Hot Spots for You and Your Dog in the Florida Keys
Picture of a dog
Thanks to an iguana named Forrest, dogs may swim to their hearts' content at the county-run beaches that dot this laid-back string of islands made famous by onetime resident Jimmy Buffett (who, incidentally, once wrote a song about a dog named Spooner). Yes, leashed landlubbers are permitted to sniff every inch of grass at county parks. And dogs may actually DO the dog paddle—a swim stroke known only in theory in Florida's many other pooh-pooing communities. (More on Forrest the iguana later.)

All this only makes the Keys, one of Florida's most dog-friendly tourist destinations, that much more worth barking about.

Where else but Key West can dogs get a close-up view of sharks at an aquarium and climb to the top of a century-old lighthouse? Like any two-legged tourist, a dog can take in a sunset and get his picture taken by the buoy that mark's the nation's southernmost spot (watch the leg-lifts, though). Small dogs may sleep in a mansion built by Florida's first millionaire, while others are welcome at quaint bed-and-breakfasts. Dogs may sniff the grounds of President Harry Truman's vacation home, and not only watch—but join—a wacky parade. Handheld dogs may tour the home of cat lover Ernest Hemingway, and all dogs can visit a never-completed fort. If they could read, dogs might chuckle at the humorous epitaphs on grave markers in the city cemetery, such as: " I Told You I Was Sick." For every Florida town whose residents complain about dogs, the Keys can serve as a poster pup for the other side of the argument. Dogs haven't hurt the tourism industry here: five million people visit annually.

Perhaps dogs have a natural affinity for Key West because of its nickname—Bone Island. When Spanish explorers discovered the two-by-five-mile island, it was littered with the bleached bones of dead American Indians, leading them to christen it Cayo Hueso, or "Island of Bones." The British saw Cayo Hueso on maps and mispronounced the name, calling it Key West. Today, newshounds can read the Bone Island Sun, a local publication.

There are still a few parts of Key West where dogs run freely in the streets, chasing chickens that wander around scratching for food. Dogs who become well-known in neighborhoods such as Bahama Village can rely on certain friendly locals and restaurant workers for handouts. This isn't to say that dogs have a carte blanche existence throughout the Keys or even Key West. But it seems more beaches are open to dogs here than anywhere in South Florida.

Dogs owe their new "leash" on life on the beach to an iguana. As Monroe County commissioner Keith Douglass tells it, he was leafing through a stack of agenda papers that was taller than a box of Milk Bones when he stumbled upon a proposed law change that would ban domestic animals from beaches, thanks to complaints about animals running loose. Then the wrinkled green face of Forrest came to mind. He thought: "You mean to tell me that my daughter can't take her little iguana on its little harness?"

He doggedly sniffed out reasons to defeat the proposed change and actually open beaches to dogs. Laws requiring people to clean up after their pets were already on the books, he reasoned. And many beaches had gone to the dogs anyway, according to the public works director. Doggone it, Douglass thought, while we're at it let's open county parks to pets, too. Commissioners agreed after an exchange that was far more congenial than a dogfight. That was in 1995. In 1996, some parks still carried the No Dogs signs. But we were assured, after our inquiry, that new steps would be taken to remove them.

"So the Keys are animal-friendly," Douglass says. " To me, it's the right way to do it."

Here are three hot spots for you and your dog strung out along the Keys!

The Lower Keys: Boca Chica Beach

Time to swim! Or hike! One of those places that only locals know about and all dogs dream about, this hound haven is a long sandy beach where dogs can swim in shallow, warm water or romp in the sand and roll in turtle grass (a form of sea grass). The county licenses it from the U.S. Navy, which has a training base for fighter pilots on Boca Chica called the Naval Air Station Key West. The public can use the mile-long beach, but it isn't set up like a park. So don't expect amenities such as fresh water or clearly defined nature trails.

You CAN expect to share the fairly narrow beach with a half-dozen local dogs and their people on a Saturday morning. One guy seen tossing a tennis ball out to sea was immediately surrounded by four dogs eager to chase it—even though the county technically has a leash law. Minnie Junkanoo, a brindled brown and black Labrador retriever/greyhound, loves the place. Her strategy: She rolls on her back on the beach-long mound of seaweed near the water. Later, she rolls vigorously in the sand alongside the road. For two or three hours, she dashes around like a delighted lunatic, racing up and down the beach with other excited dogs who are eager to romp. She grows so tired that she sleeps in the car on the way back to Key West.

The water is shallow and the bottom is sandy once you get beyond some rocks near the shore. It's legal to fish from the shore without a license. Landlubbing pooches will appreciate a walk on a two-mile-long barricaded road near the beach. On the inland side of the road, you'll see wetlands. On the other side is a shady stand of hardwoods along the beach.

The beach is on Old Boca Chica Road at Mile Marker 10.8, about 11 miles from Key West. The road officially is County Road 941, but locals know it as the old U.S. 1 from the 1920s. Turn right at the Circle K convenience store if you're heading away from Key West. (305) 292-4560.

The Middle Keys: Coco Plum Beach

Locals plunge into the Atlantic Ocean at this beach—and your dog can, too, since the ban on dogs at county-owned parks and beaches was lifted in 1995. Dogs can dream about the future along with government planners, who hope to restore this beach someday and add a nature trail, a boardwalk, and parking spaces. That doesn't stop folks from swimming here in the meantime. Keep your dog leashed, at least when she's out of the water.

From U.S. 1, turn south on Coco Plum Drive near Mile Marker 54. The beach is on the south side of Coco Plum Drive. (305) 292-4560.

The Upper Keys: Ann's Beach

Locals take their dogs on long walks along this long stretch of beach. What makes the place so attractive is that dogs don't have to sink their paws into a mucky tidal pool but instead are free to romp on hard sand. You'll be certain to share this beach with other dogs, so leave combative pooches at home. Fill a water bowl for your gentle dog at the restrooms.

The beach is just south of Caloosa Cove Marina, which is at Mile Marker 73.8 in Lower Matecumbe. (305) 292-4560.

© Article copyright Avalon Travel Publishing . All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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