Visitors are often surprised to learn that the Florida Keys have very few sandy beaches. The water, however, is great – clear and warm year around; full of fish and sea life for snorkelers.
Now, Monroe County has opened two new Florida Keys parks that make that water accessible in enticing old-fashioned swimming holes. Better yet: Both are free and right along the Overseas Highway.
The parks – Rowell’s Waterfront Park, 04550 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL 33037, and Pine Channel Nature Park, 9550 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, FL 33043 – each have ample parking, restrooms, picnic tables and kayak launches.
Both of these new parks are perfect stops along the scenic Overseas Highway. Or, if you’re staying on either of these Florida Keys, they would make terrific places to take a dip and hang out.
Rowell’s Waterfront Park, a Florida Keys park in Key Largo
The first phase of this Florida Keys park is complete, so you’re free to park, picnic and take the plunge in the water. Next year, Monroe County will add chickee hut picnic shelters to complete it.
This park was a traditional swimming hole long used by locals. It’s deep – probably 10 feet, with no shallow entry area or beach, so it’s for good swimmer and requires vigilant parents. There’s a concrete seawall and a ladder to help you get out of the water. (Getting in is just a matter of jumping!)
The swimming hole is surrounded by a rock wall and while I didn’t swim, I’m pretty sure these rocks attract enough fish to make it worth putting on a snorkeling mask.
On my visit, the restrooms looked like they’d open any day; portable toilets were in place in the interim.
There are picnic tables and a large grassy lawn. On the left side of the 8-acre park is the spot where you can hand-launch kayaks, canoes and paddle boards. (This is likely to be improved next year, according to Monroe County Parks Director John Allen.)
The park is dog-friendly.
Bring beach umbrellas, shade covers and sunscreen: There’s not a lot of shade.
Located right off the only road down the Keys, the park offers a postcard-worthy view out over the bay, where you might see a dolphin or manatee if you’re lucky. It’s a perfect stop as you enter the Keys to take a break in your drive.
Pine Channel Nature Park, Big Pine Key
Pine Channel officially opened in September and it offers an extensive boardwalk framing another traditional local swimming hole.
A floating platform serves swimmers who can use it to jump into the deep water and climb back. There is no beach and no shallow area, so this is for good swimmers only. On a hot day, it will be irresistible.
There are ladders to exit the swimming area on three sides and an elevated tower for a view of the park and its surroundings.
The park has a kayak hand-launch area, where you can head off to explore the island’s southern coast. It’s a good launch to access the Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve with its mangrove shoreline and shallow waters containing sponges, soft corals, hard corals and algae.
The park also preserves one of the few remaining original mile markers from Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad constructed between 1905 and 1912. The artifact was moved from about a mile away. The numbers painted on it indicate it was 30 miles from Key West and 492 miles from Jacksonville. On trains, these mile markers served the same purpose as the markers along the Overseas Highway today.
It is not known how many markers were placed along the route, but there are three known surviving markers, including this one.
As Keys visitors inevitably learn in their travels, Flagler’s Overseas Railroad become today’s Overseas Highway after miles of track were decimated by the monster Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
Park facilities include an 11-foot high scenic viewing platform, restrooms, 17 parking spaces, bike racks and grills. It is ADA accessible.
More things to do in the Florida Keys
The essential Florida Keys Overseas Highway Mile Marker guide
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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.