Bahia Honda State Park: Beaches, Snorkeling and Camping in the Keys
By Carlos Harrison
Bahia Honda State Park can boast that it was the first-ever Florida site to make #1 on Dr. Beach's famous "Best Beaches" list. That was in 1992, nearly 500 years after the first Spanish explorers sailed past and gave it its name – “Deep Bay.”
The soothingly secluded white-sand beach on a pristine spur between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is still there, and as beautiful as ever. It's actually three beaches in one park, just 12 miles south of Marathon, fronting some of the most crystal-clear water anywhere.
Calusa, the smallest, is on the northwest side. It’s dotted with several picnic pavilions and fresh-water showers. Sandspur, the biggest, runs along the southeast end of the island. It has three large pavilions, a restroom and showers. Loggerhead sits on the south side, with an inviting shallow-water sandbar just a few feet from shore. You can’t miss it. By day, adults plant their loungers in the refreshing sea, to be lapped at by the gentle waves. Children pluck seashells from the sand.
By night, Loggerhead beach offers a spectacular starscape, with the misty veil of the Milky Way clearly visible, cutting through a splash of stars thicker than you’ll find just about anywhere else in the state. It’s far enough from city lights to be nearly free of light pollution, and the primordial roar of the waves on shore under the dark of a moonless night harkens to a time immemorial.
The state park, though, is not just for beachgoers, or stargazers. It has something for just about everyone who takes their pleasure from the land, air, or sea. It’s a place for day-trippers and overnight campers, for beachgoers, seafaring sojourners, and nature-loving landlubbers.
Bahia Honda state park is home to over 150 species of flora, including rare yellow satinwood, key thatch palm, and the endangered small-flowered lily thorn, along with the largest known stand of Florida silver palms. Hikers (and easygoing meanderers, too) have their choice of three separate trails that wind through tropical hardwood hammocks lined with gumbo limbo and poisonwood, as well as the more common sea grapes and Jamaica dogwood.
“Treasure” hunters can test their geo-seeking skills searching for one of the four park geocaches. The hunt begins at Geocaching.com. A fifth geocache at the park is part of Florida’s Operation Recreation GeoTour, with geocoins awarded to adult and children trackers.
Or, follow the path past the Loggerhead parking lot to the Wings and Waves Butterfly Garden, known for attracting both Martial and Mallow Scrub-Hairstreaks, Lyside Sulphurs, and Malachites, as well as a variety of skippers.
Bahia Honda state park is also a birders’ paradise, duly noted on the Great Florida Birding Trail as the best of the Keys birding habitats. It’s home to endangered white-crowned pigeons and, during the fall and winter migration, to more than 30 species of wood warblers. Flocks of shorebirds – ruddy turnstones, yellow-crowned night herons, povers and sanderlings – gather to feed in the wrack line at low tide. Hawks glide over the ocean in the fall. And the now-decommissioned rail bridge that stretches out over the park’s southern end offers a true bird’s-eye view of the tropical trees where migrant yellow-billed cuckoos and American redstarts abound.
Just about anywhere along the top of the bridge provides a panoramic view of the beach, the ocean and the gulf, and an unparalleled vantage point for spotting fish and sea turtles swimming silently beneath the waves, or large rays or bottle-nosed dolphins jumping.
The bridge is a remnant and reminder of the Bahia Honda state park’s beginnings. Henry Flagler’s railway arrived on the key in 1908, en route to Key West. The depth of the channel made Bahia Honda one of the most difficult expanses, requiring massive amounts of material and labor to construct each piling. And, when the railroad opened four years later, Bahia Honda remained as a favorite rest stop along the way, where passengers could get out and enjoy the cooling sea breezes and a dip in the water.
The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane swept a train off the track, destroyed miles of rail lines, and seriously damaged the bridge. The railroad never ran again. But the bridge found new life after the state laid a concrete slab on top and opened it to cars as the Overseas Highway in 1938.
Bahia Honda became home to a gas station and a park, maintained by the toll bridge district that controlled the road. Ownership passed to the state in 1961. It took more than 20 years more before the last of the island’s private landowners sold their property, putting all of Bahia Honda in the hands of the Florida Park Service.
Camping at Bahia Honda State Park
Nowadays, the Bahia Honda park offers 72 campsites ranging from primitive to full hook-up, with spaces for RVs and tents, as well as three duplex cabins on stilts that overlook the bay. Five of the cabins have two bedrooms and can accommodate up to six people each. One has a single bedroom and a wheelchair lift. All have central heating and cooling, a living room with sofa bed, kitchen and full bath. Campsites and cabins can be reserved as much as 11 months ahead of time through Reserve America, either online at reserveamerica.com, or by calling (800) 326-3521. Learn more here about Bahia Honda camping.
For those coming in by water and wishing to camp overnight, the marina has 19 boat slips available for rental, with water, electricity and sewage pump-out. They come with full use of the park facilities, including any of the multiple barbecue grills throughout the park.
There’s also a Sand and Sea Nature Center with nature and history videos, environmental activities, and displays including corals and crabs, sea urchins, sponges and turtles. There are park staff on hand to answer questions during operating hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fishing & Snorkeling at Bahia Honda
Anglers can cast their lines from shore, or launch boats at either of the two boat ramps. Bahia Honda park recommends fishing off the old sea walls on either side of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge if you like to bottom fish for snapper or grouper. The shallow sand flats are better for fly-fishing for bonefish, permit or barracuda. All catch must meet state regulations for size, number and season. Spearfishing and collecting tropical fish is prohibited.
In addition, the park concession runs multiple daily snorkeling trips to the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary. The unique U shape and varying depths of the reef make a great site for beginner and veteran divers. The spectacularly colorful reef is the site of more than 50 species of coral – including staghorn, elkhorn, star, brain and fire corals – and more than 150 species of fish. It teems with yellowtail, angelfish, parrotfish, sergeant majors and barracudas, as well as moray eels hiding in the coral crevices.
The reef got its name from a shipwreck, and the ballast stones of the HMS Looe and the captured French ship it was towing remain at the eastern end of the reef. In 1998, another ship was sunk about three miles west of Looe Key – deliberately, this time – as an artificial reef and diving attraction. The 210-foot Adolphus Busch lies in about 110 feet of water, with plenty of through-holes for more experienced divers.
For those looking to get out on the water, or in it, a little closer to shore, the park rents safe and stable ocean kayaks and snorkeling gear, and you can launch your own canoe or kayak from either the Loggerhead parking lot on the Atlantic side of the park or the boat ramp on the gulf side.
Or, for a more leisurely time, visitors can picnic on the beach or just lay back and relax to the sound of the sea and the birds.
For snorkeling trip reservations call 305-872-3210 or book online at bahiahondapark.com/reservations. Online bookings must be made at least three days in advance.