Sometimes an opportunity falls into your lap and you need to take it. Memorial Day weekend was coming up, and we really wanted to go camping somewhere. Most of the state parks we were interested in (read: not in a dry scrub area and having the ability to swim) were booked, and we were starting to get a little worried! At the last minute one of the state parks in the Florida Keys had an opening, and we jumped at it. And after work one Friday, we were Long Key bound!
Being that we had a 6-hour drive after work on Friday, we had no idea what our camping area looked like when we got there. Add to that sea turtle nesting season and a request from the park to use minimal lights at night, and we set up in the near-dark and went to sleep soon thereafter. We woke up to find a view of the ocean and lots of tropical plants and trees. Heaven!
Rob and Olivia took a walk down to the water, wading over the brown stuff in the picture above (washed up sea grasses that give the Keys their own particular smell), while I made coffee and breakfast. Even our cancake syrup was happy to be there!
Teeny tiny horseshoe crab! Don't worry, it wasn't alive when he picked it up....
Who was in our camp?
The people in the site next to us went out snorkeling and brought back several fish, which they let Olivia feel inside their buckets. I didn't get pictures, unfortunately, but now I know what a puffer fish and cowfish look like up close!
Our goal for the morning was to head over to Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park. Or, as the locals say it, Lignum Vie Tea Key. We found a public park, unloaded the 'yaks, and started paddling to this little island a mile offshore.
We realized most of the islands were made up of dense mangrove thickets. Our first kayak trip was a guided tour through mangroves, and we learned that they grow from very humble beginnings.
Pretty soon we rounded the island to find the dock. After leaving the kayaks in a safe spot, we headed up to the house, which is the only building on the island. It was built by a chemist in the early 1900s and used by his son for a salvage operation headquarters after that.
We didn't even make it to the steps of the house when the ranger came out to say hello. I guess when the park is only accessible by boat, you tend to know when people show up! Ranger Dan was such a nice guy. He showed us around the house and answered all of our questions.
The park normally offers a tour at 10am and 2pm into the hammock surrounding the house. We weren't quite there at the right time for a tour, and Dan assured us the mosquitoes were too bad for it to be enjoyable. Instead, he locked up the house and walked us around the estate! I thought that was pretty fabulous, really. He showed us the lignumvitae tree, which has medicinal properties, as well as the poisonwood tree. He explained what gumbo limbo trees were and showed us which plants were safe to eat (and yes, we tried 'em!). We talked for quite awhile and were pleased to make his acquaintance! I explained about this blog and how much we enjoy getting out and enjoying our state parks, and he was really excited to hear it. Ranger Dan is truly an asset to the park service!
The park's namesake, the lignumvitae.
Poisonwood, which you can tell by the black blotches on it. Bad stuff!!
Olivia asked Ranger Dan if she could have a coconut. He was actually going to climb a tree and knock one down for her, but he found this one already fallen.
The house is built like this because it provides a natural air conditioning. They open a trap door in the floor upstairs and the sea breezes flow right through!
We took a walk down to the dock and were surprised at how many schools of fish were in the water. Tarpon, needlefish, sergeants major, lookdowns. Lots and lots of fish!
Pretty soon it was time to begin the paddle back. I wish we could have stayed and talked with Ranger Dan some more. I guess I felt a kinship with both him and the island, and it was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
On the way to the island, we saw a rather large ray gliding through the shallow water. On the return trip....there was a shark! I was much further ahead of Rob and Olivia and saw the shark...just a pup...swimming up ahead of me. Pretty soon it came to check me out! Then it veered off in a different direction, only to repeat the same thing after they caught up with me. It's hard to tell from the pictures I took, but it was a pretty cool experience!
You can kind of see his little dorsal fin on the right side, halfway up.
After lunch and a shower back at camp, we decided to drive down to Key West. I really wanted to visit Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, and several people recommended we watch the sunset at Mallory Square. On the drive down we got to experience the Seven Mile Bridge, and I was also surprised to see several huge iguanas sunning themselves on the side of the road.
Florida State Parks are open until sundown almost every day of the year, right? We pulled up to the gate and the lady was kind of rude, I thought. Despite our having an annual pass to the state parks, we had to pay local tax, which was no big deal. She stamped our book and we drove in to the parking area. Imagine my surprise when we found the fort itself...closed. Hmm.
So, we just walked around outside:
The park ends at the beach and...such is our luck...we stumbled upon a wedding in progress! I think that's our third one at a state park. We gave the occasion a wide berth and walked around and took some photos:
Don't do it! It makes you bitter!!! ;)
Not sure why, but I just love this picture.
We decided to head back to the car and took the nature trail to get there:
Once we got back to the car, we discussed our evening plans. Sunset was going to be beautiful, but Key West was extremely crowded on that holiday Saturday night. We *hate* crowds. Couple that with hunger, disappointment about the fort being closed, and a guaranteed certainty that we would end up arguing about parking or even finding Mallory Square, and we decided to bail. Instead we headed for camp, stopping at Publix for subs and supplies on the way. It was the best decision we made that entire trip!
Sunday dawned to find us ready for the trip home. This little lizard wanted to hitch a ride, but we made him stay put.
While we packed the car, we gave Olivia the camera and let the scenery make an impression on her. Olivia, being a little punk in training, decided to leave an impression on the scenery:
After packing our gear we decided to actually tour Long Key State Park. It is, after all, more than just a campground.
Knickerbean pods (thanks, Ranger Dan!!)
After a brief hike down the Golden Orb Trail and some geocaching, we headed out. First, though, here's something neat. It's a rough-terrain wheelchair for people to use in the park!
We left Long Key, made a quick stop at Bass Pro in Islamorada, and then headed to our final state park of the trip, Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park.
Windley Key is pretty cool. It showcases the coral the Keys are made from. Not just that, but it was home to the quarry owned by Henry Flagler, who created the cross-Florida railway. He's a familiar name to Rob and I; We live not too far from Flagler County and Flagler College, and he had a huge impact on our state. And to create the railroad of his dreams, he used stone from the Keys to build it.
We made one last stop before finally beginning the drive home. It was a little tourist shop where we bought a few souvenirs, but that's not why I'm mentioning it. It had this little sign outside the building, which gave us a good laugh as our trip wound down:
And that was it. We had an awesome time on our own terms. I had been wary of visiting the Keys before, simply because there is so much to do there. So instead of fitting everything in at once, we did a few things that left us feeling...mostly...satisfied. We will most definitely return!