As your kayak moves toward a mangrove tunnel, you paddle softly so you don’t disturb a Hawksbill sea turtle nearby. You float by and continue your journey through the shallow lagoons, looking for brown pelicans.
Connecting with nature by becoming part of it is what makes visiting the Florida Keys such a unique experience. Because these islands are natural habitats for so many native plants and animals—many of them endangered—traveling here means respecting what’s here and leaving the smallest footprint. It turns out that’s also the most fun way to do it.
Whether you’re sailing, swimming, or hiking, here are some of the awesome—and environmentally friendly—adventures to experience in the Keys as you hop from one island to the next.
Key Largo The northernmost and largest island of the Florida Keys, Key Largo is known as the diving capital of the world.
- Swim past coral reefs.Go scuba diving or snorkeling along the only living coral reef in the continental United States at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. America’s first undersea park is filled with diverse wildlife, seagrass beds, mangrove swamps, and unique sights like the Christ of the Abyss underwater statue. Experienced divers can help keep the vibrant coral reef healthy and beautiful by performing nursery work with the Coral Restoration Foundation.
- Paddle alongside manatees. Designated as a World Heritage Site, Everglades National Park is a habitat for rare and endangered species like manatees and the American crocodile. Look for them on a half-day kayak or canoe trip through the Everglades’ less-traveled interior.
- Stay at an eco-resort. From water filling stations to locally sourced design materials, Baker’s Cay Resort features sustainability at the center of its guest experience. Don’t miss the onsite interactive science classes and nature walks that explain The Keys’ fascinating ecosystem.
- Befriend a dolphin. At Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder, you can see dolphins in their natural habitat, take a swim with a dolphin, or shadow a trainer for a day. The only not for profit facility responsible for the rescue of wild and stranded whales and dolphins in The Florida Keys, DPMMR is the primary rescuer of stranded marine mammals in The Keys.
A collection of six islands, Islamorada offers exciting land-based adventures that highlight the area’s wilderness and history.
- Trek into a tropical forest. To better understand the impact of time on nature, wander through a tropical forest on top of an ancient coral reef at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park on tiny Lignumvitae Key. Dense with endangered plants, protected insects, and birds, the virgin forest offers a glimpse at a unique ecosystem covered in more than a thousand lignum vitae trees that bloom with deep blue flowers each spring.
- Grab a pole. Spend a day in the “sport fishing capital of the world,” where backcountry and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered. The area’s shallow grass flats and island covers are the perfect place to go angling for bonefish, tarpon, and sailfish.
- Hit the trail. At Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, follow the self-guided trail and walk across fossilized coral reefs, parts of which were used to build Henry Flager’s Overseas Railroad in the early 1900s.
- Take home a reminder of The Keys’ natural beauty. Visit local artist Michelle Nicole Lowe’s Islamorada gallery to admire colorful watercolors of Florida’s flora and fauna, including pink flamingos, flowering heliconias, and emperor angelfish.
Made up of 13 islands, Marathon boasts many species-specific sanctuaries, making it a haven for nature lovers.
- Slow down for turtles. A working medical facility for injured sea turtles, the Turtle Hospital has a mission of “Rescue, Rehab, Release.” Because it’s a working hospital, you’ll need to join a guided tour, during which you’ll get to feed one of the resident turtles. Head to Sombrero Beach for sea turtle nest watching between April and October
- Kayak through tidal creeks. Paddle slowly through one of the designated “trails” at Curry Hammock State Park to see mangroves as well as lagoons, sandbars, and grassy flats—you can even do it in a clear-bottom kayak. Spot horseshoe crabs, starfish, and dolphins along the way.
- Tiptoe through the trees. Raised just above the water, Crane Point Hammock has just enough soil to support all kinds of plant life, including the area’s famous tropical hardwood trees. Watch for white crowned pigeons, racoons, ibis, and butterflies as you walk the easy, two-mile trail. While you’re there, make sure to stop at the Marathon Wild Bird Center, which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured wild birds.
- Dine on sustainable seafood. Stone crab claws are a local delicacy as well as an eco-friendly eating choice because the claws regenerate after being harvested. Dig in at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries, an open-air fish house overlooking the bay, and Fish Tales Market & Eatery.
You’ll find nature in the wild all along the Lower Keys, a quiet oasis of small islands with shallow grass flats, mangrove islands, and pristine waters.
- Spot a deer. In the thick pine forests of the National Key Deer Refuge, you’ll find the tiny, graceful Key Deer—a subspecies of the better-known North American white-tailed deer. Only found here in the Lower Florida Keys, the endangered Key Deer’s population has recovered from only a few dozen in the 1950s to more than 1,000 today.
- Go birding. Established in 1938, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for America’s largest wading birds, as well as other migratory species—and it’s open for human visitors, too. Accessible only by boat, begin your birdwatching adventure at the Visitor Center at Big Pine Key.
- Hunt for seashells. Slip out of your sandals and dig your toes into the white sand as you walk along the water’s edge at the award-winning beaches at Bahia Honda State Park. The palm-lined coastline offers some of the best beachcombing in the state.
- View ecologically-minded art. Drop by Artists in Paradise Gallery to marvel at Kim Workman’s ethereal gyotaku, a traditional Japanese process that involves pressing rice paper onto a fish covered with ink or paint. Workman takes care to either eat her subjects or use them as bait.
The shallow, watery wilderness surrounding Key West makes this an ecotourism playground for divers and snorkelers.
- Book a boat. As Key West’s first solar-powered, electric charter boat, Honest Eco Tours’ hybrid catamaran is the ideal way to enjoy the environment while also treating it with care. Take your pick from a dolphin watch or snorkel tour or schedule a custom trip. Because of the company’s “no kill” policy, no fishing is allowed.
- Explore an aquatic paradise. Encompassing 208,308 acres of protected waterways, islands, and a hardwood hammock Key West National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt when plume hunting for fashion was decimating migratory bird populations. Accessible only by boat, pick a reef-friendly operator to bring you out for unparalleled snorkeling and diving at the third-largest coral reef in the world.
- Go gardening. The only frost-free natural conservation habitat and botanical garden in the continental United States, The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden features more than plants; it’s also a wildlife refuge and activity center. If you have a green thumb, consider buying one of the rare and endangered native plants propagated by nursery volunteers featured at a monthly sale on the third Saturday of the month. A volunteer will help you choose the right species for your home garden that can feed migratory birds and butterflies.
- Pedal around Key West. On the stable, self-powered Key West Hydrobikes, it’s easy to get around Key West’s waterways without disturbing nature. Watch the island’s famous sunset near Mallory Square, snorkel a 100-year-old wreck, or simply cruise in search of epic wildlife and scenic views.
Learn more about all the magical adventures you can experience in The Florida Keys & Key West. For the latest protocols on health and safety in The Florida Keys, please visit fla-keys.com.