Keys to Key Largo

Into The Keys

With island access minus the tourist bustle, Big Pine Key offers the perfect launching point for countless paddling adventures

PHOTO Peter Holcombe

The call of the Florida Keys tempts any paddler. Take storied Key Largo, the first key that gets marquee mentions in songs from the Beach Boys and Bertie Higgins to Sade. Key West, the final key, also calls with its quirky “Conch Culture” and luminaries like Hemingway, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Edison in its history, as well as its festive daily sunset celebrations in Mallory Square.

However, between Key Largo and Key West is Big Pine Key, which might be the perfect key for paddlers. Chalk that up to location; it’s the first key before the greatest clustering of keys and scores of islands (big and small, many uninhabited) that bunch between Big Pine Key and Key West. Simply put, you have the access to those islands without the touristy bustle of Key West. Because those keys constitute a watery warren, maps and navigation devices help launch countless adventures.

PHOTO Aaron Black-Schmidt
Photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons

But Big Pine Key is more than a launching site. It also divvies up its own unique pleasures, such as the 8,542-acre National Key Deer Refuge. Resembling a downsized whitetail, Key deer live sparsely in the Keys, but the majority (about 800 or so), live safely within the refuge. These smaller ponies of the deer family are perennially cute, like Pomeranians, and they’re treasured by Big Pine’s residents, who strictly enforce car speed limits to reduce collisions.

You’ll want to travel slowly anyway as Big Pine Key is a mellow place. Even the critters go slowly, from manatees to sea turtles to lobsters to rays. You’ll see them all, from the perches of kayaks or SUPs, as the water is gin-clear. You can even see shipwrecks too, which are so abundant that they were the Keys’ first industry: local “wreckers” once salvaged all they could from the local water. The submarine topography that sank so many ships is perfect for paddlers, who make like manatees and go slowly, enjoying the sunshine and the sights.

Big Pine Key is on the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail, which runs from Key Largo to Key West. Primitive campsites are found at many of the state parks. For example, Long Key State Park, about halfway between Big Pine Key and Key Largo, has 60 campsites on the Atlantic side with electric, water, and hot showers and another six that are primitive and reserved for paddlers. A closer eastern paddle is Bahia Honda State Park, which also has electric and nonelectric sites on the beach — considered one of the most beautiful in the world, with old growth palms arching over white sand and water so clear it feels more like levitating than floating.

Paddling west is a sizable archipelago of beckoning keys, many with beguiling names like Knockemdown Key and Toptree Hammock Key. Most are undeveloped. And even though your bare feet may feel like they were the first to sink into that warm sand, that’s probably not the case; some of these keys were once inhabited by hermits who lived for the sun and lived off fruit and fishing, men with names like Happy Jack, Paddy Whack, Jolly Whack, Red Jim, and Lame Bill.

Photo by Jackson Berger

Paddle under the arched branches of mangroves that form tropical tunnels. In the spring, you might spot mighty tarpon, prehistoric torpedoes with silver dollar-sized scales. On the Atlantic side, you can explore domed coral patch reefs, and, if you snorkel, you can swim eye to eye with grouper, snapper, snook, and barracuda, as well as brilliantly colored tropical fish.

If you don’t bring a paddling platform, you can rent both kayaks and SUPs from Big Pine Kayak Adventures, which has a fleet of over 150 watercraft, from simple sit-on-tops to sleeker expedition kayaks. If you want to mix up your aquatic fun, begin the day with an SUP yoga class, then kayak, and end the day back on a standup paddleboard.

Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt

“We have a dozen SUPs in our fleet,” says Big Pine Owner Capt. Bill Keogh, “so if anyone wants to change a kayak for a SUP, we’ll flip them into that.”

When it comes to picking the best season to paddle around Big Pine Key, the only weather consideration is the wind in the winter, though Keogh notes that paddlers can always find nice pockets out of the wind, whatever its direction. The side benefit to pushing into deeper windbreaks is more wildlife in the shallow, protected backwaters.

“There are about 12 miles of bays and little islands that are six feet or less deep, says Keogh. “Being shallow, it’s warmer and has the most diverse wildlife and scenery: You’ll see shark, turtle, manatee, and dolphin. You’ll also see everything from the great white heron to bald eagles to ospreys to frigatebirds and all kinds of wading birds.”

Not to mention the Key deer, appearing everywhere from backwater shores to front yards.

If the calm water’s not your thing, Capt. Bill and crew can also put you where the wind’s at your back for the 20 to 30 days a year that it’s blowing. Beyond the potential for long downwind, key-linking runs, don’t forget about the limitless options for overnight itineraries. Just make sure to ask where you can pitch a tent.

“There’s no overnight use on the refuge keys,” Keogh says. “But I do have a privately held island that people are allowed to camp on. There are 20 that are privately held and about six or seven of them have people regularly camping on them. If it’s posted no trespassing, you must respect that. There’s a lot of good public camping too.”

Photo by Jackson Berger

On Big Pine Key, you can camp at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge. There are sites with electricity and rustic sites without. The rustic sites have nearby spigots and both types have spic-and-span bathhouse privileges, with hot showers and flush toilets. Whatever your campsite, dogs are not permitted due to the good chance that a Key deer will past your picnic table. Walk over to the Good Food Conspiracy, where fresh organic soup awaits, plus sandwiches, wraps, and smoothies. If you want your refreshments to bite back, there’s the funky No Name Pub, which provides a cool taste of Conch Culture without the drive to Key West. For seafood so fresh it doesn’t everything but flop on your plate, there’s the casual tiki feels of Keys Cuisine. Capt. Bill also recommends Kiki’s Sandbar, a key away on Little Torch Key.

“It’s got a beach, it’s dog friendly, and there’s a long dock where you can see big fish like tarpon pass beneath your feet. You can really feel what the Keys are all about there.”

By basing at Big Pine Key, you’ll have a week’s worth of options, paddling east or west, on the Atlantic or Gulf side. Want solitude? Beach at one of the undeveloped, pristine adjacent keys. Want some company? Belly up to the bar at No Name Pub. Want to chill at your campsite? The sunshine, wild roosters, and Key deer will be your neighbors. The days won’t blue into each other because you can fish one day, kayak another, and SUP the next. Big Pine Key is the key to scores of keys.

More Info
John Pennekamp Coral Reef Underwater State Park
Florida Bay Outfitters Paddle Sports Center
Out There Key Largo Kayak and Fishing Expeditions
Everglades National Park
Garl’s Coastal Kayaking
Key Lime Cafe
Key Largo Fisheries Backyard
Key Largo Chocolates
Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory

PHOTO Aaron Black-Schmidt