This post was written by Nicole Edwards, a solo-sailing freelance writer for BMTM.
Big Pine Key reminded me of the Bahamas, at least what little I remember from my childhood there. My heart throbbed as I biked through the peaceful island, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. I enjoyed coasting along the back roads, sighting deer, and then taking a short trip to stunning Bahia Honda State Park via the Overseas Highway.
Big Pine will never make the news as the most touristy island in the country, as it simply surpasses all others when it comes to that “true keys” feel. Here’s how you can experience it, too:
Things to Know Before You Go
Big Pine Key (which you can reach via Flixbus) is a haven for tropical wildlife and nature. The island is about ten square miles, and most of the land is devoted to protecting the endangered key deer that live here.
If you love biking, then Big Pine Key could very well be a good destination. With tens of miles of safe paths, you can easily explore the quiet back roads that go into the heart of Key deer country.
Not to mention, surrounding keys, like Bahia Honda, are accessible via the Overseas Highway, which also has a designated bike path. If you are not a biker, then a car is the best way to explore.
If you visit Big Pine, please be aware that the deer and alligators are very used to humans and will not be disturbed by your presence. Regardless, you cannot feed or touch the wildlife.
Things to Do in Big Pine Key
1. National Key Deer Refuge
Almost the entire island of Big Pine (and also nearby No Name) is devoted to the National Key Deer Refuge, which is accessible via Key Deer Boulevard. Simply ride down that road and look for deer.
There is also a visitors center off of US1. When I went inside, they told me the best time to see deer is after 4pm, when the animals come out to feed.
The Key deer, the smallest species of North American deer, are found nowhere else in the world. Their dwindling population is protected by the Endangered Species Act.
I saw two on my bike ride. One male barely even looked at me, choosing instead to meander across the road while cars slowed down for him to pass. They are so little that I thought they were babies, but they were fully grown!
2. Blue Hole
Blue Hole is the largest body of freshwater in all of the Florida Keys, but it’s actually quite small. It was a rock quarry in the early 1900s, during the construction of the Henry Flagler Overseas Railroad, which was used to bring supplies to Fort Jefferson in Key West. It now serves as a home to iguanas, Key deer, birds, and two alligators (I was fortunate enough to see both).
There is a small parking lot off the side of the road and then a trail that leads to an overlook. The trail then continues on past the overlook and ends in front of a natural clearing by the lake.
You really need to stay on the trail the entire time, because there are poisonwood trees (with a calico-looking bark) in the forest. I hung my GorillaPod tripod in a tree that must have been poisonwood (which is ten times as strong as poison ivy), because I ended up with a rash so bad that I had to get a steroid injection at the ER.
3. Jack C. Watson Nature Trail
Tucked back in the National Key Deer Refuge is a short, one-mile nature loop that leads you through a forest of slash pine trees. It is completely flat, which makes for an easy walk, but it does have very little shade, so bring a hat. The trail is located just past Blue Hole and is a nice break from the busier Overseas Highway. Information placards line the walkway and benches are scattered throughout. The parking lot is small and set off from the road.
4. Artists in Paradise Gallery
If you like art, definitely check out this co-op art gallery, which features works by almost 40 members. It first opened in 1994, when a small group of friends showcased their artwork in an empty store. The gallery offers classes, weekly receptions during the busy season, and visiting artists. The focus is on fine art in acrylic, oil, and watercolor, plus pottery, sculpture, weaving, and jewelry.
5. Historic Bridge
If you do nothing else around Big Pine, you must at least see this historic railroad bridge. You can either view one end from Calusa Beach in Bahia Honda National Park, or do what I did…
Just before you get to Bahia Honda (coming from Big Pine), you’ll see an enormous railroad bridge. Before you continue along the Overseas Highway that runs parallel to it, look for a small road that ducks off to the right. This road ends in an unpaved lot, and when I was there, nobody else was! I had the whole place to myself to take in the views of the new and the old construction that carries so much historical significance and supports the economy today.
When Henry Flagler visited the Florida Keys in 1878, he had a vision of paradise and therefore funded construction of the entire railroad linking the islands, which began in 1904 and includes a total of 23 bridges. This bridge was completed in 1912, but it is unique in the entire railroad because of the deep water it spans. It had to be built with steel trusses for extra stability. When it was retired, part of the bridge was removed to allow boats to pass through.
6. Overseas Highway
The Overseas Highway spans all of the Florida Keys, connecting one to the other like keys on a chain. Big Pine has some of the most beautiful stretches of Overseas Highway, because of the historic bridge and wide-open water near Bahia Honda.
