Florida Keys – Post #4 State Parks

Lest you think all we’re doing is eating and drinking………..we’ve taken some time to visit several Florida State Parks which are definitely out of our normal driving realm being in the keys. Let me preface with saying there are more State Parks than what I’m blogging about, but we only squeezed in four during our time in the Florida Keys.

First up – Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.

It is the southernmost Civil War fortress with construction begun in 1845. The fort stayed on active duty status through 1947 with the facility encompassing 87 acres.

The fort is named after our 12th president Zachary Taylor, shortly after his sudden death in office.

The fort was used at the outset of the U.S. Civil War with orders to prevent the fort from falling into Confederate hands. It was heavily used again during the 1898 Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Upon some construction work, a discovery was made. Turned out, it was the location of the largest cache of Civil War era cannons. At the time it was easier to use them for ‘fill’ than to haul them away.

It was definitely hot the day we visited and w.i.n.d.y.

Another line of defense was a moat. The photo above is looking towards the Gulf with the photo below faced the city.

There was also a sprawling beach of sand & pebbles and nearby breakwaters teeming with tropical fish. Next visit, we’re definitely going to spend a few hours relaxing here. It looked awesome and attendance was limited with the capacity of the state park, so it didn’t appear it would get overrun. Basically the park ranger (and said parking spots) limited the number of guests coming in. The beach area is the sandy, curvy area on the right of the photo below.

Second park visited was Bahia Honda State Park – a few miles above Key West in the lower keys and covers 524 acres.

Bahia Honda means deep bay in Spanish and it is close to the end of the 7 mile bridge. The channel at the island’s west end is one of the deepest natural channels in the Keys. Look at the beautiful blue turquoise waters. BTW this is looking west.

While the visitor center was closed, this sand sculpture was outside of the building. Definitely took someone a lot of time. Both sides were very detailed.

Part of the park was the railroad bridge topped with the original oversees highway. Obviously damage has occurred through the years and it is no longer traversed.

The state park was founded in 1961 and covers virtually all of the uninhabited island.

BUT………I saw people at the top of this bridge trail and HAD to make the climb.

Seeing this at the top……………………not really surprised since there was a huge gap seen in an earlier photo above.

Being at the top of the bridge trail was also a chance to get a great shot of the beach area.

Digging deeper via the internet about this state park, I also found some interesting info about a rare butterfly, called Miami Blue. I read nothing about it while at the park. It was thought extinct as a result of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but was discovered in this park in 1999. Research along with propagation of the species is ongoing to spread the butterfly.

Going further up the keys we stopped at…………..

John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park. This is the first underwater park in the US, established in 1963. The park is 25 miles in length and extends three miles into the Atlantic ocean.

Original plans in the 1930s was to designate the reef off Key Largo for protected statue and incorporate it into the National Everglades Park. Opposition from various sources stopped the plan that included the Key Largo reefs although the national Everglades Park was established. It wasn’t until the 1950s that citizens became concerned (again) about the destruction (I read the reefs were being hammered, chiseled and even dynamited for coral souvenirs) that another push was made to save the reefs. The man which would eventually be the assistant editor of the Miami Herald, John Pennenkamp, teamed up with others for the fight. In 1960 the reef was designated as federally controlled and protected area. When land and access to US 1 was acquired in 1963, it became a State Park.

Everyone here is planning on snorkeling and/or taking their glass bottom boat to see the reefs. Not me. I had a very bad experience in the 1980s and to this day get panicky if I put on a snorkel and mask. We drove around the park and found a quiet lagoon and this sign. We worry about alligators in central Florida, now add in the American crocodile down south.

They have this fabulous 30K gallon saltwater aquarium and six smaller aquariums along with a natural history exhibit about the park’s biological communities and ecosystems. A theater shows nature films and videos. And it was closed……….for renovations. Really? Really! Could that have been down months ago when no one was traveling – just saying. Yep, not much time was spent in this park when we visited.

The last state park we visited was the Dagney Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. Yikes! That was a mouthful. Parking is outside of the entrance.

It was established in 1982 when land was acquired by Florida Conversation and Recreational Lands Program. The park occupies about a third of the island of Key Largo, covering over 2400+ acres. It is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals. It’s the largest track of the tropical hardwood hammock in the US. Two animal species are only found on Key Largo: Key Largo Woodrat and the Key Largo Cotton Mouse.

The name honors a local environmental activist who from the 1970s – 90s led several environmental organizations that fought to stop development that was planned – Port Bougainville – a planned community of 15 hotels and 2000+ condos. Google it – I did and went down a rabbit hole reading more and more articles about it.

Okay, now I need to admit something. Until I read the plaque after getting home……….never knew this was named after a female. Oops.

As seen in the first photos above, parking is all outside of the archway and the park is pretty much self-service – no park rangers stationed here. It is about the nature trails – approximately 6 miles with several loops involved. There were several signs like this posted along the trail, but this one stuck out – Poisonwood. Yep, it’s a pretty bad tree. People have been known to go to the hospital from a rash after rain water dripped off the tree. People also been affected by burning smoke from this tree. It does have some good qualities as noted below – food source.

