Sponsored Content: Cruising Florida’s Lower Keys

Kayaking the Florida Keys: Paddling through the shallow waters offers an up-close look at the natural surroundings.
Kayaking the Florida Keys: Paddling through the shallow waters offers an up-close look at the natural surroundings.

Big Pine Key: Spot exotic wildlife on land; go boating and diving in the ocean.

Part 2 of 2

Connected to the mainland by the Overseas Highway, Florida’s Lower Keys lie on the southern end of the 100-mile-long string of islands extending southwest into the ocean from the Sunshine State. This four-part series explores different vacation possibilities found on these islands, which sit on the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Big Pine Key ranks as one of the Lower Keys’ largest islands. Not surprisingly, it boasts a huge assortment of attractions and activities.

Key Deer in the Florida Keys
Found only in the Florida Keys, Key deer are surprisingly friendly and can often be spotted at dusk.

Located 7 miles west of Bahia Honda Key on Florida’s Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key serves as a lush and welcoming launching pad for adventures in the surrounding water and on nearby keys. More than half the island’s 9.9-square-mile surface is occupied by the National Key Deer Refuge, home to the small Key deer, an endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer.

Charming communities lie in the key’s southern half, where several colorful shops and outstanding restaurants welcome visitors. Adventurous travelers will find outfitters and charters who will prepare them for scuba diving, fishing and boating adventures in the surrounding waters. With 5,000 residents, Big Pine Key exudes the friendly, laid-back feel that characterizes the Lower Keys archipelago.

Beautiful Big Pine

Big Pine Key received its name from trees that grow throughout the island. You’ll also find exotic species like gumbo limbo, known for its red bark, and mangrove, which grow out of the water. To learn more about the island’s diverse arboreal life, check out the Grimal Grove, where species like Malay apple, alupag and lancetilla mango are preserved.

See even more flora along the several hiking and bike trails that snake into the into National Key Deer Refuge, which encompasses most of the island’s northern half. The deer’s appearance has been likened to Bambi, and adult males stand no more than 30 inches tall at the shoulders. Not afraid of humans, the mammal ventures onto roads and in yards, so drivers are warned to stay on the lookout for these creatures.

Iguana in the Florida Keys
Iguanas are among many forms of exotic wildlife that call the Florida Keys home.

Visitors also will also get a chance to observe the other endangered species that inhabit the refuge, including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and the white ibis. Sharp observers may catch glimpses of the Bartram’s Hairstreak butterfly and reef gecko. The refuge also occupies most of No Name Key, located about a mile west of Big Pine and accessible via the State Road bridge.

Bring your camera to the Blue Hole Observation Platform, located just a few miles north of the visitor center on Key Deer Boulevard. Originally a limestone quarry, the area is now overgrown with native plants, and fresh water has filled part of the area where the rock was mined. Observe the American alligator, osprey, green herons and wading birds that make this habitat their home.

Bicycle rentals are available on the island, and several trails wind through town as well as through the refuge.

Scenery on the Water

Surround yourself with ocean scenery by motoring on Long Beach Drive, which follows a narrow peninsula as it stretches for a mile southeast of the island. Ocean views dazzle through both your left- and right-hand windows.

Ready to hit the water? Several charter companies take guests on fishing trips for tarpon, mango snapper, sharks and more. Local outfitters also take guests on trips to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary for snorkeling and scuba diving. See sharks, eels, rays and more during these outings.

Big Pine Camping

Travelers can choose from several campgrounds on Big Pine Key, including Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, Breezy Pines RV Estates, Royal Palm RV Park and Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages & Marina. In town, several stores help visitors stock up on supplies, and restaurants are available close to the stretch of Overseas Highway that runs through the island.

www.fla-keys.com/lowerkeys


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