Do you like lush, tropical gardens, dazzlingly turquoise seas, vivid coral reefs and magnificent sunsets? Of course you do, unless you’re some kind of deranged hooligan.
Well, the Florida Keys has all that and more. With some of the most beautiful parks in the country, plus tons of beaches, gardens and wildlife, there’s plenty of things to do in the Florida Keys for nature lovers.
When to Visit the Florida Keys
If you enjoy looking like a sweaty goblin, summer is a great time to visit the Florida Keys. It’s stiflingly hot and so humid you literally have to wade through the thick, muggy air as if it were a field of wet cotton. Oof.
Winter is the high season in the Florida Keys because, while the majority of the US is clawing its way through slushy snow, freezing rain and severe vitamin D withdrawal, folks in the Keys are lounging on the beach, basking in the sun and laughing about how awesome life in paradise is. But keep in mind that high season = high prices.
The shoulder seasons in spring and fall are your best chance at combining idyllic weather with reasonable prices. Hurricane season runs from June through November, so if you prefer to avoid any chance of Mother Nature savagely pummeling your vacation, book your hotel or campground for spring.
1. Ride the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
The Overseas Highway is the main road through the Florida Keys, spanning 113 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The Overseas Heritage Trail is a mostly paved trail that runs parallel to the highway. Walkers, joggers, bikers and skateboarders enjoy incredible views from the trail. It’s one of the top things to do in the Florida Keys.
If you’re a bad ass, you can bike the whole trail in a couple of days like this guy did for his 59th birthday.
2. Visit Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge protects the breeding grounds of the American Crocodile, once an endangered species, now upgraded to a threatened species. High five!
Although most of Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the general public, anyone can explore the native pollinator garden. The garden path takes you through over 50 types of native plants, and you’ll likely see tons of butterflies and other pollinators.
Pro tip: If you really want to see the crocs, volunteer at the refuge. Volunteers do everything from surveying crocodile nests to building woodrat nests.
3. Explore Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
Ever wondered what one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock looks like? If not, what are you doing with your life? Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park will show you that and more.
Over six miles of mostly paved trails take you through an area that protects more than 80 species of plants and animals, including mahogany mistletoe (my new stripper name) and the American crocodile. Guided tours are available.
4. Go Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park
Whether you’re looking for outdoorsy adventures on land or in the sea, John Pennekamp has some of the coolest things to do in the Florida Keys. On land there are several hiking trails that wind through the tropical hammocks. Plus, there are two beaches and a visitor center with awesome aquariums filled with marine life.
But the best adventures are in the water. Snorkel around the Spanish shipwreck just 100 feet off Cannon Beach. Rent a kayak and explore the mangroves and wildlife. Take a glass-bottom boat tour for a close-up view of the tropical marine life. Or take a snorkeling excursion out to the Christ of the Abyss statue.
5. Take a Ride on The African Queen
Way back in 1951, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn starred in a movie called The African Queen. Hepburn played a straight-laced missionary who convinced Bogart, a gruff riverboat captain, to attack a German gunboat. As missionaries are known to do. The two start out as foes, but eventually fall in love because getting shot at while nearly drowning is super romantic.
Spoiler alert: They get captured by the Germans and sentenced to death. But Bogart convinces the German captain to marry them before executing them. So they quickly get married, and just as they’re about to get executed, a bomb goes off, sinking the ship. Then the newlywed couple happily swims away into the sunset.
You can relive their amazing adventure by going for a sunset cruise on The African Queen herself – the same boat they used in the movie. It’s docked in Key Largo and offers daily cruises. Probably with a lot fewer explosions though.
6. Visit the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center
This non-profit conservation organization rescues and rehabilitates wild birds that have been injured. Most birds are released back to the wild, but over 100 non-releasable birds live permanently at the center. The 5-acre bird rehab center is home to hawks, owls, herons, pelicans and more.
7. Wander Through Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler (John D. Rockefeller’s BFF) financed the construction of the Overseas Railroad, which was designed to link Key West to mainland Florida. He created several quarries in the Keys to help build the railroad. Windley Key is one of them.
After the railroad’s completion, the quarry was used to produce a decorative building stone called Keystone.
Today visitors can view ancient coral from the edge of the quarry and learn about its history while taking a gander at the original quarry machinery. The park has picnic tables and several short trails that wind through the tropical hardwood hammock.
