage. Most of the beach and all of the parking area is open for use. Kayakers can drop off equipment at the circle at the end of the road but must otherwise park in the parking areas.

Directions

From the traffic light on Marathon at MM 50 on US 1 at Crane Hammock Park, follow Sombrero Beach Rd for 1.9 miles until you reach the park. Parking is along the sides in marked spaces. A bike path starts at US 1 and parallels Sombrero Beach Road to this beach, so you can reach it by bicycle from anywhere in Marathon.

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Sombrero Beach


Outside of the sandy strands of Key West, Sombrero Beach is the most compelling beach to visit in the Florida Keys. As islands that developed atop the remains of coral reefs, with more protective reefs offshore leading to calmer shores, the Florida Keys aren’t known for their sandy beaches. Most beaches in the Keys are made up of silty marl, especially along Florida Bay, so they feel a bit sticky to the touch when you step on them. The sand at Sombrero Beach is a soft coral sand, naturally deposited by wave action.

Weirdly, coral sands here and elsewhere throughout South Florida and the Caribbean must go through a transformation that has nothing to do with erosion. Instead, colorful native parrotfish nibble at algae on the coral reefs. Their sharp teeth scrape off a bit of coral with the algae, and it passes through the digestive tract. So, coral sand beaches are primarily made of parrotfish poop! We first learned this fun fact at Theater of the Sea. One parrotfish can produce more than 500 pounds of coral sand every year.

Near the point that overlooks Sombrero Light

With coconut palms swaying in the breeze and native plants growing on low dunes, this is a large and pleasant beach to spend time enjoying. Arrive early to be sure to get a parking spot. Picnic pavilions, outdoor showers, and restrooms mean you can make a day of it. Bring a bike and you can bike up to US 1 for lunch along the bike path and come back.

Shallows along Sisters Creek

We’ve shown on the map below how you can walk a nice loop around the beach, taking in the shoreline, the view of Sombrero Light, built in 1858, off on Sombrero Key in the far distance at the point, and the shallows of Sister Creek where kayakers and paddleboarders tend to launch. Return along the bike path past the parking area to make a loop.

Park Map

Website Photo Gallery The Lighthouse

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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 2w ago

Informational kiosk at Crocodile Lake NWR

Protecting more than 6,700 acres of Key Largo to provide prime habitat for the endangered American crocodile, Crocodile Lake NWR has a small visitor complex along Card Sound Road where you can learn about species conservation at the refuge.

Resources [xgsfl] Overview

Location: Key Largo
Lat-Lon: 25.1916, -80.3566
Fees: free
Phone: 305-451-4223
Open: During daylight hours

The visitor complex is the only entry point to Crocodile Lake NWR at this time. The refuge is managed for wildlife.

Location

Northern Key Largo along Card Sound Road (CR 905). The visitor complex is located 1.8 miles north of US 1 along CR 905 on Key Largo. Watch for the refuge sign on the left.
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Details

If you’ve ever driven down US 1 to the Florida Keys and noticed the sign for Lake Surprise before you reach Key Largo, here’s the surprise: it’s home to American crocodiles! Established in 1980 to provide a stronghold for this vanishing species, Crocodile Lake NWR is a vast refuge that you experience from a distance whenever you visit the Florida Keys. Primarily hugging the east shore of Barnes Sound on the northern extent of Key Largo, it also includes Lake Surprise and a portion of the shoreline of Little Card Sound.

Found only in South Florida, the American crocodile is less aggressive than its cousins and far more reclusive than the American alligator. We’ve only seen a few in the wild in our decades of exploring Florida. This refuge is one of their major protected nesting grounds. It is thought that nearly a quarter of the entire American crocodile population of the United States dwells here.

American crocodile in captivity, Gatorama

While the crocodiles tend to be peacefully away from public view along the marl beaches of Barnes Sound, this is not a one-note preserve. Adding to the dense blanket of tropical hardwood forest that is also protected by adjoining Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks State Park, Crocodile Lakes NWR is home to more than 120 species of trees and shrubs specific to extreme South Florida and Florida Keys habitats. Many of those found only in the Keys are at their tallest in this hammock.

Butterfly seeking nectar in the refuge Butterfly Garden

This enables a protected space for other endangered species like white-crowned pigeon – we had one fly along with us as we drove up to the refuge gate – and Stock Island tree snails as well as ground-dwelling species like the rim rock crowned snake, the Key Largo woodrat – which build nests out of sticks – and the Key Largo cotton mouse.

