Bahia Honda State Park has it all: Top campsites and cabins plus great snorkeling
People love Bahia Honda State Park because it has the best beaches in the Florida Keys.
Me? I love it for its 100-year-old bridge.
Bahia Honda is 45 minutes before Key West on the drive down the Keys, just beyond the Seven Mile Bridge. It has something rare for the Keys, a natural sand beach, plus some of the most sought-after camping sites in the Keys and terrific cabins.
But it also has the historic 1912 saddleback bridge, a remnant of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway, and it’s unlike any other bridge you’ll find in the Keys.
It was the hardest of all bridges to build in Flagler’s railroad – more difficult than the longer Seven Mile Bridge – because the channel here is the deepest in the Keys. Because the tides are strong and would be higher during a storm, it was built taller than the other bridges. For additional strength, it is a trestle-style bridge, the only one like it in the Keys.
When the hurricane of 1935 forced the closure of the railroad, the bridge was revamped for cars. The lower level, which the trains had used, was too narrow for two lanes of cars, so they built the road on the top level. This must have been an amazing ride, and it was in use for decades. In fact, if you drove to Key West before 1972, your only choice was the road atop the old bridge.
Today, a section of the bridge has been removed at each end and a trail leads to a spot with a panoramic view of the old bridge and the entire area. (In the past, a section of the old bridge served as an observation platform but it closed in 2015 because it was no longer deemed safe. )
The beaches at Bahia Honda State Park
When people hear this is the best beach in the Keys, they probably envision an expansive, wide beach. And that’s why lots of people are actually disappointed with the beaches here.
Bahia Honda has three natural, sandy beaches, but they do not offer vast stretches of sand. In addition, there is usually sea grass piled along the beach. It’s good for the beach’s ecology, but plenty of visitors consider it unattractive and smelly. (If it’s spectacular beaches you want, go almost anywhere on the Gulf Coast.)
The most scenic beach at Bahia Honda is Calusa beach, spectacularly situated with the old Bahia Honda bridge as a backdrop. It’s pretty and pretty small, however, and it fills up on sunny weekends. Calusa Beach is on the northwest side of the island facing the Overseas Highway.
A second beach, Loggerhead, is also on the western end of the island but faces the open Atlantic. It’s a very shallow beach with a large shallow sand bar a few feet offshore.
The third and largest beach is the Sandspur Beach on the eastern end of the island. There are restrooms and pavilions here and you can walk a long ways. But this beach is rather narrow – the day we visited, most beach chairs had to be placed in the vegetation to even allow people to stroll by on the sand.
Florida Rambler tips:
- If you walk back toward the old saddleback bridge from Sandspur Beach, you come to an area where the ancient limestone rocks line the coastline, creating tide pools and bubbling water effects as the waves wash over them. Visitors who don’t camp at the gorgeous Sandspur campsites usually miss this picturesque section of the park.
- Walking in other direction from Sandspur Beach takes you to the tip of the island, where there are broad sandflats and clear shallow water out a great distance. Looking in the sandy areas between grassy sections, we spotted several queen conchs. In addition to being a big beautiful pink shell, t’s a protected species that is a symbol of the Keys.
Kayaking and snorkeling at Bahia Honda
A popular activity at Bahia Honda is kayaking. With its clear Caribbean-quality water and abundant bird and marine life, the water here beckons to kayakers. Be aware, though, that currents and tides can be strong and this will be open-water kayaking. You can rent sit-on-top kayaks at the concession stand at the marina at Calusa Beach.
There are several alterantives for kayakers, including paddling two-thirds of a mile over open water to picturesque Little Bahia Honda Island and/or circumnavigating the island,.
Snorkeling trips: A concessionaire runs snorkeling trips to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, which has impressive elkhorn and star coral as well as extensive marine life. Tickets for adults are $29.95; kids under 18 are $24.95. You can rent all the snorkeling gear too. Details about snorkeling from Bahia Honda.
Many people think the only place to find good snorkeling is at John Pennekamp State Park. Not true. The trips out of Bahia Honda take you to reefs that are just as impressive.
Cabins at Bahia Honda: Nice but impossible to reserve
The six cabins at Bahia Honda are an excellent place to stay overnight. Everyone agrees on that, which is why it requires lots of planning to get a cabin here.
You can book a spot 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica. And if you don’t mark your calendar and book a spot the morning it becomes available, you’re likely to be out of luck.
At 10 a.m. Aug. 5, 2016, for example, it is already too late to book a cabin for any date in June or July 2017. (At this moment, the only 2017 dates you can snag are single nights here and there in April and May.)
The cabins are built on pilings overlooking a lagoon. Ours was clean, comfortable and well-equipped, with a beautiful view.
Cabins are $120 per night, plus tax, May 1 – Oct. 31 and $160 per night Nov. 1 – April 30.
Most folks, though, aren’t going to have the patience to figure out exactly when and how to book a cabin, so this experience remains largely out of reach for most.
Camping at Bahia Honda: The best tent sites in Florida
Even with 80 spaces, booking campsites is just about as difficult as booking the cabins. If you don’t reserve 11 months in advance, your best bet is to monitor ReserveAmerica in the two weeks before your desired travel dates and watch for cancellations. In March 2017, we snagged a Thursday and Friday night at one of the best tent campsites in the park — oceanfront site #64 in the Sandspur Camground — five days in advance. (And if we could have stayed longer, there were actually three more days available, including the hardest to get night the of the week, Saturday.)
Florida Rambler colleague Bob Rountree says there are no better tent sites in all of Florida than Bahia Honda’s sites 64-72 in the Sandspur Campground. The other Sandspur tent sites aren’t as great. (Bob says they’re “stuffed into mosquito-infested underbrush on the opposite side of the campground road with limited beach access.”)
The tent sites allow small pop-ups (under 14 feet). After Sandspur sites 64-72, the next best choice would be the eight sites in the Bayside Campground across from the cabins. Tenters should avoid the gravel-based sites in the Buttonwood campground on the Gulf side, according to Bob. All sites are $36 per night. Florida residents over age 65 enjoy a 50 percent discount. All reservations are made through ReserveAmerica.
At the highly sought after Sandspur campsites, a small path leads through the dune vegetation to the ocean, which is always audible in the background. This area is not great for swimming, however, because it is lined with limestone coral rock. The rocks are terrifically scenic, but they make footing difficult. The swimming beach is a five minute walk from the campsite and if you keep walking, there are magnificent views along the beach all the way to the northern tip of the island.
One thing to pack if you’re visiting Bahia Honda is water shoes. They will make it much easier for you to explore the splendid shoreline along the Atlantic here.
Florida Rambler tips:
- There are no fire rings; the only place to build a fire is in the pedestal grill.
- Some of the sites are quite sunny, so if you have a shade tent or even a beach umbrella, bring it along.
Bahia Honda State Park
36850 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, Florida 33043
Admission is $8 per vehicle plus 50 cents per person (a Monroe County tax)
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
Special places to discover in the Lower Keys and Key West
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens
- National Key Deer refuge