Lower Keys Overview
Big Pine and the Lower Keys — the Natural Keys (Mile Markers 40 to 4)
For more than 60 years, the region of Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys — from the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at Little Duck Key to Stock Island — has advocated the responsible use and preservation of the vast natural wonders found there. This focus on the environment has earned the region the title of the Natural Keys.
The Lower Keys are home to two national wildlife refuges, part of a national marine sanctuary and a state park and are surrounded by an environment filled with abundant terrestrial and marine wildlife.
Established in 1957, the National Key Deer Refuge protects the endangered Key deer — a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, ranging in size between 65 and 90 pounds fully grown — and its habitat. Today the refuge encompasses approximately 9,200 acres of prime Key deer territory from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shores of Sugarloaf Key, out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the ocean waters off the Lower Keys, divers and snorkelers explore the spectacular coral and marine life of Looe Key Reef, renowned as one of the world’s best reefs for diving. Each July, Looe Key is the site of a popular underwater music festival that promotes the preservation of Keys coral reefs.
Since Dec. 5, 1998, divers have been exploring an artificial reef approximately 7 miles southwest of Big Pine Key — the intentionally scuttled 210-foot former island freighter Adolphus Busch Sr.
Just north of the Lower Keys, the adjacent waters of the Gulf of Mexico offer refuge and breeding areas for great white herons and other migratory birds and wildlife in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938. The refuge features more than 375 square miles of open water and islands and stretches from Key West to just north of the Seven Mile Bridge. White herons are North America’s largest wading bird and are only found in the Florida Keys and on the South Florida mainland, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Visitors can access the area by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft boat.
Featuring scenic restful beaches, Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key, mile marker 37, offers camping, picnicking, watersports and plenty of opportunities for sunning.
Camping is widely popular throughout the Lower Keys, with multiple campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks. Outdoor activities in the Lower Keys include both inshore and offshore fishing, kayaking through the nearby shallow waters, eco-tours, birding, golfing and walking. In addition, Stock Island is home to a burgeoning arts and restaurant scene.
Big Pine Key is located about 30 minutes by car from Key West International Airport and approximately the same distance from Marathon, while Stock Island is just a few minutes from Key West’s airport.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BIG PINE AND THE LOWER KEYS
Adolphus Busch Sr. Wreck diving came to the Lower Keys in a big way on Dec. 5, 1998, with the intentional sinking of the 210-foot Adolphus Busch Sr. The former island freighter was purchased by the local dive community with the assistance of Adolphus Busch IV and sunk perfectly upright and intact in 100 feet of water some 7 miles southwest of Big Pine Key. A wide variety of marine life calls this fascinating wreck home.
Bahia Honda State Park, mile marker 37 oceanside, Bahia Honda Key; 305-872-3210, floridastateparks.org/BahiaHonda. Home to a world-renowned Florida Keys beach, Bahia Honda State Park also features picnic and camping facilities, rental cabins, watersports activities including kayaking, daily snorkeling tours to Looe Key Reef, a marina and nature trails. A nature center introduces park visitors to the island's plants and animals.
Blue Hole, 3 miles north on Key Deer Boulevard, off the Florida Keys Overseas Highway at mile marker 30.5 bayside, Big Pine Key. An old rock quarry now provides a freshwater habitat for Key deer, alligators and resident and migratory birds. Visitors can enjoy the view from the observation platform or venture along the forested edges of the walking trail.
Grimal Grove, 258 Cunningham Lane near mile marker 30.5, Big Pine Key; 305-923-6663, grimalgrove.com. The historic tropical fruit grove now under the stewardship of Patrick Garvey, believed to be the continental United States’ only breadfruit grove, is the first agricultural venture of its kind in the Florida Keys in the past 50 years. Grimal Grove is a small farm and botanical garden with a focus on propagation, production and research. Tours are available by appointment only to maintain a low-impact footprint for the health of the grove and the neighborhood. The property also hosts activities including youth education and yoga.
Looe Key Reef. This unique preserve is named for the HMS Looe, a British frigate that ran aground on the shallow reefs in 1744. The waters surrounding the reef provide spectacular views of sponges, soft corals, vibrant elkhorn and staghorn coral thickets and a wide variety of fish. The area’s commercial dive charters provide excursions to Looe Key, and the reef is the site of the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.
Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration, 24244 Overseas Highway, Summerland Key; 305-745-2729, mote.org/locations/details/international-center-for-coral-reef-research-and-restoration. The fully equipped marine science facility is dedicated to marine research and education in the Florida Keys. Programs include coral health research and coral reef restoration, monitoring and assessment. Cultivating corals in land-based and underwater nurseries, Mote scientists have restored more than 140,000 corals to Florida’s Coral Reef. Tours of the center and “Mote on the Boat” experiences are available.
National Key Deer Refuge and Watson Nature Trail, 3.5 miles north on Key Deer Boulevard, off the Florida Keys Overseas Highway at mile marker 30.5 bayside, Big Pine Key; 305-872-0774, fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge/. Tiny Key deer, no larger than a mid-size dog, roam freely here. A nature trail winds through protected pinelands. The Nature Center, located at 30587 Overseas Highway, is open for porch visits Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Check the website for updated information.
Sheriff’s Animal Farm, mile marker 5 bayside, Stock Island; 305-293-7300, keysso.net/farm. On the grounds of the Monroe County Detention Center, this family-friendly attraction features traditional farm animals such as horses, goats, sheep and pigs as well as exotic animals including a lemur, African spurred tortoises, an ostrich, several alpacas, an emu, a miniature zebu, an albino python, peacocks and tropical birds. A haven for animals that have been neglected, abandoned or abused, the farm is open 1-3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Admission is free.
Lower Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com/lowerkeys or 1-800-872-3722
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
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