Butterfly garden at Crocodile Lake NWR

In the Crocodile Lake Community Butterfly Garden, the role of the refuge in preserving endangered butterflies is also highlighted. Take a stroll through this garden of native flowering plants and shrubs to learn about the rare Schaus swallowtail butterfly, which only lays its eggs on the fresh new growth of wild lime and torchwood trees. Four other rare butterflies are also found on the refuge, including the Miami blue.

Sit and watch for birds and butterflies in this peaceful garden at Crocodile Lake NWR

The visitor complex consists of a series of interpretive stations adjoining the headquarters building, along with the butterfly garden. Driving Card Sound Road north, you are able to see the refuge to your left. After the road turns from CR 905 onto Card Sound Road, both sides of the narrow highway will remain forever wild as part of the refuge, which extends to the bridge.

Park website Photo Gallery

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Florida Hikes! by Sandra Friend - 2w ago

Plantation Hammocks Preserve - YouTube

Adjoining Founders Park on Plantation Key, this City of Islamorada preserve showcases some of the Florida Keys most interesting flowers under a generous canopy of well-established tropical trees.

Resources [xgsfl] Overview

Location: Plantation Key, Islamorada
Length: 0.6 mile
Lat-Lon: 24.9619, -80.5664
Type: loop
Fees: free
Difficulty: moderate
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: stop at the Visitor Center or the restrooms outside the entrance gate to Founder’s Park

Open 8 AM to 5 PM daily. Dogs are not permitted. The preserve is right along the Overseas Heritage Trail, but must be accessed via the entrance to Founder’s Park. See directions for how to get to its trailhead, which is separate from Founder’s Park.

Directions

This preserve is at MM 87 on the bay side of the Overseas Highway. Turn in at the Founder’s Park entrance and make an immediate right to drive behind the Islamorada Visitor Center. Continue to the very end of this access road, which empties out into a natural surface parking area for the preserve.

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Hike

Adjoining the ballfields and aquatic playground of Founder’s Park, Plantation Hammocks Preserve is the perfect place to look for butterflies. The Florida Keys are known for rare butterfly species, and its here among the tropical flowers and shrubs you may find them flitting.

Start of the trail system at Plantation Hammocks. Watch for sulfurs!

0.0 > Although the City of Islamorada calls this “Plantation Hammock” on their website, it’s clearly plural on the sign near the trailhead. Wood chip trails make a network of trails throughout this linear preserve; we followed the perimeter of them counterclockwise. The paths are essentially access roads, broad and lined with a thick carpet of wood chips. At the first fork, keep left.

Yellow poinciana (Peltophorum pterocarpum). Not native, but not invasive.

0.1 > Colorful works of art, benches topped with mosaics are at many of the cross-trail intersections, drawing your attention away from the profuse blossoms in the understory.

One of many mosaic benches found throughout the preserve

0.2 > A massive ficus tree provides deep shade and a natural screen against the tennis courts on the other side of the fence at Founder’s Park. You’ll find a canopied bench swing beneath the shade of the hammock at the next cross trail. Continue straight ahead.

Swinging bench near the ficus tree in Plantation Hammocks Preserve

Ligumvitae (Guajacum sanctum)

0.3 > The clear waters of Florida Bay are just ahead. A picnic bench sits right on the shoreline adjoining the docks at the Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina.

Florida Bay view at Plantation Hammocks Preserve

Follow the beaten path along the shore to a bench in a slightly more private setting, where you can look out into the bay and see islands in the distance. Returning from the bench, follow the path that stays to the perimeter, close to the adjoining condos.

Limber caper (Capparis flexuosa)

0.4 > John climbed up into a raised area along the path, finding the remains of a foundation and patio amid the summer blooms.

Location of building foundation at Plantation Hammocks Preserve

A smidgen of patio peeps out from under the plants

Purchased by the City of Islamorada in 2003, this property might have once been a nursery or a landscaped yard, given the sheer volume of flowering shrubs, dense flower beds, and young flowering trees beneath the tropical hammock canopy.

Devil’s-potato (Echites umbellata)

0.6 > At the final choice of junctions, take the right fork; the left one simply swings out closer to the condo and US 1. This path takes you back towards the parking area, with a delightful find of wild cotton along the way.

Wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) with a blossom

Once actively eradicated throughout South Florida at the prompting of the Federal government – under the mistaken assumption that it spread boll weevils to agricultural cotton – it is an endangered species. Ironically, state regulations still won’t let you propagate this species without a special permit, so enjoy it in this setting.

Trail Map

City of Islamorada Parks website Photo Gallery

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Green Turtle Hammock Preserve - YouTube

At Green Turtle Hammock Nature Preserve, less than a half mile of natural footpaths wind through a delightful rockland tropical hammock on 9 acres of Upper Matecumbe Key. While the trails are gentle, the habitat has some surprises for you on this walk.

