|March is a horrible month, especially in Maryland. Winter has sunk its icy fangs into you. A few tantalizing warm days are sprinkled among rainy windy cloudy skies lowering over a sea of mud. The Chesapeake Bay water temperature is in the high 30's, and the ocean temperature is only slightly better. Getting excited about going out in the kayak is difficult. So when I saw a lonely entry of a cancelled reservation for Bahia Honda State Park in the beginning of March, I pounced upon it. My fingers flew over the keyboard as I entered my information into the Florida State Park reservation system. I pressed enter, waited with growing trepidation, and then....the confirmation came. It was mine. I was going to the Florida Keys! Palm fronds, azure waters, soft tropical breezes..........Ahhhhh!
So enough dreaming. Now that the $36.00 per night camp site was mine, a rather stiff price for a picnic table, a parking space and a shared rest-room, I needed to plan some day trips in the area.
Bahia Honda is one of two state parks in the Keys that allow camping. If you can't get in one of them, then you need to find space at a commercial park catering to fishermen and retirees with their stratolounger RVs. The picture below shows the location of the Florida Keys and the location of the two state parks along the string of islands threaded on route U. S. 1.
Once I had my reservations and some plans, I told my kayak buddies. Fellow Susquehanna Flats Kayak Club members Julio, Steve and Mary decided to join me for a week of my trip by flying into Key West airport. The price of the flight from Miami to Key West was almost the same as the flight from Baltimore to Miami. We saved money by trailering all our kayaks down to the Keys instead of renting cars and boats down there. Most kayaks rented in the Keys are "sit on tops" for short paddling excursions and snorkeling. We prefer longer trips and touring kayaks. But I would have to be the one to take the boats down and back. We borrowed a trailer from Hal at Ultimate Water Sports where the guys give lessons during the summer.
It took two days to drive down the coast. I stopped in Ft. Lauderdale to visit my snowbird folks staying at a boat yard they have frequented for 45 years. There is always something exciting going on along New River, the river flowing through the heart of the city. Multi-million dollar yachts pass up and down the channel on a daily basis. I used the brief stop over to get a water proof chart of the Lower Keys from Bluewater Books & Charts. In this nautically oriented city, you can get anything marine. The next day I took off for the Keys.
This day there was a horrible head-on collision on the road from the mainland to the first of the Florida Keys. Head-ons are common on this road as many impatient people take chances passing slower vehicles on the two lane highway. In spite of the periodic sections of road with a passing lane, some people can't wait. The latest crash was so bad that the road was closed all morning.
The history of the old railroad is quite interesting in itself. Henry Flagler, a multimillionaire from his early partnership with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, built Florida East Coast Railway. He was instrumental in the early development of cities along Florida's east coast, particularly Miami. He owned a number of large hotels on the coast in St. Augustine, Palm Beach and Miami. It was his personal obsession to build a railroad down through the keys to Key West, the Florida Overseas Railroad. He spent 20 million dollars on the technologically complex and advanced project. In the early 1900's, 20 million was a fantastic amount of money. Flagler saw the railroad as the gateway to Latin America. He expected the railroad to be the entry point for goods from all over Central and South America into the burgeoning United States. Many others called it "Flagler's Folly". Finally completed in 1912 just one year before Flagler's death, it never made money and was abandoned after being damaged in the hurricane of 1935. It saved many lives hauling evacuees out of the Keys before that devastating hurricane came ashore. The last train bringing out evacuees was toppled off the tracks by the wind.
I decided that instead of taking the detour around the smash up on the only alternate road to the keys, I would just kill an hour or so and visit the Biscayne National Park. Located on the western and southern shores of Biscayne Bay south of Miami. ( See our 2007 trip to Biscayne National Park ) The park is quite new and preserves the mangroves that have been developed out of existence along most of the rest of the Florida Gold coast. The park includes several small keys on the eastern edge of the Bay, the reefs to the ocean side of the bay and all the turtle grass flats in between. The route to the park is marked by the usual brown signs. Following them carefully through a series of right angle turns brings one to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center in the middle of the park. ( Map )
The road was reopened while I was checking out the Park at Biscayne Bay, so I rolled right on down U.S. 1 onto the Keys. The upper keys are the most developed with lesser development as you progress down the keys until nearing Key West when things pick up again. It took about two hours to drive through the various islands and over the bridges between them to reach Bahia Honda Key and my home for the next week and a half.
There is no admission fee to this park and the great launch ramp is free also. There are kayaks and canoes for rent there. The small visitor center provides a thoughtful look at the ecology and resources of the Biscayne Bay. Excursion boats leave twice daily for snorkeling and ferry service to the outlying keys. A boardwalk along the bay shore provides bird watching opportunities. There are picnic tables under shade trees along the well manicured paths for a pleasant stay near the water's edge.
