Kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, camping in the Lower Keys
~There is so much more to the Lower Keys besides Key West. For starters, there are fewer visitors here, other than Key West-bound island hoppers along the Overseas Highway.
So, get off the highway and find your lost paradise. Stop and smell the ocean breezes from a harbor hidden deep on these scenic islands, away from the bustling tourism of the southernmost city.
There are plenty of things to do on Big Pine and the Lower Keys.
You can snorkel here. Anywhere! Whether it’s the Looe Key Reef off Big Pine Key or in the backcountry that wraps around these scenic islands, stretching far and wide from the highway. The best way to see the Lower Keys may be under water.
The paddling opportunities are endless, and so are the fishing hot spots. Largely undeveloped, there are back roads in the Lower Keys that take you to undisturbed places, wilderness boat launches, idyllic locales that few but the locals know.
Load your kayaks with fishing and snorkeling gear and head to the Lower Keys!
Kayaking in the Lower Keys
One of the beauties of paddling in the Keys is the accessibility for kayaks and canoes along the Overseas Highway. Aside from multiple boat ramps, there are numerous causeways and bridges where you can just pull off to the side of the road and slide your kayak into the water.
And back roads will take you to even more launch points. We visited a few nice ones.
Big Pine Key: Long Beach – Just after you cross over to Big Pine from Bahia Honda, Long Beach Road is on your left at Mile Marker 33. The Big Pine Fishing Lodge is on the corner. Drive past the fish camp about a mile, where two coral rock pillars announce the entrance to Long Beach Estates. There’s room for two or three cars on the shoulder, and a path through the mangroves that is wide enough for kayaks and canoes on the north (bay) side. Look at the bay! It’s very quiet and sheltered, and it leads out to the 4600-acre Coupon Bight Aquatic Reserve, a state-managed portion of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Paddle around the islands and lagoons to view rare wading birds, snorkel the near-shore patch reefs. This area also harbors Florida lobster and a wide variety of fish, so bring a rod.
Big Pine: No Name Key – Turn right (north) at the traffic light on Big Pine from U.S. 1 (MM 30.2), then veer left up Key Deer Boulevard. (Speed limit is 30.) When you get to Watson Boulevard, turn right. (Sign points to ‘No Name Key’). Just past the No Name Pub, before the bridge, are the Old Wooden Bridge cabins and kayak concession. You can launch here for a nominal fee, or you can continue another two miles across the bridge onto No Name Key. At the end of the road, there is another launch.
Note that the houses you see on No Name Key are self-sustaining. There is no electricity or water on the island, at least not yet, so you’ll see a lot of solar panels and cisterns.
Kayak guru Keogh operates Big Pine Kayak Adventures at Wooden Bridge, where he’ll take you on group eco-tours or ferry you and your kayak out into the back country so you can paddle back at your leisure.
Summerland Key– Just past The Wharf Bar & Grill, make your first right onto Horace Street. Take your second right onto Northside Drive, then an immediate left onto Niles Road. Take Niles Road to the end, about 1.5 miles, and park. The launch is ideal for kayaks and small boats. The water in the surrounding bays is 2 to 3 feet, and the islands are magnificent. Kevin Rowley said there are a lot of “holes” in these bays that are full of fish; you just have to find them. We didn’t.
But we did paddle around in a beautiful setting of islands, bays and lagoons. And we hiked down an island trail from an old wooden bridge near the launch. Kevin says there are old fishing huts out there, but like the fish, we didn’t find them, either.
Sugarloaf Creek – This is one I wanted to visit but time did not allow. Nevertheless, I thought it worth including. At the blinking traffic light on Sugarloaf Key (MM 17), go south on Sugarloaf Boulevard about two miles to the end, then turn right onto Old State Road 4A for another two miles until you reach the bridge over Sugarloaf Creek, known as Sammy Creek, part of the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area and a rest stop along the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail. The launch at the bridge is reported to be a bit of a challenge, but the paddle is worth the effort, Bill Keogh says in his book, “The Florida Keys Paddling Guide.” This area is home to a lot of unusual wildlife unique to the Keys, including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, the Lower Keys striped mud turtle and the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. As you might expect, the fishing here is very good, as well.
Saddlebunch Keys – This area may provide the best access for kayaking in the wilderness than any other location along the Overseas Highway. As you hop from island to causeway to bridge back to island and causeway a few times, there are dozens of places to pull off the road and launch from Mile Marker 16 south to the Shark Key public boat ramp at Mile Marker 11. In my opinion, this may be the most scenic part of the Keys and accessibility is awesome. When you see a hole in the mangroves, stop and park on the shoulder. Launch your boat into a magnificent wonderland of sun and sea. Keogh calls the rocky launch site at Mile Marker 16 the “center of the universe” for kayakers. Take your time climbing over the rocks.
Geiger Key – As many times as I’ve been to the Keys, I always seem to bypass Geiger Key in my rush to get to Key West. Not this time. Less than a half-mile past the Shark Key boat ramp, turn left (south) at the Circle K (MM 10.5) onto Boca Chica Road and go about 1.3 miles until you see a sign for the Geiger Key Marina. The launch is just past the marina, surrounded by a chain-link fence, and offers access to Saddlebunch Harbor and the ocean. There’s a really cool little tiki bar at the marina and a small RV park. Next to the tiki bar is a narrow kayak launch, but ask permission before you use it.
If you continue along Boca Chica Road, past the turnoff for the Geiger Key Marina, you’ll find yourself riding parallel to the beach. There are several launch spots here for ocean kayaking behind the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica Key.
Snorkeling in the Lower Keys
Looe Key is home to large schools of reef fish and spectacular reef views, making it one of the top destinations for snorkelers and divers in the U.S. The shallow depth of the reef, ranging from 6 inches to 30 feet, make it especially attractive to snorkelers.
Just west of Looe Key is a sunken freighter, the 210-foot Adolphus Busch, which was scuttled as an artificial reef in 1998. Wreck dives requires Advanced Open Water Certification.
Of course, you can always strap your snorkel gear to your kayak and snorkel anywhere you like. There’s much to see.
Here are a few ways to get out to the reef:
Bahia Honda State Park. MM 36.8. The park concession offers two snorkeling tours per day to the Looe Key Marine Sanctuary, at 9:30 a.m. and/or 1:30 p.m., provided a minimum number of passengers reserve slots. Each trip provides 1.5 hours in the water. Tour price is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for children. Equipment rentals available. Call 305-872-3954 for reservations. Here’s Florida Rambler guide to Bahia Honda State Park.
Strike Zone Charters, Big Pine Key. MM 29.5. Charters and tour boats will take divers and snorkelers out to Looe Key and/or the Adolphus Busch freighter wreck. Scheduled trips leave at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and snorkelers are taken you to two locations on each trip. Price for snorkeling is $35, divers pay $45. Both snorkel and dive equipment rentals available. Call 305-872-9863 for reservations.
Looe Key Resort and Dive Center, Ramrod Key. MM 27. Full-day dive and snorkel trips to Looe Key Reef leave the dock promptly at 10 a.m. and return at 3 p.m. Cost is $44 for snorkelers, $34 for children, and $84 per diver. A special wreck trip is offered on Wednesdays that includes one wreck dive and two reef dives for $84. Call 877-816-3483 for reservations.
RV and tent camping in the Lower Keys
Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina – MM 38.8. Sunshine Key is an island unto itself and one of the largest campgrounds in the Keys. The 75-acre island is surrounded by crystal-clear water, accessible to kayaks from your waterfront campsite or from the large marina. This is a small city with all the amenities, including a restaurant, laundry facilities, playgrounds and boat rentals on site. There are 409 campsites, including 54 beachfront sites, with full hookups and cable TV. Rates are $65 to $97 per night. Reserve a site by calling 800-852-0348. rvonthego.com/Sunshine-Key-RV-Resort
Bahia Honda State Park – MM 36.8. This state park has it all: top-ranked beaches, snorkeling, scenic views, nature trails, boat launch, docks and kayak concession. Fishing is also a big draw. There are three campgrounds, one for RVs on the bay side and another for tents and popups on the ocean side, and a smaller, third campground accessible only by low-height vehicles. The park also features three duplex cabins overlooking the bay. Campsites are $36 per night year round, and cabin rentals run $120 in summer and $160 in winter. Reservations by calling 800-336-3521 or booking online at ReserveAmerica.
Big Pine Fishing Lodge – MM 33. The campground is located in an open area behind the motel. The beauty of this campground is access to nearby Looe Key Reef. The sites themselves are barren. Boat ramp and dockage. There are 172 RV sites with water and 30-amp electric service and 75 tent sites with communal water spigots. Rates run about $50 per night year-round. Call (305) 872-2351 for reservations.
Sugarloaf Key KOA – MM 20. The southernmost KOA in the U.S., this resort-style campground has all the amenities, including a sandy beach, a full-service marina and pool area with a hot tub. There are 200 gravel-based sites with full hookups for RVs, and a shaded primitive camping area for tents. There are 15 waterfront sites. Rates range from $66 to $110 for RVs and $59 for tents. Call (800) 562-7731 for reservations.
Bluewater Key RV Park – MM 14.5. Most of the sites in this upscale, scenic and well-landscaped park are privately owned, but sites are available for rentals by reservation when the owners aren’t there. Many are waterfront. Needless to say, with its proximity to Key West, the park stays full most of the winter. Still, it’s worth a call. 305-745-2494. Off-season rates run $76 to $96 per night. In season, you’ll pay $90 to $120.
Geiger Key Marina RV Park — MM 10.5. Going towards Key West, take a left at the Circle K on Boca Chica Road for 1.3 miles. This small RV park and marina are tucked away behind the mangroves, and boat slips are available to campers. There are only 37 sites at Geiger Key, all on a gravel base, with full hookups, laundry, rest rooms, a boat ramp and dockage. A great tiki bar is on site. Waterfront sites are $110-112, and interior sites are $100 ($80 off-season, May-Sept.) Call 305-296-3559 for reservations.
Boyd’s Key West Campground – Stock Island (MM 5). This is the closest campground to Key West, and it can be a tight fit for RVers. Tenters have their own area. Despite its urban location, the camground manages to convey a tropical feel with coconut palms, a swimming beach and waterfront vistas. There are 150 RV sites and off-season (summer) rates are $55 for tents to $110 for RVs. During the winter, the rates range from $60 to $120. Call (305) 294-1465 for reservations.
Cabins and cottages in the Lower Keys
Bahia Honda State Park. Located in one of the most scenic state parks, these six cabins are actually duplexes that line a small lagoon that opens up to Florida Bay. Each of the six units accommodates up to six people, except Cabin No. 2, which is wheelchair accessible and sleeps four. Rates are $120 per night, May 1-Oct. 31, and $160 per night, Nov. 1-April 30. Reservations by calling 800-326-3521 or booking online at ReserveAmerica. ReserveAmerica
Related Florida Rambler article: Cabins in Florida State Parks
Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages. Off the beaten path on Big Pine Key, just before the bridge to No Name Key. There are 14 rental units ranging in size and price from $105-$150 in the off-season (9/15-11/15) and $170 to $210 in season (11/15-8/15). Call 305-872-2241 for reservations.
Related Florida Rambler article: Classic Keys cabins make good base for kayaking
Parmers Resort. Cottages and motel rooms are scattered around the grounds of this quiet, well-groomed and very Keysy tropical resort on Little Torch Key, about a half-mile north (bay side) of U.S. 1 on Barry Avenue (MM . The resort has a swimming pool, multiple boat slips and its own ramp. Efficiencies, one, two and three-bedroom suites are available, ranging in price from $99 to $275 off-season (9/1-12/19) to $134-$375 in season (12/20-9/3). Peak weekends, such as during Fantasy Fest, may be higher. Call 305-872-2157 for reservations.
Where to eat and drink in the Lower Keys
There are dozens of cool little restaurants in the Lower Keys, some with outdoor dining and several tiki bars. We spent a full day of bar-hopping and sampling the fare at each restaurant listed below, and we visited a few staples like Pizza Works and the Cracked Egg Café on Big Pine during our visit.
No Name Pub, Watson Boulevard, Big Pine Key. Very laid back, and very funky, this little dive bar is steeped in history and tradition, dating back to the 1930s, and it has a good reputation for food, as well. The walls and ceiling are lined with dollar bills, and the atmosphere is unmistakably Keys. , 305-872-9115
The Wharf Bar and Grill. Summerland Key (MM 25). The fish are fresh daily off the dock, which is adjacent to the restaurant, and include tuna, wahoo, cobia, grouper dolphin and snapper. Try the mango coleslaw. There’s also a fish market, and “rustic” dining outdoors. Prices are moderate. 305-745-3322.
Square Grouper. Cudjoe Key (MM 22.5). You’d never know it from the warehouse outside, but this is a classy joint serving gourmet dishes like Toasted Almond Crushed Grouper with Warm Caribbean Pineapple Relish ($29) or Island Shrimp Cakes with Banana Pepper Aioli ($18). We sat on couches in the “living room” at the back of the restaurant and tried the Fried Calamari with Marinara ($12), and it easily rivaled the best squid we’ve ever eaten. 305-745-8880.
Geiger Key Smokehouse and Tiki Bar (at the Geiger Key Marina). You’d never know this cool little tiki bar even existed until you got off the highway on Big Coppitt Key at the Circle K (MM 10.5) and wandered 1.3 miles south on Boca Chica Road to Geiger Road (You’ll see a sign). It’s mostly pub food and raw bar fare, but there are plenty of choices and the tiki-bar atmosphere is casual, laid-back Keys, just the way I like it. Prices are moderate.
Hogfish Bar and Grill, Stock Island. A great place, if you can find it. That’s their motto, and they mean it. (Hint: It’s near Boyd’s Campground). But this is a really cool outdoor restaurant and bar that’s worth the hunt. Located in Safe Harbor on Stock Island, just a hop and a skip from Key West, you’ll find a full menu of seafood and chowders. We tried the namesake “Killer” Hogfish Sandwich ($14.95), and it was to die for. Moderate prices.
PizzaWorks, 229 Key Deer Boulevard, Big Pine Key. There’s more than pizza on the menu, but you would be remiss not to order one of their hand-tossed, thin-crust New York pies with the tell-tale burn marks on the bottom. Huge portions at reasonable prices. For dessert, they serve several varieties of Key Lime Pie, direct from the Key Lime Pie Company next door. 305-872-1119.
Sites worth seeing in the Lower Keys
National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge
Throughout our stay on Big Pine, we lived among the tiny Key deer that make this island their home. The 84,000-acre refuge occupies much of this island, No Name Key, adjacent uninhabited islands and waterways.
Although there are isolated residential subdivisions scattered throughout both Big Pine and No Name Keys, most is preserved as pinerockland forest, imperiled tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh and mangrove forests.
This precious habitat is home to 22 threatened or endangered species, including the Key Deer and the unique Lower Keys marsh rabbit, but the refuge’s dozens of offshore islands are winter nesting grounds for migratory birds.
Unique to Big Pine are the fresh water marshes and pools, which make it a big draw for wildlife. You can visit one of these fresh water pools at Blue Hole, about two miles north of U.S. 1 on Key Deer Boulevard. Just past Blue Hole is parking for the nature trails, but there are trails throughout the refuge, some accessible to off-road bicycling.
For information on the refuge, stop at the visitor center in the Big Pine Shopping Plaza, just north of the traffic light on U.S. 1 at Key Deer Boulevard (MM 30.2). The visitor center is only open during the week, not weekends, and only when a volunteer or refuge staffer is available to keep it operating.
You can download maps and information at the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge web site.
Related Florida Rambler article: Spotting Key Deer still a thrill
Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower
This relic of the early 20th Century is a testament to early mosquito control, but it didn’t work. Fishing lodge owner Richter Clyde Perky built the tower in 1929 to house bats, which he thought would control the uncontrollable mosquito population of the Lower Keys.
When the bats were introduced to the tower, they flew away and disappeared. Nobody knows where they went, although locals attest to a significant presence of bats throughout the Keys. Ghost stories, perhaps.
Nevertheless, the bat tower still stands, and it is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. You can drive right up to it and look it over on a barren landscape of Lower Sugarloaf Key.
At Mile Marker 17, just past the Sugarloaf Lodge, you’ll see Bat Tower Road. Drive north about a mile to the bat tower.
It’s not really historical, but Baby’s Coffee is nevertheless a noteworthy landmark in the Lower Keys.
Going west towards Key West, as you enter the Saddlebunch Keys from Sugarloaf on the Overseas Highway, near Mile Marker 14, Baby’s is on the south side of the road.
If you blink, you’ll miss it.
They roast their premium Arabica coffee beans on premise, fresh daily, and the quality is legendary among those in the know. Stop by for a cup or a pound. And try their famous black-and-white cookies!