8. Feed the Fish at Robbie’s Marina
Robbie’s is famous for their daily tarpon feeding – it’s one of the hottest things to do in the Florida Keys. The school of over 100 fish gathers by the marina, waiting for visitors to feed them. You can buy a bucket of bait fish and watch the water churn as pelicans swoop in to try and steal a snack.
The daily event started in the 1970s when Robbie noticed an injured tarpon floundering near the dock. He rescued the fish, placed it in a shrimp tank and called a doctor to take a look at the gash on the side of its jaw. The doctor stitched up the wound, and “Scarface” became what’s most likely the first tarpon to ever receive stitches.
Six months later he was well enough to be released back into the sea. Scarface continued to visit the docks, often bringing friends. More and more fish joined over the years, and now there are over 100 that visit each day.
Robbie’s also has a restaurant, bar and open air artists market. They offer eco-tours, and you can rent jet skis, boats, paddleboards and more from the marina. One of the most popular things to do is to rent a kayak and paddle over to Indian Key, an abandoned island that was once a bustling town. The paddle takes about 30 minutes, and you’re likely to spot dolphins, manatees, starfish and more along the way.
9. Visit Long Key State Park
Long Key was once a luxury destination known as Long Key Fishing Camp, which was frequented by celebrities and presidents, including Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. The fanfare was short-lived, as it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935.
Now it’s a peaceful oasis with a stunning beach, two nature trails, kayak rentals and some of the best star gazing in the country (join the Florida Keys Astronomy Club at the park on Tuesday nights). It’s also one of the best bird-watching sites in the Keys.
10. Get Swept Away at Curry Hammock State Park
Curry Hammock is one of the most popular state parks in the Keys for nature lovers. It’s the largest section of undeveloped land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key, making it one of the best spots in the Keys to explore tropical hammocks, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, and stunning beaches.
Rent a kayak and explore the coastline, wander along the beach or the 1.5 mile nature trail, swim in the clear, blue waters and wrap it all up by sleeping under the stars in the oceanfront campground. Reserve a spot early because the campground fills up quickly.
11. Sing Along at Sunset Park
This small oceanfront park is home to one of the coolest traditions in the Keys – the sunset sing-a-long. Every evening at sunset, locals gather at Sunset Park to watch the sunset, sing a song and give thanks for another beautiful day. Visitors are welcome to join in the singing and merriment.
The view is unmatched, and there’s a small pier where you can walk out over the turquoise waters. Although you can dip your toes in the water, there’s no swimming allowed. But it’s a great spot to relax and get some great shots of those majestic Florida Keys sunsets.
12. Explore Crane Point Museum & Nature Center
Crane Point is a non-profit with a ton of stuff to explore. The Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys contains exhibits covering everything from pirates and Spanish explorers to butterflies and sea turtles. The Florida Keys Children’s Museum has multiple touch tanks where kids (and adults) can get their hands on native fish and other marine life. The George Adderley House is a historic house museum built with Tabby, a concrete-like substance made from burned shells and sand. The Marathon Wild Bird Center hosts education programs, research projects and an outdoor flight cage where you can view recovering birds. And finally, the nature trails cover a sunset boardwalk, hammock loop, butterfly meadow and a breathtaking view of the Florida Bay.
13. Save the Turtles With the Turtle Hospital
This non-profit rehabs injured sea turtles and has successfully released over 1500 of them back into the wild. Guided tours allow you to view the turtle rehab tanks and feed the permanent turtle residents who can’t be released back into their natural habitat.
The Turtle Hospital also does public turtle releases periodically at local beaches and other areas in the Keys. Check their website for public release dates.
14. Take the Ferry to Pigeon Key
During the heyday of construction on the Overseas Railroad, up to 400 workers at a time lived on tiny Pigeon Key. When the railroad was completed, the island was abandoned.
Now it’s a historic site only accessible via ferry or private boat. Explore the tiny museum and historic district, and bring your snorkel gear to spot tropical fish near the dock.
15. Beach It Up at Bahia Honda State Park
Named for the deep bay it sits on, Bahia Honda had the #1 beach in the country in 1992 according to Dr. Beach. Even though that was nearly 30 years ago (how?!!), the 2.5-mile white sand beach is still sublime.