The state park is the only development on Bahia Honda Key. The park is heavily used by day beach goers who pay $3.50 a head to use the beaches on the east and south sides of the islands. The high day usage and the near year around sell out of the campground make the rangers at this park very protective of the environment. Their Gestapo attitude was apparent from the first moment I arrived. I got hassled more here than any other park I have ever been in. They had rules for everything and cut no slack on any of them.
The park has 3 camping sections. One is over on the bay side of the island near the 6 rental cabins. It is more of an overflow type area with sites backed into the mangroves along a man-made lagoon. The bugs and the smell of rotting seaweed over there made me glad that I was not booked in there. The main camping area is intended primarily for camping rigs and it was full of RVs in size from normal to extra large. The sites are close packed with enough foliage for partial privacy. This area is next to the boat ramp and boat basin. The park concession is adjacent to a large parking area where boat trailers and my kayak trailer were to be parked. Next is the bathing beach. Finally a section of the bridge and the old highway is accessible, taking visitors out over the water. This is a favored spot for watching the sunset. There is also a great view of the beach, the entire island and the blue water between the two bridges.
I found a good launch site at the end of the road providing access to the north end of Big Pine Key. It was guarded by this iguana which I just got a fuzzy picture of before he ran off deeper into the shaded mangroves.
This island is famous for its population of Key Deer, a miniature species of deer. They look just like regular white tail deer, just about a quarter of the size. I saw several as dusk fell. The mosquitos were not out in any profusion, possibly because of the wind. I was prepared with my spray in any case. I returned to camp for dinner and then sat in the moonlight under the overhanging tree swaying in the stiff southeast wind. Sleep was not far off.
Bahia Honda is one of the few islands in the lower keys that is oriented east west. So there was a lee to the north side of the key. I decided to launch and paddle around the north side up to Seven Mile Bridge on the east side of this group of islands. About a mile from the beginning of the bridge is Monkey Key, which I would visit if the wind was not too strong. I launched at the boat ramp in the park and headed out through the boat basin. The water in the channel was calm in the protected lee and there was very little current running. It was easy paddling until I turned the corner and started heading east where the wind found me as it skipped over the low mangroves. With such little fetch and the shallow water, there were no waves to speak of but the constant pressure of the wind made progress difficult.
Turtle grass flats extend from the shore to several hundred yards north of the Bahia Honda Key shoreline. These rich nurseries are the dominant feature of the Lower Keys. They are so shallow at low tide that even the 3" draft of a kayak can not pass over them. Not deep enough to cover a paddle blade, the increased resistance of the bottom creates a pronounced drag on your kayak. However, the numbers of different creatures that depend on these meadows of grass is astounding. I paddled over the shallow area, which had much clearer water than the deeper areas, spotting sea cucumbers, sea slugs, nematodes and darting fish shapes in and on top of the gently swaying branches of the turtle grass.
The bulky mass of the train bridge cut the 20+ knot wind down to make paddling less of a chore. But the wind was funneled through the arches at even greater speed. Paddling behind the bridge was a strange scene of intermittent wind and relative calm. I paddled east along the bridge until I was opposite Monkey Key, then I struck out through the bridge and headed over to the uninhabited isle.
I battled my way up to the end of the island group to the start of parallel spans of the old Flagler Railroad topped by the crumbling remains of the old roadbed and the new concrete pillars of the current road. The old bridge supports built nearly 100 years ago and not maintained for the last 20 years or so were is remarkably good condition. Built to support the much greater weight of a fully loaded train, they were much more substantial than the tall spindly legs of the current roadway.
Monkey Key had little place to land and what was there was being ground constantly by breaking waves. I decided not to land but rather circumnavigate the island and head back to the park on the south side of the islands, riding with the wind and the surf. The roiled waters out in the open were a bright turquoise under the clear skies. The three foot waves would mount over the shallow bars, break and spill over the back of the wave and then diminish as the water deepened once more. They were perfect for surfing and I had a great ride back to the park boat ramp. I could surf in toward the coast, then paddle back out and surf back in as I zig zagged westward.
I got back in plenty of time to clean up my gear and head to Key West to pick up my friends at the airport. We had a great Mahi Mahi fish taco dinner at a restaurant on Duval street in Key West. We returned late that night. In the following days we would take several day trips in the Lower Keys area, but today's 12 mile paddle was a great introduction to the Keys and a good use of an otherwise poor weather day.
Arrival at Bahia Honda and circumnavigation
Day trip to Snipe Key
Rest day playing tourist on Islamorada and Bahia Honda Keys
Day trip to Content Keys
Day trip to Looe Key
1/2 Day trip at Bahia Honda
Day trip to Johnston Key
Day trip to Coupon Bight