Jimmy Buffett's song "Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude" captures the essence of the Florida keys perfectly. Anchoring the southernmost tip of the continental United States, the Keys exemplify a casual, relaxed, and, yes, laid-back attitude. So leave your ties and heels at home because, in the Keys, "no jacket is required."
From the largest island, Key Largo, to the tip of Key West, the Keys are linked by 42 bridges scattered along the 126 mile historic US 1, including the spectacular 7 mile bridge.
There are four State Parks with campgrounds in the Keys. Here they are from north to southwest:
The first undersea park in the U.S., John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles. While the mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the park's upland areas offer visitors a unique experience, it is the coral reefs and their associated marine life that bring most visitors to the park. Many enjoy the view of the reef from a glass-bottom boat tour, but visitors can get a closer look by scuba diving or snorkeling. Canoeing and kayaking through the park's waters are popular activities; fishing is permitted in designated areas. Visitors can enjoy walking on short trails, picnicking, or swimming at the beach. The Visitor Center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and nature videos are shown in its theater. Full-facility and Youth/Group campsites are available.
The Spanish named this island "Cayo Vivora" or Rattlesnake Key because its shape resembles a snake with its jaws open. In the early 20th century, Long Key was the site of a luxurious fishing resort that was destroyed during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Today, visitors can explore this island by canoeing through a chain of lagoons or hiking two land-based trails. The Golden Orb Trail leads visitors through five natural communities to an observation tower that provides a panoramic view of the island and its profusion of plant and animal life. Some of the best bonefishing in the Keys is found here. Full-facility campsites overlook the Atlantic Ocean. This campground was closed when we visited for bathroom remodeling and should be reopening in May 2012.
Curry Hammock is made up of a group of islands in the Middle Keys, with public access to swimming, a playground, picnic tables, grills and showers on the ocean side of Little Crawl Key. The hardwood hammocks found on these tropical islands support one of the largest populations of thatch palms in the United States. Mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and wetlands provide vital habitats for tropical wildlife.
This is one of my favorite campgrounds so far on this trip. It is a small loop with only 28 campsites and was in immaculate condition with a beautiful beach area.
We stayed at Bahia Honda State Park, only 30 miles from Key West. This is largest of the four campgrounds with 80 campsites and fills up fast year round.
Henry Flagler's railroad to Key West turned the remote island of Bahia Honda Key into a tropical destination. Bahia Honda is known for beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and excellent snorkeling. Visitors can picnic on the beach and take a swim or relax and enjoy the balmy sea breezes that caress the shores year-round. Anglers can fish from shore or bring a boat and launch at the boat ramp. Kayaks and snorkeling gear can be rented. Boat trips to the reef for a snorkeling excursion are available. Bahia Honda is an excellent place to see wading birds and shorebirds. The nature center introduces nature lovers to the island's plants and animals. Full-facility campsites and vacation cabins are available.
The cabins are set on a small lagoon on the Gulf side:
Speaking of sunsets, here are some photos of the first wet ones I have seen in a while. I walked about 20 feet from my campsite and took these Thursday night. The bridge on the right is US 1 and on the left is the old bridge no longer in use:
On Friday we drove to Key West to see what all the fuss is about. I was not prepared for just how developed the area has become. There is a waterfront boardwalk with charter boats for fishing and of course Duval Street, home to Papa Hemmingway's hangout Sloppy Joe's, along with 40 million other bars and restaurants in the old part of town.
At the end of US 1 is the famous marker that everyone takes stands in front of to have their picture taken:
So turn off your cell phone, ignore your voice-mail, and take off for the Keys. As you change your latitude, you will definitely change your attitude.
Regards, Park Ranger