Resources [xgsfl] Overview

Location: Upper Matecumbe Key, Islamorada
Length: 0.4 mile
Lat-Lon: 24.9106, -80.6446
Type: loop
Fees: free
Difficulty: moderate
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: portable toilet

Open 8 AM to 5 PM daily. Leashed pets welcome. Park only in the designated area just inside the gates. There is a canoe launch along the road that loops through the middle of the preserve, but you need to drop off your canoe at the launch and park back near the exit gate.

The preserve is right along the Overseas Heritage Trail, but bicycles are not recommended on the trail because it is narrow and has lots of poisonwood along it.

Directions

This preserve is at MM 81.2 along the bay side of the Overseas Highway (US 1) on Upper Matecumbe Key. Southbound, look for the driveway immediately after the entrance to the Kon Tiki Resort.

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Hike

Acquired by the city of Islamorada in 2006 with the help of the Florida Communities Trust, this 8.7-acre gem is largely a dense thicket of tropical hammock surrounding two homes. One is a more modern one adjoining a boat basin where the canoe launch is now located; the condition of that home has rendered it unusable. The historic pioneer home just inside the gates is used by the city for offices, but it makes a lovely setting for a park. Playground equipment sits in the front yard, while picnic tables are under the shade of a royal poinciana tree adjoining the house.

Sign at the entrance to the nature trail

While the hiking loop is less than a half mile, you see a lot along this very compact series of trails. Four hiker symbol signs note entrances to the trail network off the driving loop around the park. Start at the one closest to the historic home, on the right, just inside the gate.

Oozing trunk on a poisonwood tree in Green Turtle Hammock

0.1 > One thing about hiking in a Florida Keys tropical rockland hammock: you need to know your trees. On the first part of this loop, the trail is extremely narrow as it twists and winds between the trunks of the tropical trees, coming very close to the oozing trunks of poisonwood trees. Avoid brushing against them. This is not a habitat you should bushwhack through.

In the heart of a small rockland tropical hammock on Upper Matecumbe Key

Keys tree cactus grows out of a rocky outcropping along the trail, and you’ll see it a little farther down the trail intertwined with tree trunks. If the trail briefly falls faint, look through the deadfall on it to find it again, just a worn groove in the leaf litter on the forest floor.

Cleft in a solution hole with a sulfur smell coming from it

0.2 > One of the chief surprises of this trail is the distinct smell of sulfur arising from the earth. The trail loops around a karst depression, a solution hole that drops into a small cave. It’s from here that the aroma is rising, so we figure there is a spring beneath the rocks. No water is in evidence, however. There are now some pieces of rock along the edges of the footpath and it is much more well defined here as it comes up to the back side of a maintenance building. Turn right.

Crocodile warning sign at the boat basin

You pop out into an open area along the boat basin constructed by the homeowners. Signs warn of a known crocodile in the area. The American crocodile is native to the Florida Keys and prefers brackish waters like these. Alligators could be found here, too.

Following the edge of the mangrove swamp

Where you see the hiker symbol sign to the right, turn right. The trail follows the ecotone between the mangroves and the rockland tropical hammock, eventually looping back around to join in with the trail you were on before. Continue straight ahead, emerging behind the building again. Walk across the open area this time, between the house and the boat basin.

Boat basin behind the old house, serves as canoe launch

0.3 > You’ll see another hiker symbol sign, this one accompanied by a smaller sign about the nature trail you’re about to join being an Eagle Scout project. While many of the plants were identified when the trail was established, rain and weathering has made most of the little handpainted signs unreadable.

Entry to the Eagle Scout portion of the nature trail at Green Turtle Hammock

Another well-built path, this one follows wood chips through a part of the hammock that shows more disturbance by human activity, starting with a lot of snake plants (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue) and other ornamentals in the understory.

Nicely built trail through the hammock

0.4 > You pass more identification signs next to trees in the hammock, some of which can be read, like Inkwood. At the “Trail Split” sign, stay to the right.

Split in the footpath

This trail curves through the hammock and passes a bench before emerging out near the exit gate of the preserve, within sight of the playground equipment and parking. Cross the little park in front of the pioneer home to wrap up your walk.

Near the gates of the preserve is a small park with playground equipment

According to an article in the Keys News, the preserve may later include a boardwalk and observation tower if Islamorada moves forward with master plans for the preserve. Keep us posted in the comments if any further improvements are added to the park.

Trail Map

City of Islamorada Parks website Photo Gallery

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