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Six State Parks: Hidden Jewels in Upper Florida Keys

FLORIDA KEYS — Ten state parks throughout the 125-mile-long Florida Keys & Key West island chain include some of Florida's most appealing waterfront views and beaches. Most parks are only footsteps from Florida Bay's aquamarine waters to the west and the turquoise hues of the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Florida state parks offer some of the destination's best and most secluded beaches, fishing, boating, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and paddleboarding. Upper Florida Keys parks are rich with fascinating Florida history, upland and coastal landscapes and underwater sea life.

Six state parks in the Upper Keys include:

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
This 2,805-acre park in the northernmost Florida Keys is among Key Largo's treasures, with one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the United States. It also has more than 6 miles of paved trails, most accessible to bicycles and wheelchairs.

The park is home to 84 protected species of animals and plants including the Key Largo woodrat, American crocodile, wild cotton and mahogany mistletoe.

The park is named after Anna Dagny Johnson, an environmental activist from the 1970s through the 1990s. She led the Upper Keys Citizens Association and other environmental organizations that fought development of north Key Largo.

The park is located on County Road 905, 0.5 miles north of the intersection with the Overseas Highway at mile marker (MM) 106. For information, call 305-451-1202.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The first undersea park in the United States, Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at MM 102.5 encompasses about 70 nautical square miles. With 47 full-facility camping sites for RV and tent campers, the famed park offers scuba diving, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours of the Florida Keys' living coral reef.

Visitors can enjoy unmatched snorkeling to see colorful coral reefs. Divers can experience the thrill of discovering the underwater Christ of the Deep statue, symbolizing peace of mankind and resting in nearly 25 feet of water, at Key Largo Dry Rocks.

Pennekamp's visitor center has a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, six additional 100- to 200-gallon aquariums and nature videos.

There's also canoeing, kayaking and salt-water fishing in designated areas. The park offers 2.5 miles of marked mangrove wilderness and tropical hammocks in upland areas. There are three designated swimming areas with beaches on Largo Sound. A beach wheelchair is available upon request.

The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places April 14, 1972.

Established in 1960, it's named after John Pennekamp, a Miami Herald newspaper associate editor and columnist who also helped to create Everglades National Park. For more information, call 305-451-1202.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
Land at this 300-acre park, located on Windley Key at MM 84.9 near Islamorada, was formed by fossilized coral known as Key Largo limestone. Until the 1960s, the park's quarry was used to produce Keystone, a decorative stone.

The land was once owned by the Florida East Coast Railroad, which used the stone in building railroad magnate Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad in the early 1900s. Visitors can walk along eight-foot-high quarry walls to see cross sections of ancient coral and learn about the quarry's role in Florida history during the 20th century.

The park has a welcome center, picnic tables, hiking trails and five short self-guided tours. It's open Thursday through Monday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Windley Key is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For additional information, call 305-664-2540.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
This 287-acre park, with virgin tropical hardwood hammock, offers a rare look at island-style living in the Upper Keys in the 1930s. Wealthy Miami chemist William Matheson bought the tiny island, located about a mile west of the Overseas Highway at MM 78.5 in Islamorada, in 1919. Matheson also built a caretaker's home with a windmill for electricity and a cistern for capturing rainwater.

The park is accessible only by private or tour boat. To get to Lignumvitae, visitors can rent a private boat or kayak from Robbie's Marina in Islamorada. Call 305-664-9814.

The island is open Thursday through Monday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an entrance fee of $2.50 per person. Guided tours are offered from December through April, Friday through Sunday, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for an additional $2 per person. For additional information, call 305-664-2540.

Indian Key Historic State Park Accessible only by boat, this remote 8-acre island is located off MM 78.5 in Islamorada. It was developed by wrecker John Jacob Housman as the site of a lucrative business that salvaged cargo from shipwrecks in the 1800s.

Indian Key was Dade County's first county seat in 1836 and once was the Keys' second largest community, behind Key West. Housman's lucrative salvaging business succumbed to a Seminole Indian attack on Aug. 7, 1840.

Visitors to the park can swim, sunbathe and hike. There's an observation tower and self-guided interpretive tour. It's open 365 days a year, opening at 8 a.m., closing at sunset. Individual fees of $2.50 are collected at the "iron ranger" box.

To get to Indian Key, visitors can rent a private boat or kayak from Robbie's Marina in Islamorada. For additional information, call 305-664-9814.

San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park
This underwater archaeological preserve features a submerged shipwreck, the 287-ton San Pedro, a Dutch-built ship that sank in a hurricane in July 1733.

The ship's remains were discovered in 1960 at Hawk Channel, located about 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key and off MM 78.5 in Islamorada.

Snorkelers and divers at the 18-foot-deep underwater park can discover San Pedro's remaining ballast stones, strewn across a 90-foot-long by 30-foot-wide area, seven replica cannons and anchor. Boats transporting snorkelers and divers can tie up at mooring buoys. For additional information, call 305-664-2540.

Florida Keys state park information: floridastateparks.org

Florida Keys & Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS

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Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park features one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the United States.

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park features one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the United States.

Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at MM 102.5 offers glass-bottom boat tours of the Florida Keys' living coral reef.

Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at MM 102.5 offers glass-bottom boat tours of the Florida Keys' living coral reef.

Christ of the Deep statue, symbolizing peace of mankind and resting in nearly 25 feet of water, is located at Key Largo Dry Rocks, in waters adjacent to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Christ of the Deep statue, symbolizing peace of mankind and resting in nearly 25 feet of water, is located at Key Largo Dry Rocks, in waters adjacent to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Aerial view of Indian Key State Park.

Aerial view of Indian Key State Park.

Along a walking tour in Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, see a cross section of fossilized coral that shows marks of quarrying.

Along a walking tour in Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, see a cross section of fossilized coral that shows marks of quarrying.

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