The shoulder is wide enough to safely bike, and the bridges are not terribly steep. Because of all the pavement however, it does get incredibly hot. I had to stop at a gas station to buy a gallon of water, because I didn’t bring enough in my water bottle.
7. Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park is located just a few keys north of Big Pine. It’s open from 8am to sunset and costs $2.50 per pedestrian or cyclist and $8.00 per vehicle. Once you get past the gate, you come face-to-face with the Atlantic Ocean and then have the option of turning left or right. Most of the park’s amenities are to the right: a convenience store, a small marina, cabins, campsites, a trail to the old bridge, and beaches. Sandspur Beach is the only attraction that is to the left, but it was also one of my favorites.
There are three beaches at Bahia Honda: Sandspur, Loggerhead, and Calusa (each is described below). Depending on the wind direction, you may want to visit one beach over the other, because the waves could be calmer.
A note about the beaches: you may notice a funky smell. This is from the seaweed that washes ashore; as it breaks down, it releases sulfur. Since the seaweed is part of nature, the park does not remove it.
8. Sandspur Beach
This is a gorgeous stretch of shoreline with beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a great walking beach because it’s so long. When I visited, there were small waves lapping the soft white sand, and most of the seaweed was higher up on the beach. There are public bathrooms and showers, plus a parking lot.
9. Loggerhead Beach
Loggerhead Beach is more narrow than Sandspur because of the vegetation that lines the edge and the road, but because it spans the east coast of the island, it is lengthy enough for a quality peaceful walk along the ocean. This is also a good beach for taking out a kayak or paddleboard.
10. Calusa Beach
This sandy patch of shoreline is located on the southwest side of the island and is a bit smaller than the other beaches. Because it’s tucked away from the ocean and surrounded by bridges, it is more protected from the wind. This makes the water typically much clearer on the average day than at the other beaches. There is a designated swim and snorkel area, and it is the only beach with views of the decommissioned Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge.
Places to Eat
No Name Pub
People will come all the way from Key West just to dine at this pub, famous for its funky atmosphere, award-winning food, and thousands of one-dollar bills that are stapled everywhere. There was a line out the door when I visited, but surprisingly no wait! There just isn’t enough room inside for the hostess to greet everybody who wants to eat here.
You can choose to sit at the bar, in the covered outdoor seating area, or in the tiki hut. Because I was alone and it was kind of hot outside (especially after having biked around), I chose the bar and met some regular vacationers who make No Name Pub one of their top stops. I ordered the burger but was told that the pizza is to die for.
No Name Pub is located just a few streets over from the National Key Deer Refuge, which makes it a great place to grab a bite to eat before continuing on with your Big Pine explorations.
Good Food Conspiracy
You’ll find tons of healthy and organic food choices here, plus vegan and gluten-free options. There’s also a juice bar and deli. The prices are super affordable, with most menu items being less than $10. The associated health food market sells herbs, vitamins and supplements, ancient grains, snacks, reef-friendly sunscreen, essential oils, and CBD products. Holistic services, such as reiki and massage, are also offered.
Places to Stay
The Barnacle B&B
This is an eclectic bed-and-breakfast made up of Caribbean-style villas. Some rooms have ocean views, a private porch, a kitchenette, and stained-glass windows. All reservations include access to a private beach, free bikes and kayaks, grills, and a tiki hut. If you want to go fishing, you can make a charter reservation here. Rates start at $249/night. Book a room here.
Bahia Honda State Park
The park has several accommodations ranging from primitive (think: hammock in a tree) to cabins on stilts overlooking the bay. If you have an RV or want to camp in your own tent, you can stay at one of the waterfront lots that overlook the Atlantic Ocean, either Buttonwood, Sandspur, or Bayside. (Bayside does not have electric hookup, but you can sleep in your own hammock.) You can make a reservation here.
To stay in a cabin, which includes a full kitchen, two bedrooms, a porch, and a deck, you need to make a reservation at least 11 months in advance.
Big Pine is a Florida Keys hidden gem. The water is stunning, the nature is inspiring, the wildlife are awesome, the food is delicious, and the bike paths are liberating. I would definitely go back just to take it all in a little more.
If you went to Big Pine Key, what do you think would be your favorite part?
About the author: Nicole Edwards is a solo sailor who is currently cruising around the world on her 1968 Columbia 26, the S/V Arta. She has visited Costa Rica, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, and about half of the United States, including Alaska. Her favorite part about traveling is making connections with locals who share inside knowledge, being introduced to another part of her home on planet Earth, and adding it all to her heart.