Weekend Backpacker: Miami
Schools of colorful tropical fish flash by under transparent aquamarine waters at the edge of sparkling white beaches. Roseate spoonbills, their brilliant pink plumage afire beneath the setting sun, scour between black mangrove roots in search of tasty mussels. A bright green chameleon fades to brown as it skitters along the crusty bark of a gumbo limbo tree. A tropical paradise? For those who visit Long Key, yes. Once known as"Cayo Vivora" Spanish for Rattlesnake Key this ancient coral reef now houses a lush tropical community of flora found mostly in the Caribbean. Poisonwood and mahogany crowd the forest trails; colorful tree snails cling to the branches of the pigeon-plum. A campground along the Atlantic provides fine beach camping, or you can rough it in the swamps. Wander the nature trails, snorkel in the sea, try your hand at landing a sailfish, or canoe the shallow lagoons. This is a place to lie back, rest, relax a little weekend in heaven.
From Miami: Follow I-96 south to US 1. Use the toll bypass SR 821 to skirt Homestead, then continue south on US 1 into the Keys. Long Key State Recreation Area is at mile marker 67.5. Driving time: Two hours.
If you're up for an inexpensive night in the Keys, you can rough it with the primitive campsites along the Golden Orb Trail for around $3 per person per night. These elevated tent platforms covered, with picnic tables are mock-ups of Seminole Indian chickees, but their swamp-side location guarantees you should lay the insect repellant on thick. A more comfortable base camp is the main beachside campground, which costs about $23 per night for tent campers. Water, restrooms, and showers are provided. Check in at the ranger station upon arrival; call ahead for campsite availability.
At the entrance station, the rangers will provide you with a map showing the three nature trails. The Golden Orb Trail is a boardwalk through dense mangroves, a great meander out to an observation tower on the Atlantic coast. It takes about 40 minutes to walk the trail. On the side of US 1 opposite from the park entrance, the Layton Trail does a 15-minute loop out to an observation point along the Gulf of Mexico, a great spot for bird-watching. The third trail you do by canoe: the Long Key Lakes Canoe Trail, which takes an hour to cover the shallow lagoon tucked behind the spit of beachfront defending the park against the sea.
Bring swimsuits, sunblock, and bug spray you'll need 'em all. If you've got the gear, you can work in some saltwater fishing (a Florida saltwater fishing license is required), do a bit of canoeing or sea kayaking, or try your hand at snorkeling the crystal-clear waters. Canoes can be rented from the park concession for around $4 per hour or $10 per day. Be sure to fit in a side trip to nearby Lignumvitae Key for a bit of wilderness immersion. A virgin tropical forest blankets this 280-acre island a mile offshore of Upper Matecumbe Key, giving you the chance to wander through a dense tropical thicket. More than 133 different types of trees have been cataloged on this island, including mastic, strangler fig, and the endangered lignumvitae. A visitors' center, housed in the circa-1919 Matheson house, gives a glimpse into the unique botany of the island and the history of its human habitation. Tour boats leave the landing at the south end of Upper Matecumbe Key on a regular basis; call (305) 664-9814 for reservations. For more information, check with the rangers at Long Key (305) 664-4815.
Long Key State Park
PO Box 776
Long Key FL 33001
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication