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Remote islands in Florida Keys: 6 hidden, little known spots

The grandest of adventures are born on isolated islands.

From pirate gold to giant apes, the mystery of what might be found on a speck of land peeking up through a vast sea has captivated imaginations for millennia.

On a few of the hidden islands in the Florida Keys, some of these tales are actually true.

With more than 1,700 islands, it is not surprising that today’s Keys have ample abandoned history to explore. Humans may have called them home since at least the height of Greek civilization, some 3,600 years ago.

Spanish explorer and conquistador Ponce de León became the first European to lay eyes on them in 1513. Soon after, legions of ships departing the New World would catch the trade winds along the Florida Straits.

Pirates stalked Spanish treasure fleets, British warships pursued illegal slave ships, and wreckers waited for all of their misfortunes along the shallow reefs.

All the while, farmers, fishermen and outcasts claimed keys for themselves, setting up homesteads and villages. Hurricanes reclaimed more than a few of those. Workers set up camps from which to build lighthouses and a railroad. Hurricanes reclaimed some of those as well.

Two famous abandonments steal most of the headlines, so we’ll get the need to mention those out of the way now: Civil War-era Fort Jefferson, which lies 70 miles west of Key West, is the largest masonry structure in the Americas. It is contained in one of the least-visited national parks, Dry Tortugas.

With pristine reefs and unusual birds, it is an excellent place to spend the day, or even camp for a few.

The ever-iconic Pigeon Key, an aerial shot of which graces nearly every tourist brochure, is an historic railroad work camp along the Seven Mile Bridge. Original wooden buildings dot the 5-acre island, which can be reached by ferry.

Then, there are the lesser-known ruins of the Keys. A few have remarkable stories.

For the rest, the tales of those who once roamed these tiny swaths of land are lost to time, the faint traces of their existence serving as silent sentinels to speculation and imagination.

Here are six of our favorites, not necessarily in any particular order.

Hidden islands in the Florida Keys you can visit

Indian Key

Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Indian Key as it looks from the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Indian Key as it looks from the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

One of the first Keys inhabited by white settlers, Indian Key was an outpost for a handful of fishermen and turtlers, until 1930 when it became the base of wrecker Jacob Housman’s mini-empire.

The 11-acre island had a population large enough to support two general stores, a hotel, warehouses, a bowling alley, a 38-man militia and all of the labor needed to run his lucrative shipwreck salvage.

But his reign was short-lived.

In 1840, Seminoles launched and early-morning attack, killing many of the residents and burning down the town.

Today, it is a state park, with trails, swimming and an observation tower. The old town’s remains are largely un-excavated. It is an easy kayak from U.S. 1, and nearby Robbie’s Marina rents boats.

Here’s a guide to kayaking to Indian Key.

indian key Kayak launches and landings for Indian Key and Lignumvitae
Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Kayak launches and landings. Photo/Florida State Parks

Distance from Overseas Highway:

  • Indian Key Fill to Lignumvitae Key Kayak Landing- 2.84 miles roundtrip
  • Indian Key Fill to Indian Key Kayak Landing-1.66 miles roundtrip
  • Indian Key Fill to Entrance of Mangrove Creeks-1.84 miles roundtrip 

Lignumvitae Key

Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Caretaker’s house on Lignumvitae Key is open for tours. Photo/VisitFlorida

Angora goats and Galapagos tortoises once roamed here, imported by the Matheson family along with exotic plants. Their 1919 caretaker’s house is restored for tours.

Before them, wrecker Jacob Housman had built a residence, of which small ruins remain, and after them a man ran a small watermelon and pineapple farm.

It’s one of the highest Keys, more than 16 feet in elevation, covered in virgin tropical hardwood hammock and graced by hiking paths.

The state park is just a few miles Gulfside of Indian Key.

Boat rentals and seasonal tours launch from nearby Robbie’s Marina.

Tarpon Belly Key

hidden islands in the florida keys tarpon belly key scottshannon59 Remote islands in Florida Keys: 6 hidden, little known spots
Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Campsite on Tarpon Belly Key. Photo/Scott Hannon

In the ‘60s, a man had a dream of growing shrimp in paradise.

He dug two canals on the Tarpon Belly Keys, and tried his best for a few years. His shrimp legacy never made if far, but the rubble he left behind has made Tarpon Belly a legendary hangout ever since.

Remnants of the operation, including an old truck, are found tucked away around the island.

Though the island is still privately owned, locals often come here to picnic, snorkel, and even camp overnight.

The islands are a few miles north of Cudjoe, and the closest marinas are Cudjoe Gardens and Sugarloaf.

Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Satellite view of Tarpon Belly Key’s shrimp canals.

