today, brought to you by the Florida Rambler…..
Kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, camping in the Lower Keys
~There is so much more to the Lower Keys besides Key West. For starters, there are fewer visitors here, other than Key West-bound island hoppers along the Overseas Highway.
So, get off the highway and find your lost paradise. Stop and smell the ocean breezes from a harbor hidden deep on these scenic islands, away from the bustling tourism of the southernmost city.
There are plenty of things to do on Big Pine and the Lower Keys.
You can snorkel here. Anywhere! Whether it’s the Looe Key Reef off Big Pine Key or in the backcountry that wraps around these scenic islands, stretching far and wide from the highway. The best way to see the Lower Keys may be under water.
The paddling opportunities are endless, and so are the fishing hot spots. Largely undeveloped, there are back roads in the Lower Keys that take you to undisturbed places, wilderness boat launches, idyllic locales that few but the locals know.
Load your kayaks with fishing and snorkeling gear and head to the Lower Keys!
Kayaking in the Lower Keys
One of the beauties of paddling in the Keys is the accessibility for kayaks and canoes along the Overseas Highway. Aside from multiple boat ramps, there are numerous causeways and bridges where you can just pull off to the side of the road and slide your kayak into the water.
And back roads will take you to even more launch points. We visited a few nice ones.
Big Pine Key: Long Beach – Just after you cross over to Big Pine from Bahia Honda, Long Beach Road is on your left at Mile Marker 33. The Big Pine Fishing Lodge is on the corner. Drive past the fish camp about a mile, where two coral rock pillars announce the entrance to Long Beach Estates. There’s room for two or three cars on the shoulder, and a path through the mangroves that is wide enough for kayaks and canoes on the north (bay) side. Look at the bay! It’s very quiet and sheltered, and it leads out to the 4600-acre Coupon Bight Aquatic Reserve, a state-managed portion of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Paddle around the islands and lagoons to view rare wading birds, snorkel the near-shore patch reefs. This area also harbors Florida lobster and a wide variety of fish, so bring a rod.
Big Pine: No Name Key – Turn right (north) at the traffic light on Big Pine from U.S. 1 (MM 30.2), then veer left up Key Deer Boulevard. (Speed limit is 30.) When you get to Watson Boulevard, turn right. (Sign points to ‘No Name Key’). Just past the No Name Pub, before the bridge, are the Old Wooden Bridge cabins and kayak concession. You can launch here for a nominal fee, or you can continue another two miles across the bridge onto No Name Key. At the end of the road, there is another launch.
Note that the houses you see on No Name Key are self-sustaining. There is no electricity or water on the island, at least not yet, so you’ll see a lot of solar panels and cisterns.
Kayak guru Keogh operates Big Pine Kayak Adventures at Wooden Bridge, where he’ll take you on group eco-tours or ferry you and your kayak out into the back country so you can paddle back at your leisure.
Summerland Key– Just past The Wharf Bar & Grill, make your first right onto Horace Street. Take your second right onto Northside Drive, then an immediate left onto Niles Road. Take Niles Road to the end, about 1.5 miles, and park. The launch is ideal for kayaks and small boats. The water in the surrounding bays is 2 to 3 feet, and the islands are magnificent. Kevin Rowley said there are a lot of “holes” in these bays that are full of fish; you just have to find them. We didn’t.
But we did paddle around in a beautiful setting of islands, bays and lagoons. And we hiked down an island trail from an old wooden bridge near the launch. Kevin says there are old fishing huts out there, but like the fish, we didn’t find them, either.
Sugarloaf Creek – This is one I wanted to visit but time did not allow. Nevertheless, I thought it worth including. At the blinking traffic light on Sugarloaf Key (MM 17), go south on Sugarloaf Boulevard about two miles to the end, then turn right onto Old State Road 4A for another two miles until you reach the bridge over Sugarloaf Creek, known as Sammy Creek, part of the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area and a rest stop along the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail. The launch at the bridge is reported to be a bit of a challenge, but the paddle is worth the effort, Bill Keogh says in his book, “The Florida Keys Paddling Guide.” This area is home to a lot of unusual wildlife unique to the Keys, including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, the Lower Keys striped mud turtle and the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. As you might expect, the fishing here is very good, as well.
Saddlebunch Keys – This area may provide the best access for kayaking in the wilderness than any other location along the Overseas Highway. As you hop from island to causeway to bridge back to island and causeway a few times, there are dozens of places to pull off the road and launch from Mile Marker 16 south to the Shark Key public boat ramp at Mile Marker 11. In my opinion, this may be the most scenic part of the Keys and accessibility is awesome. When you see a hole in the mangroves, stop and park on the shoulder. Launch your boat into a magnificent wonderland of sun and sea. Keogh calls the rocky launch site at Mile Marker 16 the “center of the universe” for kayakers. Take your time climbing over the rocks.
