Sunshine State residents clearly have an edge when it comes to vacationing in their own backyard. After all, the southernmost stretch of that backyard contains a sprawling tropical forest, the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. and seas that rival the jewel tones of the Caribbean.
Whether you're in the mood for a day trip or a longer getaway, hassle-free adventures await in Florida State Parks spread along the Overseas Highway between Key Largo and Key West. Pick one, or combine visits to a few as an added local-economy booster. With their inexpensive entrance fees and lengthy activity rosters, it's possible to plan an action-packed itinerary of snorkeling, hiking, bird watching, kayaking, camping and fishing and still have cash left over for key lime pie!
Step Inside a Tropical Forest
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park contains the largest remaining swaths of tropical hardwood hammock in the continental U.S., providing a verdant habitat of more than 2,300 acres for 84 protected species, such as the tree-climbing Key Largo woodrat, the Schaus swallowtail butterfly and the seldom-seem American crocodile.
What you won't find here: motorized vehicles. Leave the car at the entrance and head down a paved pathway lined with blolly, West Indian mahogany and Spanish stopper trees to the quiet picnic area and nature trail. Backcountry permits allow hikers and shutterbugs to delve even deeper into this often-overlooked northern Keys oasis, located on County Road 905 (about a half-mile north of the Overseas Highway and 905 intersection at mile marker 106).
Dive into an Aquatic Wonderland
When declared as a coral reef preserve in 1960, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first underwater state sanctuary of its kind in the country, and it's still going strong. On-site glass-bottom boat tours, scuba and snorkeling trips and kayak and boat rentals encourage close encounters with the Key Largo park's 75 square miles of living reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps.
The visitor's center, with aquariums and an underwater film presentation, offers a sneak preview of some of the corals, eels, lobsters and nearly 600 fish species that reside in the park. Fishing, swimming, scuba lessons, camping, a nature trail and picnic areas are also available. Turn in for undersea fun at mile marker 102.5.
Cruise Off the Beaten Path
The blue-green Atlantic Ocean separates Indian Key State Historic Site from Islamorada, requiring a private boat or charter from a nearby marina to reach its mangrove-fringed shores. Intrepid travelers arrive via kayak, just like the island's original Native American inhabitants did several thousand years ago.
In the 1830s, the tiny island became a busy port developed by salvager Jacob Housman, but it was burned to the ground in the Second Seminole War. Remains of this 19th-century settlement are visible on a well-marked interpretive trail, making Indian Key popular with hikers as well as swimmers, snorkelers and fisherman. Set sail from the ocean side of US 1 at mile marker 78.5.
Experience a Nature Lover's Dream
More than 500 acres of beach dunes, mangroves, coastal berm and submerged marine habitats converge at Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, creating an ecosystem unlike any other in the continental U.S. It's not only a popular bird-watching spot – herons, egrets, ibis and pelicans are among the many feathered residents – but it also boasts a sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay.
The park's activity-rich roster includes boating, fishing, cycling and snorkeling trips into Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. An 80-site campground and six bayside cabins encourage multi-day stays, perfect for taking in Bahia Honda's breathtaking sunsets.
Discover History on the Edge of the Sea
Historians flock to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park for its National Historic Landmark fortress constructed in the mid-1800s and the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the country. But the state's southernmost park is also a gem for sun worshippers, thanks to a man-made swimming beach. Fishing, snorkeling and cycling are also popular pursuits.
Need a break from the heat? Shady picnic areas dot the park's 56 acres, and a pair of nature trails hosts a variety of migratory birds. Sun-filled history lessons begin at the end of Southard Street, in Truman Annex.
A Florida State Parks Pass provides unlimited admission to all of Florida's 160 parks and historic sites for one year, making these natural getaways even more affordable. Visit www.floridastateparks.org for information on the pass.
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