Having made our way east from Naples through the northern edge of Everglades, Kevin and I stopped off for the night in a random town called Palmetto Bay which was simply well positioned to take off in the morning for the Keys. I pulled up a handy app for finding van parking and we picked one that seemed okay and recently used with no issues near but outside a public park parking lot, and figured out the logistics of fitting 2 people plus all their stuff in the van for the night. He hadn’t really paid attention to any of my online pics and thought the van was still in its original configuration of more bed and more storage, and thus had no joke more clothes than I did (mainly acquired during the football game stuff) in two giant bags. But with strategic use of front seats as storage it was all fine, which is great to know for if I ever have more friends come play!
Anyway, we settled in for an early night, I managed to sleep through the occasionally loud snoring in small quarters, when around midnight it happened: my very first nighttime knock. Of course on the first and only occasion I had company, which was hilarious timing but also nice for me (since it was inevitably going to happen eventually) to not be alone when waking up to a flashlight and officer knocking. Turns out he was mainly just concerned that the parking lot’s lights were burned out and didn’t think it was the safest place to sleep, but also implied it was park property despite no signage and being outside the fence. No worries, he was super nice and directed us to a better lit place up the road. But what an adventure for poor Kevin- ha! And that became our one and only night sleeping in the van itself. Coincidence? Perhaps not.
On our way south I made us stop by a roadside attraction called the Coral Castle, but then refused to pay the almost $20 per person to actually go inside after peeking through the gate and deciding it wasn’t worth it. It’s allegedly haunted, and made from huge slabs of coral ‘mysteriously’ transported here to build a funky home with statues and things in the yard. The other fun surprise that morning was to wake up to a “Severe Weather Alert” warning about how not to get frostbite. Ha! The evening temperatures were predicted to drop to about 35, which is of course very cold for southern Florida, but it made me laugh a lot. Plus all the ‘watch out for falling Iguanas’ news items were an added bonus.
We took Route 1 south into the Keys, and because it had to be done blasted Kokomo on repeat a few times, followed by all the Jimmy Buffet Amazon Music had to offer. We were aiming for Bahia Honda Key, which looks to be about 2/3 of the way down the island chain. Once we hit the beautiful aqua shallows we stopped to walk along one of the roadside piers under the bridge, and spotted a manatee! I argued that it was probably something else because I was convinced a ranger told us they like fresh water, but conceded defeat. So yes, public statement I was wrong, Kevin. A rarity for the ages.
We arrived at Bahia Honda State Park and got the rundown and set up camp. The tent was much better suited to room for sleeping but less comfy as a bed. Fun change, though, and a throwback to all our nights camping in the PNW, Montana, Maryland, and New England. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to roll with whatever comes up and seems like a good idea each day, but one downside of this plan of attack is when it comes to popular attractions or sites that really need reservations. This park fits into that category, and we just got very lucky that there must have been a cancellation or something because a site popped in and out of availability online and we managed to grab it at just the right time about 2 days out. When we arrived we found that perhaps that was due to this campsite being next to where a crew was loudly working , complete with a crane, to build a new bathhouse. So not ideal, but they were only there during the day so not a huge problem.
The park itself has beautiful sandy beaches with clear, very shallow water in a lot of places. The park runs snorkel trips (which we contemplated but it was very windy and, see above, chilly), rents kayaks (which we should have done but didn’t), has a marina, and leads other island tours here and there. We opted to enjoy the beautiful sunset over the bridge to nowhere, which was pretty special and a great way to wind down after a few hours driving. The bridge is part of the old Flagler railroad line that ran at one point all the way from St. Augustine to Key West, but was destroyed in a hurricane in 1935. The remains are now parallel in many places to Route 1 and this small section was accessible to pedestrians from the park.
On our one full day in the park we explored the island by walking the beach as far as was passable. A hurricane, I think Irma, did some damage on one end of the island so a section of beach and a campground are out of commission currently. The water was chilly but refreshing, and relatively clear despite the wind kicking up some sand, and there were all kinds of shells and coral and seaweed washed up on the beach. In the areas towards the south the sand was nice, though closer to the closed off end were rockier and harder to walk due to the abundance of shells. After walking as far as we could, we found a spot on the sand and had a little nap in the sun.
I braved the cool water for a swim, and shamed Kevin into joining me. After some squeals from the cold shock on his end we swam out to the sand bad and sat in the beautiful blue water, and I attempted to teach him how to float. Not my best results, but some progress was made- I felt like it was summer camp all over again.
What a beautiful park to start our time in the Keys! next stop, Key West!