The Florida Keys offer a unique blend of stunning natural beauty, outdoor activities, water sports, and a laid-back atmosphere. Here are some must-visit places and activities in the Florida Keys starting with the southernmost key:
How to get there (by boat)
There are two routes options that you can pick from the "Outside Route" (official name Hawks Channel), and the "Inside Route" which takes you along the west side of the keys through Biscayne Bay and south to Florida Bay.
However, some boaters, especially those with deeper drafts choose to switch over to Hawks Channel at Channel #5; reason being is Big Pine Key forces those on the inside route to go quite a distance around BPK into Florida Bay. Some folks enjoy that part of the trip and others prefer to take a straighter route into the lower keys and Key West.
One thing to keep in mind is that the inside route is fairly shallow. Those whose boats draw more than 2-3 feet may want to pick the higher tides, especially around Plantation Key. I would recommend that any vessel that draws more than 2.5 feet take the Hawks Channel route, as depths are about 7-10 feet (usually) along the entire route. Also, this Channel is well marked although some day markers are spread out a few miles from each other so careful navigation is required.
Important note: The patch reef will be to your east.
Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, is known for. Don't miss the Southernmost Point Buoy, Hemingway House, and Mallory Square for sunset celebrations. If going by boat from the Miami area this trip takes about 7 hours at a cruise speed of 22 knots. There are several marinas that can accommodate vessels up to 100+ feet.
Bahia Honda State Park
This beautiful state park features white sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters, and opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and camping. Boats visiting this park must anchor off the beach as there are no marinas or facilities.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Located in Key Largo, this is the first undersea park in the United States. It's a fantastic spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, and exploring the underwater marine life. The entrance to John Pennekamp is from Hawks Channel. Caution, the entrance channel is a bit shallow, especially at low tide so read your chart and watch your depth sounder. Another option is to approach the park via Florida Bay, dock at one of the local marinas and make your way into the park by land.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Located approximately 60 miles west of Key West are the Dry Tortugas. This destination requires at least 2, preferably a 3-day cruise.
There is a ranger station on the Dry Tortugas National Park where Fort Jefferson is located but there are no amenities, so be prepared to be self-sufficient during your stay. This destination is better suited for vessels equipped with generators and good heavy duty ground tackle (anchor, chain, windlass). Pick your weather carefully.
Some boaters choose to leave their boat at a marina in Key West and make their way to the Dry Tortugas by ferry or seaplane. This remote park is home to the historic Fort Jefferson, snorkeling spots, and clear blue waters. It's a great destination for history enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers.
Known as the "Sportfishing Capital of the World," Islamorada offers excellent fishing opportunities, as well as beautiful beaches, water activities, and art galleries. There are marinas on both sides of Islamorada so visiting boats have the option to dock along either route.
Big Pine Key
Located in the lower keys, Big Pine Key is a Deer Refuge where you can see the endangered Key deer in their natural habitat. It's a unique and protected area for wildlife. Marinas at Big Pine are best accessed via Hawks Channel.
This central Key offers attractions like the Turtle Hospital, Dolphin Research Center, and Sombrero Beach. It's a family-friendly destination with a variety of marinas and water-based activities.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
This small island features a pristine tropical hardwood hammock and the historic Matheson House. Guided tours are available to explore the natural beauty and history.
In addition to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo offers a range of dive shops, restaurants, and opportunities for water sports. There are some marinas which are better accessed via the Florida Bay side.
Part of Biscayne National Park, Elliott Key is located about 10 miles south of Key Biscayne.
Elliott Key and Boca Chita are the northernmost keys of the Florida Keys chain. It's a popular destination for weekend boater that come from Miami and Homestead. There are no amenities except for a small marina that serves mostly small shallow draft boats and a pier (University Pier) to the north. Docking is free for day visitors.
Don't forget your mosquito repellant, those local mosquitos are big and vicious.
Boca Chita Key
This small and quaint island is located just north of Elliott Key and accessible by boat only. There is a small harbor to accommodate day visitors on small boats, but deeper draft boats can get inside the harbor at higher tides. There is a very nice small lighthouse that is sometimes open to visitors. Dogs are not allowed on the island. Mosquito repellent is a must-bring!
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