The park also has a nature trail, paved multi-use path, picnic tables and a campground. You can view displays of local sea life in the Sand and Sea Nature Center, or rent a kayak or snorkeling gear from the park to explore on your own.
16. Visit the National Key Deer Refuge
Key Deer are an endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer that live in the Florida Keys. There are only about 800 left, most of which live in the 8,500-acre Key Deer Refuge.
The refuge has two nature trails, plus the Blue Hole Observation Platform, which overlooks – what else – the Blue Hole. The hole is actually an abandoned rock quarry formerly used to build the Overseas Railroad. It’s now filled with fresh water, making it the perfect habitat for birds, alligators, turtles, iguanas and of course, the Key Deer.
17. Check Out Grimal Grove
Adolf Grimal moved to Big Pine Key in the 1950s and basically became a mad scientist gardener. He bought a couple of acres and proceeded to pour 40 raised concrete beds, import tons of soil, carve reservoirs from solid rock and create an insane irrigation system of underground piping, wells and pools. All with the goal of creating a unique tropical fruit grove.
When Grimal died in 1997, the property was abandoned and soon overgrown with invasive plants. 15 years later another mad scientist gardener named Patrick Garvey discovered the land and invested all his time and money into restoring it. Grimal Grove is now a successful community space for agriculture, education and events.
18. See the Tree Champions at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden
Did you know there’s a legit National Champion Tree competition? It’s run by American Forests, with winners named Champions and second place trees labeled Challengers. Champions and Challengers are judged by height, trunk circumference, crown spread and condition.
The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden has FOUR Champion Trees and THREE Challenger Trees. If that’s not impressive enough, it’s also the only frost-free botanical garden in the continental U.S. AND it’s a major pit stop for migratory birds.
They have a beautiful courtyard filled with tropical plants as well as a waterfall with sunning turtles. There’s also a one-acre butterfly garden, a secret pond and a verdant canopy of tropical trees.
19. Spot Hundreds of Birds at the Key West Wildlife Center
Located in the 7-acre Indigenous Park, the Key West Wildlife Center is a small, non-profit wildlife rescue facility. They rehabilitate over 1,400 birds per year, many of which can be spotted in the park. The nature trail winds along a pond and two aviaries, where you’re likely to see migratory raptors, warblers and songbirds.
20. Zen Out at the Key West Garden Club
Although it’s just a few blocks from rowdy Duval Street and smack in the middle of all the action at Higgs Beach, the Key West Garden Club is its own tranquil world. Brick paths wind through tropical courtyards overflowing with colorful flowers and trees. There’s also a peaceful little butterfly garden, and all of it overlooks the turquoise sea.
21. Warm Up at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Did you know that butterflies can only fly if their temperature is over 81 degrees? The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory‘s climate-controlled greenhouse keeps it warm enough for flight, but cool enough to keep you from roasting. There are over 50 different species of butterflies in the gardens, plus turtles, flamingos and other birds.
Tip: Visit in the morning when it’s less crowded.
22. Explore the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens Key West
John James Audubon was one of the best ornithologists (bird scientists) that ever lived. Because of that, a bunch of stuff was named after him, including the historic Audubon House, which contains 28 first edition Audubon bird paintings.
The lush gardens are filled with rare tropical palms, bromeliads, crotons and over 200 types of orchids. There’s also an herb garden and a koi pond where you’ll often see herons fishing.
23. Swim and Snorkel at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Spend the day swimming and snorkeling on Key West’s best beach. Fort Zach‘s wide, sandy beach is located at the southern end of the park, with a multitude of coral and tropical fish just offshore. You can rent snorkeling gear right in the park, or bring a kayak to explore the water from above. The park also has nature trails and is part of The Great Florida Birding Trail.
24. Visit the Edge of the World at Dry Tortugas National Park
About 70 miles off the tip of Key West, lies this ridiculous fairy tale of a park. The Dry Tortugas fort looks like a castle soaring over incredibly turquoise waters that extend as far as the eye can see. One of the top snorkeling and scuba diving locations in the world, the waters are brimming with tropical fish, dolphins, sea turtles and even sharks.
You can stay at the park overnight if you don’t mind a lack of amenities. There’s no food, water or shelter available at the park. Just composting toilets and a sandy spot for you to pitch a tent. The mind-blowing sunsets and epic stargazing more than make up for it though. It’s truly one of the best things to do in the Florida Keys.