Monday, March 23, 2009

The Florida Keys Are Still Wild

Driving from Key Largo to Key West, many people find it difficult to imagine what Florida must've been like before malls and wall-to-wall resorts invaded the area. Yet, all t takes to experience the wilderness of the Florida Keys is to make a very short detour off the main highway or take a pleasant ferry ride. Some of the wilderness venues are so close to the main drag, it's almost hard to believe it when residents admit they've never heard of a particular spot. There are more than half a dozen of these nature preserves to choose from. On my last trip to the Keys, I based in Islamorada and took day trips to each of these leafy destinations below:

• The Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is just off Route 1. It's the largest remaining tropical hardwood forest in the U.S. and home to endangered plants and animals. Thanks to the signs and labels along the paths, it's easy to pick up plenty of botanical facts about the Jamaican dogwood whose leaves were once used to stun fish or the Bahama strongbark tree whose tea is said to be revitalizing.

• At Indian Key Historic State Park, rangers lead treks through this 10-acre greenspace that has a colorful past. The rogue wrecker bought the island and built one of Florida's first post offices; an agriculturist introduced agave and prickly pear; and a band of Native Americans attacked in the 1800s destroying most of the island's structures. You'll see the ruins of the town square and be able to roam trials that were once busy streets.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park is one of the last virgin tropical forests in the Keys. The park is named for the endangered medicinal tree that 's said to possibly be the tree of the Garden of Eden and also the source of the Holy Grail. Rangers also lead guided walks on the island where you'll find plenty of oddly named and lush foliage. Kayaking, snorkeling and fishing are three other top activities you may want to consider both here and at Indian Key.

• The Crane Point Museum, Nature Center and Historic Site is a 60-some-acre wilderness preserve that is sure to satisfy botany and history buffs alike. Here you'll find the Adderley House, the oldest house in the Keys outside of Key West. It's constructed of sand, shells, lime and rocks. Walk the trails that wind past fresh water ponds and mangrove forests with blue herons and white ibis.

• In Long Key State Park, visitors can walk the pleasant Golden Orb Trail, so named for the spider whose web is many times stronger than the same mass of steel. It meanders through a dense mangrove forest to an observation tower high above the forest.