Eco-Experience Bucket List: Middle Keys

Environmental preservation is a priority in the Florida Keys. Today, Keys visitors are walking, hiking, cycling, paddling, diving and snorkeling specifically to see the natural sights on land and water.

Among the islands of Marathon in the Middle Keys are plenty of eco-attractions, trails and sightseeing spots appealing to any visitor who shares a love of nature and marine environments. The experiences here definitely deserve a place on an eco-enthusiast's bucket list - so indulge in some (or all!) of them during a Middle Keys adventure.

Go birding at Curry Hammock State Park. Here it's possible to view or count thousands of falcons, raptors and eagles that fly through the Keys each fall between mid-September and early November. And it's one of the country's most prolific annual migration destinations for peregrine falcons. Located at mile marker 56.2, the park is also a favorite Middle Keys spot for kayakers, paddleboarders and kiteboarders to launch from shoreline beach areas.

Spend a day at Sombrero Beach. The well-maintained Middle Keys gem is a free-access public park and beach open daily from sunrise to sunset at mile marker 50. And it's one of Marathon's best places to launch a kayak or paddleboard to explore tiny offshore islands or wind along neighboring mangrove fringes. Enjoy a full outdoorsy day at the fishing pier, volleyball courts, children's playground or shady picnic pavilions. The park at Sombrero Beach also is wheelchair accessible and equipped with freshwater shower and restroom facilities. 

Travel the Old Seven Mile Bridge. Cycle, walk, run, rollerblade, view a variety of marine life and watch sunrises and sunsets along a section of the famed Old Seven Mile Bridge that parallels the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. Nicknamed "Old Seven," the oft-photographed 2.2-mile span is open to pedestrian recreation after a multiyear restoration. Sometimes described as a linear park, it also serves as the gateway to historic Pigeon Key. 

Discover historic Pigeon Key. Lying beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge at mile marker 44.8, Pigeon Key formerly served as a camp for laborers constructing the iconic bridge. The island now features a museum, offers opportunities to picnic and snorkel, and hosts a robust marine science research program for school-age children from around the world. Daily tours are available. Pigeon Key is accessible by walking or bicycling the reopened Old Seven Mile Bridge or by ferry boat. A visitor tram is expected to be operational by late spring or summer 2022.

Explore Crane Point Hammock Museum & Nature Trail. Newly listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 63.5-acre tract at mile marker 50.5 is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts and was once the site of a Bahamian village. Surrounding the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children's Museum, a kayak launch, shaded nature trails and natural habitat for birds and butterflies make this a must-explore site.

Help avian species at the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Located within Crane Point Hammock, the center has rescued or protected more than 22,000 wild birds. Founder Kelly Grinter first began caring for injured birds from her car's backseat in 1995. Today Kelly and her team assist more than 750 birds each year. The center's volunteers and local veterinarians nurse injured birds such as wild hawks, ospreys, spoonbills and egrets back to health and release them. Visitors not only help by exploring the small center, but support efforts through donating medical supplies including bandages and tapes, bird carriers, fresh fish and bird food as well as money.

Snorkel a shallow coral reef. The crystalline waters off Marathon are flush with extensive spur-and-groove coral formations and well-developed patch reefs that demand hours of exploration. High-quality shallow reefs are heartily populated with tropical reef fish as well as invertebrates and soft and hard corals. Among locals' underwater favorites are Sombrero Reef, Coffin's Patch, Horseshoe Reef and Flagler's Barge. A professional snorkel operator can get you by boat to any of these sites, which are located a few miles offshore. 

'Dive in' to Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters. Feeding the fish is not permitted in the open waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary - but at this unique spot at mile marker 53, visitors can swim with and feed the fishes, immersed in a coral reef environment in a 200,000-gallon saltwater tank, and learn about the region's marine habitats. Safely feed sharks and other predators through small holes in a thick acrylic barrier, or gently interact with debarbed spotted eagle and cownose stingrays.

Tour the extraordinary Turtle Hospital. The world's only licensed veterinary hospital specializing in sea turtles, the Turtle Hospital at mile marker 48.5 treats injured turtles and, when possible, returns them to the wild. Don't miss taking a guided behind-the-scenes tour of this one-of-a-kind facility to observe the "residents" and learn about the hospital's curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles.