Bahia Honda State Park has it all: Top campsites and cabins plus great snorkeling
People love the Bahia Honda State Park beaches — many people call them the best beaches in the Florida Keys.
Me? What I love best is the 100-year-old Bahia Honda Bridge.
Bahia Honda State Park 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.
Bahia Honda is a popular stop. As of May, 2022, the Sandspur Campground and the Sandspur beach have re-opened, four and half years after being smashed by Hurricane Irma. For those who get there quickly, a few nights are available in the next 11 months for the hard-to-get beachfront Sandspur campsites.
The Bahia Honda bridge 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.
The Bahia Honda State Park beaches
When people hear these beaches called the best in the Keys, they probably envision an expansive, wide beach. And that’s why some people may be disappointed. Yes, this may be the Keys’ best beach, but beaches aren’t all that wonderful in the Florida Keys. (For spectacular beaches, I recommend the Gulf Coast from Naples to Sarasota.)
Bahia Honda had three natural, sandy beaches:
- Scenic Calusa Beach is 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.
- Loggerhead Beach 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.
- Sandspur Beach is nearly a mile long, narrow with shallow water and sand flats the whole way. Here, you can get away from the crowds if you’re willing to walk the beach. There is a covered pavilion available on a first come first serve basis. The restrooms are located near the parking areas.
The Bahia Honda State Park beaches are good for snorkeling, generally with very clear water. There is often sea grass piled along the beach: it’s good for the beach’s ecology, but plenty of visitors consider it unattractive.
Bahia Honda State Park activities: Kayaking, snorkeling and hiking
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 alternatives 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. (And snorkeling trips out of the two parks are priced identically.)
In addition, with its clear water, you can see sea life snorkeling right off the beaches at Bahia Honda.
Bahia Honda hiking: The park’s only nature trail Is near Calusa Beach, and it’s worth taking. The trail goes to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge along a route that was once U.S. 1. There’s a great view from the top of the bridge. You can see the whole island and into the water, where you may see fish, rays or sea turtles.
Bahia Honda State Park cabins: So nice, but impossible to reserve
The six cabins at Bahia Honda State Park 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 the parks reservations website. Even if you mark your calendar and try to book a spot the morning a date becomes available, you can still be out of luck. One reason is that when you snag a cabin date 11 months in advance, you can reserve that cabin for two weeks. If all six cabins are booked multiple days, there can be days when no cabins become available on the 11-months-out date.
By Florida Keys standards, the cabins are a good deal: $120 per night, plus tax, May 1 – Oct. 31 and $160 per night Nov. 1 – April 30.
The Bahia Honda State Park cabins are built on pilings overlooking a lagoon, set apart of the busier day-use sections of the park. We’ve stayed in a cabin here and found it clean, comfortable, well-equipped and with a beautiful view.
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. Still, it’s worth “vulturing” — watching the park reservations website for cancellations.
Bahia Honda State Park camping: What a great location
Like the beaches, Bahia Honda State Park campsites were destroyed in Hurricana Irma. Our favorite — the 17 oceanfront sites in the Sandspur campground — reopened in May 2022, four and a half year after Hurricane Irma.
There are 75 campsites and they are just about as difficult to book as the cabins. If you don’t reserve 11 months in advance, your best bet is to monitor the website 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 the best tent campsites are the eight sites in the Bayside Campground across from the cabins. Tenters should try to avoid the gravel-based sites in the Buttonwood campground on the Gulf side; they are better for RVs. (Although, with a location in the Keys like this, you’re likely to take what you can get!) All sites are $36 per night. Florida residents over age 65 enjoy a 50 percent discount.
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.
- 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.
Bahia Honda State Park
36850 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, Florida 33043
Day-use 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
- Beaches in the Florida Keys
Special places to discover in the Lower Keys and Key West
- Some of the accommodations closest to Bahia Honda State Park are on Big Pine Key, where the Old Wooden Bridge Resort and Marina consists of a few cabins and 13 houseboats overlooking the water and the bridge to No Name Key. It’s a good place to rent a kayak too. It’s a block away from a classic Keys stop for lunch or dinner, No Name Pub.
- National Key Deer Refuge Nature Center is 10 minutes from Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key. It’s free.
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on a budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport, a colorful stroll
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West for beach and history
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens: Where did they come from and where do they go?
A note from the editor:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.