Big Pine & Lower Keys

Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys - from the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at MM 40, to Stock Island at MM 5 - preserves vast natural wonders found here like earthy mangrove forests, wetlands and quiet tropical breezes earning the title Natural Keys.

The islands of the Lower Keys signify homey resorts dotted with luxurious privates islands and healthful getaways, family-oriented neighborhoods and easy access to the waters of the backcountry. Interesting names like Summerland Key, Big Torch and Little Torch Keys, Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key and Big Coppitt Key dot US1. The uninhabited Saddlebunch Keys are a network of sandy lagoons and mangrove islands that make the jaunt a memorable one, especially at sunset.

Big Pine Key is noted for the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, a spectacular shallow water snorkel and dive experience. A national refuge for miniature Key deer, tropical forests, migratory birds and even a few alligators are what make this island appealing to eco-tourists. Popular nature tours by kayak offer unforgettable opportunities to view the unique flora and fauna.

With breathtaking views from Bahia Honda Bridge, one of the Keys' most photographed sites and sunset spots, visitors can see the sheer sweep of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Bahia Honda State Park features campgrounds and one of the top 5 beaches in the United States as designated by several travel magazines, making it easy to appreciate what are recognized as "America's Caribbean Islands."

A little history lesson ...

 Native American Indians were the original inhabitants of the Keys, notably the Calusa and Tequesta, when  Florida was discovered by the Spanish in the 1500's. In 1513,  Ponce De Leon named the Keys the Martires (the martyrs). Experts have speculated there was an Indian village named Cuchiyaga or "martyred place" during this early time. Memoirs, dated around the middle 1500's from a ship-wrecked Spaniard who lived in the Keys amongst the Indians for 20 years, reported that there were deer, raccoons, manatees and bears. Their diet consisted of fish, turtle, snail, lobster, manatee and raccoon. Little is known or written about the Keys until the 1800's as the Indian tribes moved or died out and the lack of bridges precluded any land settlement.

The Lower Keys were sparsely settled in the early to mid 1800's, riddled with mosquitoes yet lacking in industry. Small lower Keys like No Name and Little Pine had substantial settlements. Many brave settlers survived in the Lower Keys by producing charcoal, farming, fishing and sponging.

With the fulfilled lifelong dream of Henry Flagler, the Overseas Railroad, a successful Lower Keys settlement could be realized. This link with the mainland was the culmination of seven years of extremely hard work. More than 500 railroad workers, as well as most of Flagler's fortune, were claimed by this project. The train ran from its completion in 1912 until 1935 when the great Labor Day hurricane destroyed it. The railroad left many remnants of its existence in the Lower Keys. Water towers, sumps, sinkholes and sections of the railway bridges are still evident. Destruction to the railway was so great, the railway was sold to the State of Florida and they built the Overseas Highway. This highway incorporated a ferry system as well. During this time in Keys history, travel time from Key Largo to Key West could take over seven hours for the 118 mile stretch.

Today, the Overseas Highway is not only one of Florida's Scenic Byways, it is now an All-American Road, receiving this elite designation in 2009. The Keys highway is the only All-American Road in Florida. It's the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the U.S. Congress in 1991.

Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious title.

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