We walked down the main pathway and found this arbor area. Can I say this park looked deserted, felt deserted and was so empty, kind of felt creepy.

I was able to grab this quick photo of our walk. It was a nice wide, paved trail. I’ll also admit……….we didn’t walk very far. This day the keys were hot, muggy and with all of the trees, not much air movement. We reached the arbor area and said ‘We’re good’.

We did several r.e.a.l.l.y cool things later in the week and they will be in a post – very soon.


Headed towards the Florida keys!

KEY WEST OR BUST!!!! We figured it had been at least 20+ years since we’ve been in the keys and the time was right to head back to the southern toe of the state.

It’s definitely a haul to get down to the very last key.

It all starts with the Florida turnpike. Since we were on the turnpike for such a long time, I got interested in its history. Man! You could do an entire blog post just on the turnpike!

Sooooooo, here we go.

The years following WWII Florida experienced unprecedented growth in population and tourism along with a revitalized citrus industry after a hard devastating freeze. These things combined for a reason to build a better road to connect parts of Florida, top to bottom. There was an individual considered the ‘father of the turnpike’ (Thomas B. Manuel) and was chairman of the turnpike from 1955 – 1961. His belief and dedication to this mission won over many of the current-day detractors and the idea of a turnpike was hotly debated in the legislature. Ultimately he was able to convince all but 4 to pass legislation for the road.

It was opened in stages from 1957 to 1964 going through eleven Florida counties. Total length was 309 miles stretching from Miami Gardens to Wildwood. Construction began July 4, 1955 and they use the slogan ‘The Less Stressway’. It was built on a northwest-southeast axis.

You might notice in the photo above another nickname for the toll road – Ronald Reagan Turnpike. In 1998 the legisture decided “he was one of America’s most beloved presidents and a true world leader”.

We couldn’t believe we saw this paper ticket. We got off for a brief time and had to grab this before getting back on the turnpike. We’re accustomed to transponders or coins. In the 1990s congestion was so bad in Miami and the Orlando metropolitan area they both went to coin. Now we’re (central Florida) strictly electronic either by transponder or license plate photo.

Research says the turnpike averages 6.7 cents per mile. Service stations (8) are about 45 miles apart and we were stuck in the middle when we needed to jump off thus picking up the paper ticket. Okay – I’m done.

Lunch was on our agenda and we googled top resturants in/near Homestead, FL prior to leaving home. Havana Spice was highly rated.

The cuban bread looks so simple yet is so tasty. We didn’t really need the plantain chips, but, we did. There was nothing left on the plate OR in the basket either.

What else could I order but a cubano sandwich. Easily the best cuban sandwich I’ve had. What made it special??? The roasted pork sandwiched in with the ham, cuban bread and cheese – and then pressed. There was a garlicky aoli that was part of the sandwich – yum.

Eric also had pork, but in a different way. He had more of an entre’ with black beans, rice and fried plantains. Both of us had waaaaaaay too much food. If we had been home, there definitely would have been leftovers for another meal.

Don’t think I mentioned the decor – very kitschy. We were lucky enough to sit outside under cover from any of the short-lived passing rain showers.

The car pictured above is part of their charm. There were a number of older cars parked around to give you the ‘Havana’ feel.

This guy watched us eat our delicious lunch.

Dessert?!? This was something we had already planned while still at home. We headed to Robert is Here. It was a short 5 minute drive from Havana Spice.

It is a family institution that has (seriously) grown and expanded since the last time we were in this area – 20+ years ago. Have I mentioned that already? Truly, it was a corner fruit stand where all the locals picked up their fresh groceries and the fruit stand made shakes out of the excess fruit. They still have plenty of fruit and veggies. Here’s a small sampling.

Interesting story about the name ‘Robert is Here’. Google it. And yes, Robert is still working, he’s the one in the dark green shirt.

So you’ve seen a few shots of the fruits, now take a short look at their products. They have row after row after shelf after shelf with their own bottled product. The shot below is a small snippet of their items.

Along the front of the market, they had buckets and buckets of sunflowers. Loved them!

Let’s get to the REAL reason we came – the shakes…….actually we all ended up with smoothies! Ha! The smoothies were sweet enough. I can’t image how sweet the shake would have been. It was a process as you can see on the sign.

Walking to the front of the market, there was a l.o.n.g. line, just to order your desired drinks. I wandered off and heard someone say ‘that’s didn’t take long’. I’m sure that Eric was ready to turn around and keep driving but he had come to the same conclusion just watching the line. We ultimately ended up with three different flavors. Mine was the bright orange cup in the center (mamey sapote). Eric’s was the creamy cup on the left (guanabana) with Adrienne getting a mango smoothie.

Back on the road, we continued south. We expected traffic and we got it. 😦 Luckily we had stretches where 4 lanes existed and we could pick up the pace. Eventually we got to the source of this back-up ……….gawkers checking out a group of boaters on the water. Really people?

Regardless, we made it to our hotel with plenty of time to drop off bags and still head all the way to the bottom before sunset – next post!