Eco-Experience Bucket List: Lower Keys and Key West
Advocating environmentally supportive actions is a vital element of the Florida Keys’ commitment to protecting the region’s natural resources. From Big Pine Key to Key West, a wide variety of positive environmental activities and attractions enable visitors to share that commitment.
Put one (or all!) of these Lower Keys and Key West eco-experiences on your bucket list.
Tour Grimal Grove and sample exotic fruits. On Big Pine Key the 2-acre fruit farm Grimal Grove — billed as the first and only breadfruit grove in the continental United States — offers 90-minute guided tropical fruit excursions showcasing species of subtropical and tropical fruits, trees and plants. Participants can sample sweet and sour exotic fruits including breadfruit and learn the story of 1950s-era hermit Adolf Grimal, a recluse who designed Old Grimal Estate at 258 Cunningham Lane. grimalgrove.com
Spot tiny, endangered Key deer in the Lower Keys’ National Key Deer Refuge. In 1957 the refuge was established to protect and preserve habitats for wildlife — particularly the tiny, shy Key deer that are about the size of a large dog and are often seen grazing around Big Pine Key. The refuge’s 9,000-plus acres include mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks. The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center, located on Big Pine near mile marker 30.5, is open with porch-only access until further notice Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge/
Observe wildlife at the Blue Hole. Find this secluded oasis off Big Pine's Key Deer Boulevard, just 3 miles north of its intersection with the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. An abandoned quarry, the Blue Hole exposes the Keys’ unique freshwater lens and attracts a wide variety of wildlife. Tiny Key deer drink there, while other occupants include alligators, turtles, snakes, fish and a variety of birds. Enjoy the view from the observation platform or venture along the forested edges of the walking trail.
Dive or snorkel at Looe Key Reef. This unique preserve is named for HMS Looe, a British frigate that ran aground in 1744. The waters surrounding the reef provide spectacular views of sponges, soft corals, vibrant elkhorn and staghorn coral thickets and a wide variety of fish. Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center at mile marker 27.5 and other Lower Keys commercial charters provide excursions to Looe Key. The reef is the site of the annual Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. looekeydivecenter.com
Learn about the Lower Keys’ reef ecosystem. Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration, located at 24244 Overseas Highway on Summerland Key, has partnered with local dive center Captain Hook’s to provide the ”Mote on the Boat” reef experience for snorkelers and divers with leading coral science experts. Participants in the “Mote on the Boat” program have an exclusive opportunity to visit Mote’s facility for a tour after visiting Looe Key Reef. mote.org/locations/details/international-center-for-coral-reef-research-and-restoration
Take a clear kayak tour through mangrove mazes. Enjoy a 2- to 2.5-hour guided kayaking adventure through scenic mangrove mazes while a guide points out marine life. Sea turtles, nurse sharks, starfish, conchs and more can be spotted from the 100% see-through kayaks. Tours depart three times each day from Sugarloaf Key Marina, located at 17015 Overseas Highway in the Lower Keys. getupandgokayaking.com/the-keys
Experience Up the Keys Eco Tours’ half-day Nature Tour. Offered daily when available at 9 a.m., the unique sightseeing tour features the Keys’ iconic Seven Mile Bridge in addition to the renowned Bahia Honda State Park, National Key Deer Refuge and Blue Hole. Participants will learn the history, culture and ecology of the Florida Keys, listen to island music and enjoy breathtaking scenery while traveling in a comfortable van. Tour participants are picked up from their hotels or vacation rentals within Key West and Stock Island. upthekeys.com
Get immersed in nature at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. At the gateway to Key West lies a secluded 15-acre conservation habitat and subtropical botanical garden. Just off College Road at mile marker 5 bayside on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, the garden features more than 6,000 rare and endangered plants and trees and provides habitat for 39 butterfly species and 202 native and migratory bird species. Explore 12 self-guided nature trails and boardwalks, two 1.5-acre butterfly habitats, two freshwater ponds, a Cuban palm exhibit and more. keywest.garden
Observe dolphins in the wild with Honest Eco Sustainable Nature Tours. Get aboard SQUID, Key West's first electric-powered charter boat, for an eco-friendly four-hour dolphin watching and snorkeling tour. SQUID is a lithium-ion battery–powered hybrid charter boat with electric motors. Tours depart twice daily from the Key West Historic Seaport, are guided by biologists and include premium snorkeling gear and organic fruit and veggies. honesteco.org
Go biking — on the water! Powered purely by human effort, hydrobikes provide a new way to explore the waters around Key West. Guided and unguided tours are offered by Key West Hydrobikes, whose tours depart from LagerHeads at 0 Simonton St. The average speed is about 4 to 6 mph as cyclists on the stable, pedal-powered nonmotorized water bikes cruise calm waters. keywesthydrobikes.com
The tiny, shy Key deer are often seen grazing around Big Pine Key. Please, do not approach or feed them.