The Big Pine Key region is often referred to as the “Eco-Destination” of the Florida Keys. Spend a few days exploring the turquoise waters and untouched mangroves of the beautiful Lower Keys, the least developed area of the Florida Keys.
Whether you relax on the beach, kayak the mangroves or snorkel Looe Key Reef, there’s something for everyone on Big Pine and in the Lower Keys.
Table of Contents
Itinerary for Big Pine and the Lower Keys
This is our recommended itinerary for a 2-day visit to Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys region (located between Mile Markers 40 and 5).
- Snorkel on the Looe Key Reef which teems with marine life.
- Explore the mangroves on a backcountry kayak adventure.
- Hike the trails and try to get a photo of the elusive Key Deer at the National Key Deer Refuge.
- Relax on the beaches of Bahia Honda State Park and walk the trail to the Old Bahia Honda Bridge.
Map of Big Pine Key and Lower Keys Attractions
Looe Key Snorkeling
The Looe Key Reef, part of the only coral reef in the continental United States, is rated as one of the best snorkeling and diving sites in North America. Enjoy its diverse marine species including over 150 species of fish alone. The reef is very popular with divers of all experience levels and is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The best way to get to Looe Key Reef is to book a charter. We recommend Captain Hook’s Big Pine Key 4-hour tour. Captain Hook’s is a Blue Star-recognized operator.
The Blue Star program was created by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to reduce the impact we are having on the ecosystems in the Florida Keys. Blue Star-recognized tour operators are committed to responsible tourism and diving and fishing practices, which protect these delicate ecosystems.
During a 4-hour tour, guests can either dive or snorkel. All equipment is provided. I chose the snorkeling option.
At Looe Key Reef, our captain quickly found a place to moor, so there was plenty of time to explore this underwater paradise. I saw colorful coral and floated among schools of sergeant majors and parrotfish. There were also several barracudas. A nurse shark even made an appearance.
Captain Hook’s crew was great; friendly, knowledgeable and very helpful with all guests, regardless of skill level. They stressed the importance of responsible boating, snorkeling and diving practices and to respect safe interactions between us, the resident aquatic life and their habitats.
For more information and to book your tour with Captain Hook’s, see the Captain Hook’s Big Pine Key website. (Note: Captain Hook’s also has locations in Marathon and Key West.)
Another option for snorkeling at Looe Key Reef is with Bahia Honda State Park’s Concessionaire, who offer a similar tour.
Lower Keys Kayaking
Kayaking is the perfect way to explore the mangroves and unspoiled natural areas up close.
We enjoyed a kayak group tour. guided by Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures. Bill is a naturalist who has lived in the area and paddled these waters for many years.
We paddled from Big Pine Key’s northeast side, across Bogie Channel to No Name Key and into the wilderness of its northern mangroves. During our trip, Bill pointed out the marine and animal life in these areas. We saw several fish in the shallow lagoons and were lucky enough to see another nurse shark. In the mangroves, he showed us a tree crab that lives only in the dense mangrove forest.
Navigating through the narrow waterways of the mangroves was a lot of fun and quite challenging. The thick, low canopy of branches meant we rarely used our paddles. The best option was to grab the branches of the mangroves and pull the kayak along to move through.
We highly recommend booking a tour to explore this untouched wilderness and learn about the resident wildlife. To tour with Bill, visit the Big Pine Kayak Adventures website for more details.
National Key Deer Refuge
The National Key Deer Refuge is a patchwork of tracts of land (9200 acres) and water. The refuge was established in 1957 to preserve the endangered Key deer and other wildlife resources. The refuge is on 25 islands in the Lower Keys with the largest tract on Big Pine Key. There are no fences around the refuge. All species roam freely.
Start at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges’ Nature Center on Big Pine Key. Learn about the history, behavior, and significance of the Key deer, a subspecies of white-tailed deer, which is only found in the Lower Florida Keys. It is estimated that the population is currently about 800 Key deer. They are best seen on Big Pine Key and neighboring No Name Key at dawn or dusk. The refuge is also home to more than 20 threatened plant and animal species, such as the marsh rabbit.
The center also has exhibits about the other Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs): Crocodile Lake NWR (in Key Largo), Great White Heron NWR and the Key West NWR (in waters west of the Lower Keys and Key West).
The easiest way to explore the Key Deer Refuge is to travel north, from the visitor center, on Key Deer Boulevard past Big Pine Street.
We made a quick stop at the Blue Hole, a former limestone quarry, now a freshwater lake. There is a short, shaded, paved trail from the paved parking lot to the observation platform. A dirt trail extends a bit further around the lake. Various trees and plants are identified along the trail. An array of wildlife can be seen including the occasional American alligator. We didn’t see any alligators on our visit but the shady area around the Blue Hole was a pleasant stop on a hot day.
About ¼ mile further north, we hiked both the Fred C. Mannillo Trail and Jack C. Watson Trail. Both trail surfaces are hard, crushed limestone. These trails are in full sun so a summer hike is best done early in the morning or nearer dusk. They are open daily from ½ hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset.
The Mannillo Trail is a short, out-and-back, trail ending at a platform within a freshwater wetland. The distance to the platform is about 800 feet. There are benches and educational boards along the way.
The Watson Trail is a loop measuring about 2/3 mile. This trail may have water-covered sections during the rainy season.
With help from the trail-side signs, we were able to identify several species of birds as we walked, including a bald eagle and a heron.
Our visit was on a particularly hot day and we didn’t see any deer along the trails. Later, near dusk on the way out of the area, we did spot a Key deer!
There are other trails within the refuge on No Name Key and both Upper and Lower Sugarloaf Keys. They are essentially along fire roads with the exception of the paved, out-and-back, 1.5-mile long Upper Sugarloaf Key Trail at the end of Crane Boulevard on Upper Sugarloaf Key.
For more information, including directions to the trailheads, see the National Key Deer Refuge website.
Bahia Honda State Park
For beach lovers, Bahia Honda State Park is the best place to go. It’s also good for a close-up look at the Old Bahia Honda Bridge.
The Keys have few natural sand beaches, but Bahia Honda has 3! Most day visitors swim in the turquoise waters of Calusa Beach and Loggerhead Beach. For an option with fewer people, head east along the park road to Sandspur Beach, a beautiful, long, white-sand beach.
Snorkeling in the park’s clear waters is a popular activity. Chartered snorkeling tours to the Looe Key Reef are also available. See the Bahia Honda State Park Concessionaire website.
Kayak the calm, clear waters beside the park’s mangroves and along the shallow, sandy flats on the ocean side of the park to see wading birds and even sea turtles. Rental kayaks and paddle boards are available from the concessionaire.
With access to both Florida Bay on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Bahia Honda is popular with boaters. There are two boat ramps in the main marina and 19 boat slips are available for overnight rental.
Walk up the Old Bahia Honda Bridge trail which starts just to the east of the Calusa Beach parking lot. This bridge, over the Big Spanish Channel, was built for Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway. When the railway was abandoned after a disastrous hurricane in 1935, it was converted to a road bridge becoming part of the first highway to Key West. The bridge’s structure was too narrow for vehicles so the highway was built on top of the spans. The top of the bridge was the highest point in the Keys and was above its deepest channel (+25 feet). There are many stories about the unique and often terrifying ride over the bridge.
The old bridge was closed to traffic when the new Bahia Honda Bridge was opened in the early 1970’s. Without constant, continual maintenance, the bridge’s condition deteriorated. In 1984, the bridge was unsafe so several spans were removed for the safety of both pedestrians on the bridge and boat traffic under it. The park service restored the eastern ramp and adjoining 2 spans over the water for a pedestrian lookout.
Unfortunately, the lookout section over the water is now closed for safety reasons. It’s still a pleasant walk up the bridge.
The Sand and Sea Nature Center has exhibits about the local bird species, native plants and animals including the endangered Key deer.
From the nature center, follow the sidewalk to the stairs and walk under the old bridge for a unique perspective. See the butterfly habitat created by the park to provide butterflies with food, water and shelter which are essential for their survival.
For more information, see the Bahia Honda State Park website.
Big Pine Key Accommodations
Looking for accommodations in the Big Pine Key area? There are a great range of places to stay, from campgrounds to hotels.
We stayed at Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina. We don’t own a trailer or RV but Sunshine Key has “tiny homes” available. This was perfect for our needs (and their tiny homes aren’t really that tiny).
With a swimming pool, basketball and tennis/pickleball courts, children’s playground and more, there’s lots to do. A large marina is part of the complex. Kayak and paddle board rental is also available. We walked out to the fishing pier and spotted a manatee just as the sun was setting. So beautiful!
For other Big Pine Key resorts or hotels, check out these great options:
Florida Keys Road Trip
The Big Pine Key area is just one of the many great locations in the Florida Keys. Be sure to check out our detailed article, Florida Keys Road Trip, to discover many more places to visit on a one-week journey through the Keys.
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Thanks to Big Pine and the Lower Keys for hosting portions of our stay.