FLORIDA KEYS — In the Middle and Lower Florida Keys, four unique state parks — Long Key, Curry Hammock, Bahia Honda and Fort Zachary Taylor — are easy to explore and offer some of the best recreational opportunities in the 125-mile-long island chain.
With the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States paralleling the Keys, state park waters are teeming with tropical fish and colorful coral formations. The four parks also offer some of the destination's best beaches.
Long Key State Park
Located in the Middle Florida Keys on Long Key, just southwest of the town of Layton, the park was once the site of railroad magnate Henry Flagler's Long Key Fishing Camp in the early 20th century.
Today, it offers 50 recreational vehicle and six tent-only oceanfront campsites at the once-luxury destination for the rich and famous traveling on Flagler's famed Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad.
Birding is popular along the 1.1-mile-long Golden Orb Trail that leads visitors through five nature areas. Along the trail, white-crowned pigeons and rare Key West Quail Doves can be spotted.
Other attractions include picnic tables with grills, sea kayaks for rent and restrooms with showers. There's also 30-amp ' power, water hookups and a dump station.
Long Key State Park is located at 67400 Overseas Highway, mile marker (MM) 67.4. For more information, call 305-664-4815.
Curry Hammock State Park
Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon offers the largest uninhabited parcel of land between Key Largo in the Upper Keys and Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys. Year-round birding is popular.
The park, with a beautiful mangrove creek and miles of pristine coastline, preserves essential Keys native ecosystems that include mangrove swamp, rockland hammocks and seagrass beds. Secluded protected waters make the park an ideal place to kayak and paddleboard.
Curry Hammock is known as a hidden spot for shallow-water fishing. When conditions are windy, the park's oceanfront is a popular spot to launch windsurfers and kiteboards.
The park offers a 28-site oceanfront campground and an unspoiled coastline. Hikers can enjoy a 1.5-mile trail through the park's bayside hammock.
Curry Hammock State Park is located at 56200 Overseas Highway, MM 56.2. For more information, call 305-289-2690.
Bahia Honda State Park
This 500-acre park, located on Bahia Honda Key in the Lower Keys, is a top family getaway with award-winning beaches, soft sand, warm shallow water and excellent snorkeling.
Railroad magnate Henry Flagler's famed railroad helped to transform Bahia Honda Key into a subtropical destination appealing to all ages. Construction of Flagler's Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway was completed in 1912.
From the old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, known as the Over-Sea Railroad Bridge, the park offers stunning views. The original trestle railroad structure, with a highway built on top, is a must-see point of interest for visitors.
Restoration is underway to add concrete stability and handrails for greater accessibility on steps under the bridge. Work to restore the bridge trail extending over the water also is planned. Part of the bridge's section that's not part of the original Over-Sea Railway remains open, providing sweeping picturesque and panoramic views.
The park was named after the deep natural bay, a harbor for sailors, under the bridge. Bahia Honda means "deep bay" in Spanish.
Within the park, a new brick "Walkway to the Sea," is under development by the nonprofit Friends of the Bahia Honda State Park. Plans call for a wraparound walkway stretching toward the old Over-Sea Railroad Bridge and its oceanfront channel. Visitors can purchase bricks, priced from $50, at the park's Nature Center, with provides information on indigenous plants and animals.
The park's butterfly garden is home to North American endangered host plants. The park also is a nesting grounds for sea turtles, including the hawksbill, and an excellent place to watch sea wading birds and shorebirds.
Bahia Honda's scenic beaches front both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. They include Calusa Beach, adjacent to the Bahia Honda Bridge, and the mile-long Sandspur Beach just north of the park entrance.
Overnight visitors can enjoy 80 total campsites — 48 sites for both RVs and tents, and 32 tent-only sites, 16 with electricity and water and 16 nonelectric sites with water — and six cabins on stilts.
Other park amenities include pavilions, freshwater showers, restrooms, grills, picnic tables, beach wheelchairs and a mobi floating chair for in-water accessibility. An on-site concession and gift shop has a variety of food, souvenirs and beachwear. Kayaks and bikes are available for rent.
Concessionaire Coral Reef Park Co. offers daily snorkel trips to the reef at Looe Key.
Bahia Honda State Park is located at 36850 Overseas Highway, MM 37. For information call 305-872-2353. To reserve bayside cabins up to 11 months in advance, visit floridastateparks.reserveamerica.com or call 800-326-3521.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Florida's southernmost 56-acre state park in Key West is the island city's favorite beach park, known for excellent snorkeling, swimming, picnicking, fishing and nature trails. Among locals, it's a popular gathering spot for families and friends.
Fort Zachary Taylor was built from 1845 to 1866, one of 47 built to defend the nation's southeastern coastline. The fort, named after President Zachary Taylor, played important roles in Civil War and Spanish-American War history. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
At the park, Mote Marine Laboratory is undertaking coral restoration efforts with out-planting of more than 5,500 corals that began in summer 2016. The corals are planted in 10 to 15 feet of water about 20 feet beyond a breakwater off the park's beach.
Mote is using a revolutionary "re-skinning" technique to enable fragments of brain, star and boulder corals to fuse rapidly together over dead coral skeletons to form new living coral heads. In three to four months, corals grow to about the size of a golf ball and are then planted in singles and groups of five.
A beachfront Cayo Hueso Cafe offers a wide variety of snacks, beach sundries, souvenirs, snacks and sandwiches. Snorkel and water gear, lockers and beach chairs can be rented.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is located at 601 Howard England Way in Key West. Visit fortzacharytaylor.com or call 305-292-6713.
Florida Keys state park information: floridastateparks.org
Florida Keys & Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Kayaks on display ready for use at Long Key State Park. Image: Florida State Parks
A sandy trail at Curry Hammock State Park. Image: Steve Sammons
The 500-acre Bahia Honda State Park, located on Bahia Honda Key in the Lower Keys, is a top family getaway with award-winning beaches, soft sand, warm shallow water and excellent snorkeling. Image: Andy Newman
Sunrise at Bahia Honda is something not to miss.
Fort Zachary Taylor fort, named after President Zachary Taylor, played important roles in Civil War and Spanish-American War history. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Image: Florida State Parks