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Florida Keys: Spotting Key deer still a thrill

Key deer approached bike, No Name Key, Forida Keys

A not so shy Key deer approaches me on my bike

Key deer, No Name Key, Florida Keys

Curious Key deer

Key deer with bicyclist, No Name Key, Florida KeysI’m originally from Wisconsin, a state with 5 million people and 1 million deer, but I still get a thrill out of spotting deer on a hike or ride.

For years I drove through Big Pine Key, slowing down so as to avoid colliding with the tiny, endangered Key deer indigenous to the island, but I never spotted one.

Eventually, we booked a weekend at a bed and breakfast on Big Pine Key and instantly my family saw Key deer all day every day.

We were charmed by their diminutive size — you see people walking bigger dogs. They are disturbingly friendly; again, the analogy to dogs comes to mind, and you know that can’t be good for them. Rustle a potato-chip bag and the deer coming running. Of course, we didn’t feed them, but plenty of folks must have. The deer live in such proximity to people they have no fear. What they should fear are our cars — that’s what kills them.

In 1957, there were only 27 Key deer left, but with the establishment of the refuge and its efforts, the population has rebounded to an estimated 800. Bucks range from 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 pounds. Does stand 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 pounds, according to refuge information.

So, if you’re an animal lover, how do you see a few Key deer?

If you get lucky, you might see them by the side of the road on the Overseas Highway. (I saw three that way late on a January afternoon this year on a return trip from Key West.)

You can stay at lodging on Big Pine Key, as we did. (See some links at the end.)

You can visit the visitor center for the National Key Deer Refuge for maps and information that will help you explore. (The visitor center is a little hard to find. It’s in the back of a shopping center.)

Refuge lands include an old quarry filled with freshwater called the Blue Hole. There’s an observation platform and nearby two short trails, one into a tropical hardwood hammock, the other through pine rocklands to a freshwater wetland slough. These are recommended spots to watch for deer. (I’ve tried this mid-day, however, and not spotted deer.)

On a recent trip, we found what I think is a sure thing: We bicycled through No Name Key, an island that is part of the refuge, in early evening and saw countless Key deer. (Timing, of course, is everything.)

How do you get there? As you drive through Big Pine Key, there is one major intersection. There are two roads heading east off of U.S. 1. One, Wilder Road, is clearly labeled No Name Key. Follow it (and the signs) to Watson Boulevard, which eventually crosses the scenic bridge to No Name Key.

If you brought your bike, I recommend parking on Big Pine Key and peddling over the bridge to savor the view. Then, it’s about two miles to the end of No Name Key on a good road with very little traffic. (There’s no electricity on the island so there are only 43 houses, which run on solar or generators.)

As we cycled through No Name Key, we spotted several deer grazing along the side of the road, including toy-like fawns. If we paused our peddling, more deer cautiously approached us, most likely looking for a handout.

We sprayed ourselves with insect repellent, and mosquitoes did not bother us. The poor deer were bedeviled by flies.

At the end of the road you can thread through some trees to look over the water. This is the former site of the ferry landing that, before the Overseas Highway was built in 1938, connected the Upper and Lower Keys.  Ernest Hemingway fished here, according to a biography, and No Name Key is also famous as the rugged training grounds for anti-Castro forces in the early 60s.

Where can you stay on Big Pine Key to see Key deer?

There may be other spots, but I can vouch for the location of these three:

Deer Run Bed and Breakfast. We stayed here under previous management, but based on this web site, this is now operated as a vegetarian, adult-oriented inn. It still looks wonderful.

The Barnacle Bed and Breakfast. We haven’t stayed here, but it’s on the same road as Deer Run and thus visited by the same deer.

The Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cabins.  Small rustic cabins built in the 40s with kitchens. Located at the bridge to No Name Key. This was where we stayed when we biked No Name Key in the evening.  Here’s my report on the spot.

More things to do in the Florida Keys:

No Name Pub is a must-stop for fresh fish, pizza or No Name Ale  if you’re in the neighborhood.

The Old Wooden Bridge Marina is a good place to rent a kayak through Bill Keogh’s Big Pine Kayak Adventures.  There’s a good map of a four-hour paddle around No Name Key.

More things to do in the Florida Keys:

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9 Comments

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  8. Aw this brings back memories of key deer willing to climb into our laps in the hopes of Pringles. (It’s tempting to feed them, especially with those puppy eyes, but, like you said, it’s a really bad idea!) I can’t believe the population recovered from just about 30 deer. Crazy! It would have been horrible to lose them altogether. How was the No Name Beer, btw?

  9. awww I love them!!!

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