Summer in the Florida Keys

Summertime is a fantastic time to visit the Florida Keys, and there are so many unique things to explore – without going overboard.

When the weekend forecast called for clear, blue skies with a light breeze, my mind immediately filled with images of The Florida Keys. But on a budget, could we find out-of-the-ordinary adventures andkeep the costs low? You bet!

Always opt to take Card Sound Road for our drive south. It’s the road less traveled, and the views driving over the bridge are dazzling. About a half-mile before reaching Key Largo, you’ll find a little-known gem: the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.

This park is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals, including some of the rarest in the U.S., like the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. You can walk the paved 2.1-mile trail covered in a canopy of hardwood hammocks, past picnic tables and benches. Bikes would be perfect. Some signs along the way inform you of the plant species. The cost?  Only $2.50 per person, on the honor system.

In Tavernier, you’ll find the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. Elevated boardwalks lead you to remarkable species like great horned owls, red-shouldered hawks and one that will really catch your eye, a peregrine falcon.

Another surprise – the boardwalk led right to the shores of the bay, where you will see visiting wild birds including stilts, roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and pelicans to name a few. The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is a non-profit organization that relies solely on public and private donations. Donations are greatly appreciated.

That beautiful bay view tempted us to get out on the water. If you are looking for wallet-friendly ways, there’s a kayak launch in Islamorada. At Long Key State Park, canoe rentals are only $5 per hour or $10 a day and they’re the newer, low-profile style.

Another place to get to know marine mammals is at Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key. You could spend the entire day learning about dolphins and sea lions from researchers and trainers, or just stay a few hours. It’s really personal here, not like big shows at big parks. (And coupons on their website save $3 per person.)

For more nature, the 63-acre Crane Point on Marathon is home to two-and-a-half miles of trails, historic sites and botanic gardens – something for everyone. Take one trail to the Marathon Wild Bird Center, where staffers care for injured Keys birds. Learn about the life cycle of sea turtles in the Museum of Natural History. And watch your kids play on the pirate ship in the children’s area.

Big Pine Key offers a few creatures of its own, but you can’t feed these – they’re endangered Key deer. At the National Key Deer Refuge, walk beautiful trails and learn how to protect these petite deer the size of a Labrador. You’ll see several at the end of Key Deer Boulevard, daintily walking through the neighborhood.

While in The Lower Keys, you also can have a picnic on the beach at Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key. After your food settles, take a swim or fish from shore; you can even rent kayaks and snorkeling gear. If you prefer to keep your head above water, watch birds on shore, or check out the remote island’s other animals.

All this action will leave you wanting to kick off our sandals and sink our toes in the sand. So head  to the southernmost state park, Fort Zachary Taylor. Just three blocks off Duval Street (on Southard), it's the best beach in Key West. What a find! In addition to exploring the historic Civil War-era fort there is swimming, snorkeling and fishing, right at water’s edge is the Cayo Hueso Café. The pressed Cuban sandwich was crispy and delicious.

Of course, there’s no better way to end a day in the Keys than at the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. Live performers like fire jugglers and a tight-rope walker named Will Soto competed for your attention. But alas, they were all outshined by the setting sun as it sank into the water, but not before it filled the sky with vibrant shades of pink and orange for us to enjoy, complimentary.

To plan your getaway to The Florida Keys & Key West, visit

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