Geiger Key – As many times as I’ve been to the Keys, I always seem to bypass Geiger Key in my rush to get to Key West. Not this time. Less than a half-mile past the Shark Key boat ramp, turn left (south) at the Circle K (MM 10.5) onto Boca Chica Road and go about 1.3 miles until you see a sign for the Geiger Key Marina. The launch is just past the marina, surrounded by a chain-link fence, and offers access to Saddlebunch Harbor and the ocean. There’s a really cool little tiki bar at the marina and a small RV park. Next to the tiki bar is a narrow kayak launch, but ask permission before you use it.
If you continue along Boca Chica Road, past the turnoff for the Geiger Key Marina, you’ll find yourself riding parallel to the beach. There are several launch spots here for ocean kayaking behind the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key.
Snorkeling in the Lower Keys
Looe Key is home to large schools of reef fish and spectacular reef views, making it one of the top destinations for snorkelers and divers in the U.S. The shallow depth of the reef, ranging from 6 inches to 30 feet, make it especially attractive to snorkelers.
Just west of Looe Key is a sunken freighter, the 210-foot Adolphus Busch, which was scuttled as an artificial reef in 1998. Wreck dives requires Advanced Open Water Certification.
Of course, you can always strap your snorkel gear to your kayak and snorkel anywhere you like. There’s much to see.
Here are a few ways to get out to the reef:
Bahia Honda State Park. MM 36.8. The park concession offers two snorkeling tours per day to the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary, at 9:30 a.m. and/or 1:30 p.m., provided a minimum number of passengers reserve slots. Each trip provides 1.5 hours in the water. Tour price is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for children. Equipment rentals available. Call 305-872-3954 for reservations. Here’s Florida Rambler guide to Bahia Honda State Park.
Strike Zone Charters, Big Pine Key. MM 29.5. Charters and tour boats will take divers and snorkelers out to Looe Key and/or the Adolphus Busch freighter wreck. Scheduled trips leave at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and snorkelers are taken you to two locations on each trip. Price for snorkeling is $35, divers pay $45. Both snorkel and dive equipment rentals available. Call 305-872-9863 for reservations.
Looe Key Resort and Dive Center, Ramrod Key. MM 27. Full-day dive and snorkel trips to Looe Key Reef leave the dock promptly at 10 a.m. and return at 3 p.m. Cost is $44 for snorkelers, $34 for children, and $84 per diver. A special wreck trip is offered on Wednesdays that includes one wreck dive and two reef dives for $84. Call 877-816-3483 for reservations.
Sites worth seeing in the Lower Keys
National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge
Throughout our stay on Big Pine, we lived among the tiny Key deer that make this island their home. The 84,000-acre refuge occupies much of this island, No Name Key, adjacent uninhabited islands and waterways.
Although there are isolated residential subdivisions scattered throughout both Big Pine and No Name Keys, most is preserved as pinerockland forest, imperiled tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh and mangrove forests.
This precious habitat is home to 22 threatened or endangered species, including the Key Deer and the unique Lower Keys marsh rabbit, but the refuge’s dozens of offshore islands are winter nesting grounds for migratory birds.
Unique to Big Pine are the fresh water marshes and pools, which make it a big draw for wildlife. You can visit one of these fresh water pools at Blue Hole, about two miles north of U.S. 1 on Key Deer Boulevard. Just past Blue Hole is parking for the nature trails, but there are trails throughout the refuge, some accessible to off-road bicycling.
For information on the refuge, stop at the visitor center in the Big Pine Shopping Plaza, just north of the traffic light on U.S. 1 at Key Deer Boulevard (MM 30.2). The visitor center is only open during the week, not weekends, and only when a volunteer or refuge staffer is available to keep it operating.
You can download maps and information at the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge web site.
Related Florida Rambler article: Spotting Key Deer still a thrill
Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower
This relic of the early 20th Century is a testament to early mosquito control, but it didn’t work. Fishing lodge owner Richter Clyde Perky built the tower in 1929 to house bats, which he thought would control the uncontrollable mosquito population of the Lower Keys.
When the bats were introduced to the tower, they flew away and disappeared. Nobody knows where they went, although locals attest to a significant presence of bats throughout the Keys. Ghost stories, perhaps.
Nevertheless, the bat tower still stands, and it is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. You can drive right up to it and look it over on a barren landscape of Lower Sugarloaf Key.
At Mile Marker 17, just past the Sugarloaf Lodge, you’ll see Bat Tower Road. Drive north about a mile to the bat tower.
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
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