Hidden islands in the Florida Keys you cannot visit

Ballast Key/ David Wolkowsky Key

hidden islands in the florida keys 2022 5 5 ballast key Remote islands in Florida Keys: 6 hidden, little known spots
One of the most beautiful of the hidden islands of the Florida Keys is Ballast Key, and it is strictly off-limits to visitors. (Photo courtesy of Steve Alberts)

Spoiler alert: the famous cement buoy in Key West isn’t technically the southernmost point in the country. That designation falls on a 14-acre island nine miles west of Key West, which used to be owned by beloved developer David Wolkowsky — Ballast Key.

Wolkowsky purchased it in the ‘70s from the Navy, who had been using it as a bombing target, then set to work revegetating the island and building a house there. He also helped cultivate Key West’s art and literary scene, and thus entertained the likes of Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams and countless others on Ballast Key.

When he died in 2018, he willed the island back to nature, or rather to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Soon to be officially renamed David Wolkowsky Key, it’s currently being used as research station for scientists studying its many imperiled and native species of plants, animals and habitats. It is not open to the public. Don’t even think about trying it. Seriously. But you can get a great view of it from the water, on the way to the sandbar hangout off Woman Key. 

Upper Sugarloaf Key

Sugarloaf Key satellite
Hidden islands in the Florida Keys: Satellite view of Sugarloaf Keys (Wikipedia)

Houses cover part of Upper Sugarloaf, but in the wilderness beyond, hidden amongst the trees and bogs, lie numerous Indian mounds, remnants of an ancient civilization.

These rocky piles, which are typically 2 to 4 feet tall, were most likely built by the Caloosa tribe. The mounds may have been ceremonial, though little is actually known about them.

A much larger kitchen midden, or ancient trash pile filled with shells and other discarded artifacts, once existed on the east coast of the island, but in typical development style it was bulldozed over to create Indian Mound Estates.

Unfortunately, the area around the Sugarloaf mounds is now closed to the public, but mounds exist elsewhere throughout the Keys, most still undiscovered.

On a hike, look for a raised and rocky-dirt beds or ridges.

Lois Key and Raccoon Keys

In 1973 the world’s largest producer of laboratory animals set up shop in the Lower Keys.

Boaters who happened upon Lois and Raccoon Keys (a.k.a. Monkey Island) were treated to a real-life Island of Doctor Moreau, complete with eerie monkey calls and simian silhouettes roaming the shoreline.

For a quarter century Charles River Laboratories cashed in on thousands of the little guys, valued up to $4,500 a piece, which they sold to researchers studying AIDS, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

A judge ordered a monkey business shutdown in 1998, after they decimated the islands’ protected mangroves and contaminated the surrounding waters with poo. (As for reports of “Monkey Fishing?” No, that’s not a thing.)

Today the monkeys are gone and the mangroves recovering.

Both keys are difficult to access, thanks to very shallow water and no clear entry points.

Supposedly, all structures have been dismantled. Surely some signs remain, but we have not yet had the pleasure of exploring this ourselves.

This guest post was written by Karuna Eberl and Steve Alberts, who lived on Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys and wrote an entertaining book “Key West & the Lower Keys Travel Guide.”  (It’s a terrific book for anyone who loves the Keys, as Karuna and Steve clearly do.)

Other articles written for by Karuna Eberl and Steve Alberts. Karuna Eberl also writes about ideas and nature in her blog Nature Rising.

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Friday 13th of May 2022

Just wanted to say we love this site. My wife and I became kayakers about 4 years ago. We have visited so many epic place because of Florida Rambler. Thank you.

We love Indian Key, which we heard about on your site. We have taken our kids and friends many times. We went with some friends 5/8/22 to show them Indian and Ligumvitum Key. We had not been since pre COVID. Unfortunately we could not launch. The boat ramp and most of the parking is closed. It looks like they are doing improvements to the area. There maybe 10 spots to park. We got there at about 9 am but found no parking.

Our friends had an inflatable. On our last trip my daughter and boyfriend rented yaks at Robbie’s and we launched from there. We tried that again. Our friends said they would rent yaks. So we headed to Robbie’s. No go, they said for insurance reasons. It appears some launched an inflatable that sank and they got sued. It was a real bummer.

We googled closest launch site. We went north about 2 mile to Islamorada to a launch on the bayside. It was free but had no parking. We paddled about 2 miles from the launch to Shell key.

Unfortunately we could not land on any of the little islands. All the sandy bottoms we found were too mucky to get out and stretch out the old legs. Ligum vitum was about another mile away but the wind kicked up a lot. So we head back to the launch site. We overall had a nice day but wre disappointed we did get to Indian Key.

So please be aware if you try to go.

Chris randall

Monday 11th of January 2021

Great read n I have no destination in life til I read this thank you!!!!

Dale Hamblin

Sunday 24th of May 2020

Beautiful article

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