The Islands of Marathon — The Heart of the Florida Keys (Mile Markers 63 to 40)
Called the boating and family destination of the Keys, Marathon includes Boot, Knights, Hog, Vaca, Stirrup, Crawl and Little Crawl keys, East and West Sister's Island, Deer and Fat Deer keys, Long Pine and Grassy keys. It incorporated as the city of Marathon in 1999.
Settlements on the islands of Marathon can be traced back to the early 1800s when Bahamians established tropical fruit farms and New England fishermen inhabited the region.
Crossing the shimmering waters south of Vaca Key is the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. The Old Seven Mile Bridge that runs parallel to the modern span was the jewel of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, completed in 1912, whose track stretched from mainland Florida throughout the Keys.
The spirit of this trestle's past can be found on Pigeon Key, the original headquarters and staging area for construction of the bridge. The historic island's museum contains artifacts from the Florida Keys railroad era, along with models, a video about the railroad, and antique postcards and photos depicting early life on Pigeon Key.
Throughout the region, environmental attractions provide visitors opportunities to swim with dolphins, “meet” sea turtles, explore hardwood hammocks and rainforests, stroll sandy beaches and enjoy an abundance of watersports.
World-class sport fishing can be found offshore at the reef and on the flats, along the bridges and in nearby Everglades National Park. Challenging the mighty tarpon or "Silver King of the Keys" near the bridges of Marathon is a test of strength, endurance and boating skill.
Snorkel and scuba dive excursions fulfill most divers' appetites. The beautiful underwater world at Sombrero Reef and the ghostly Thunderbolt shipwreck — named for its seagoing duty as a lightning target — are two of Marathon's best-known dive attractions.
Kayakers can paddle through the solitude of local mangrove-lined waters or explore around small, bird-inhabited islands offshore. Standup paddling and kiteboarding attract many devotees to the Marathon area.
Visitors can charter a fishing boat or recreational boat, play golf and tennis, take in the theater and eat at a variety of restaurants ranging from small cafés to funky waterfront seafood spots.
Marathon boasts comfortable resorts, luxury accommodations, waterside vacation homes, marinas, family-style attractions and the conveniences of a modern community, including a newly constructed hospital and high-tech library, all while retaining the relaxed charm of its roots as a 19th-century fishing village.
Florida Keys Marathon Airport, located at mile marker 52 bayside, is home to two full-service fixed-base operators that offer private and charter aircraft accessibility, jet and aviation fuels, maintenance, tie-down, pilot and passenger facilities. For information about airport services, call 305-289-6060.
The Marathon region is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a one-hour drive from Key West International Airport.
WHAT TO EXPERIENCE ON THE ISLANDS OF MARATHON
Boot Key Harbor, mile marker 49 oceanside, near the City of Marathon Community Park, Marathon; ci.marathon.fl.us/government/departments/marina-and-ports/. This is one of the Keys' largest protected harbors with a field of more than 200 moorings. Dockage, launching ramp, fuel, boat rentals and restaurants are nearby.
Crane Point, mile marker 50.5 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-9100, cranepoint.net. The 63.5-acre tract is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts and was once the site of a Bahamian village. The Museums of Crane Point include the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children's Museum. Other features include nature trails, one of the oldest homes in the Keys outside of Key West, a wild bird rehabilitation center, rainforest, butterfly garden and flight habitat.
Curry Hammock State Park, mile marker 56.2 oceanside, Little Crawl Key; 305-289-2690, floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/curry-hammock-state-park. Fishing, swimming, kayaking and picnicking are offered at the waterfront park, which also features a popular beach launch for kiteboarders.
The Lagoon on Grassy Key, mile marker 59 bayside, Grassy Key; 305-414-8245, ridethelagoon.com. Founded in 2011 as Keys Cable Park and reimagined in 2020 as The Lagoon on Grassy Key, this Middle Keys staple was created for teaching locals and visitors to enjoy board, wind and paddle sports. Tides flow freely in and out of the lagoon with clean ocean water. Formerly a limestone quarry and an aquaculture site, today the facility is a tropical adventure park, organic marketplace, eatery and day resort.
Dolphin Connection, mile marker 61 oceanside, Hawks Cay Resort, Duck Key; 305-734-7000 or 888-443-6393, hawkscay.com. Hawks Cay Resort guests and nonguests can interact directly with dolphins in either a saltwater lagoon or dockside encounter.
Dolphin Research Center, mile marker 59 bayside, Grassy Key; 305-289-0002, dolphins.org. This acclaimed nonprofit marine mammal research and education facility offers a variety of swim encounter programs for visitors to get in the water for an up-close look at the beauty of the resident dolphins.
Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, 11710 Overseas Highway, Marathon; 305-407-3262, floridakeysaquariumencounters.com. 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, families can swim with and feed the fishes while learning about the region’s marine habitats. Visitors can safely feed sharks and other predators through small holes in a thick acrylic barrier. Another highlight is interacting with debarbed spotted eagle and cownose stingrays. Additional interactive experiences such as an immersive coral reef encounter are available.
Key Colony Beach Golf, 8th Street at mile marker 53.5, Key Colony Beach; 305-289-1533. A nine-hole, par-3 public course is open seven days a week.
Marathon Community Theatre, mile marker 49 oceanside, Marathon; 305-743-0994, marathontheater.org. Comedies, musicals, dramatic presentations and readings are offered at the popular theater whose history dates back to 1944.
Old Seven Mile Bridge, mile marker 47 bayside, Marathon. Once the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, the bridge remains a historic and scenic landmark stretching beside the contemporary Seven Mile Bridge. The 2.2-mile section leading to historic Pigeon Key reopened to pedestrian recreation in January 2022 after a multiyear restoration. Sometimes described as a linear park, it’s a prime spot for walking, jogging, cycling and sunset viewing.
Pigeon Key, mile marker 44.8 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-5999, pigeonkey.net. Dotted with quaint cottages and lying beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge, Pigeon Key served as a camp for laborers constructing the bridge in the early 1900s. The island now showcases a museum and offers opportunities to picnic and snorkel. 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 May 2022.
Sombrero Beach, Sombrero Boulevard at mile marker 50 oceanside, Marathon. This well-maintained Middle Keys gem is a free-access public park and beach open from sunrise to sunset. Features include a kayak launch, fishing pier, volleyball court, children's playground, shady picnic pavilions equipped with cooking grills, freshwater shower and restroom facilities. The park at Sombrero Beach is wheelchair accessible.
Sunset Park, corner of West Ocean and 12th St., Key Colony Beach. This out-of-the-way pocket park is designed for passive relaxation and is a quiet wedding ceremony site with an oceanfront backdrop.
Turtle Hospital, mile marker 48.5 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-2552, turtlehospital.org. Opened in 1986, the Turtle Hospital treats injured sea turtles and, when possible, returns them to the wild. Daily educational tours introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and the hospital's curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles.
Marathon visitor information: fla-keys.com/marathon or 1-800-262-7284
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
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