Located 37 miles north of Key West, Bahia Honda State Park consistently ranks as one of the best beaches in the United States, with its soft sandy shores and calm crystalline waters in the shadow of the trestle bridge from the ill-fated railroad.
Sandspur Beach, one of the beaches at Bahia Honda — Photo courtesy of Hans Gruber
While the Florida Keys reap the benefits of having the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. off its shores - with excellent fishing, snorkeling and diving - that same reef keeps the sand from washing ashore and creating natural beaches. Bahia Honda is the exception with not one, but three beaches so stunning that Dr. Beach once deemed the park America's Best Beach.
As you enter the park, hang a left and go all the way down to Sandspur Beach, which is the largest on the island. Dump your gear at a picnic table under one of the three pavilions, grab a floatie and hit the clear, shallow water.
For a little more adventure, you can go on a quest for a quieter stretch of beach. Find the Silver Palm Nature Trail at the end of the Sandspur parking lot. Follow its winding, shaded path, which is one of the largest remaining concentrations of the shiny-tipped palm.
You'll walk through a green corridor of buttonwood, poisonwood, sea grape and gumbo limbo trees and past dancing orange butterflies, sand crabs and glistening spider webs. You'll reach a sun-bleached wooden fence that leads past sand dunes, a tangle of green sea oats and baby palms to a more secluded stretch of beach with gentle waves lapping at your feet.
Sand crab — Photo courtesy of Haans Gruber
For a picnic lunch, pick up supplies on Summerland Key on your way to the park. Murray's Market has house-made subs and salads, while Sugarloaf Food Co. has delicious baked treats like coconut Key lime bars and Key lime pistachio cookies.
After lunch, catch the boat out to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary for an afternoon snorkel. Located 12 miles offshore from the park, Looe Key gets less traffic than other sections of the reef, which equals a healthier ecosystem with 150 species of fish and 50 species of coral. In depths between 5-15 feet, you can easily find yourself surrounded by a school of yellow and black sergeant majors, or eye-to-eye with a four-foot barracuda.
Brightly-colored corals provide a backdrop for the angelfish, hogfish and snapper, while camouflaged critters like grouper, horseshoe crabs, stingrays and moray eels snap into focus as your eyes adjust. Nurse sharks rest on the sandy bottom oblivious, as you float above synchronized to the current. The only sounds you'll hear are your own rhythmic breathing, parrot fish chomping away bits of coral and the crackling of the reef as it teems with life.
You'll have worked up an appetite with all that swimming, so after you visit the shower and changing room near Calusa Beach, head to the snack bar. The park concession makes great sandwiches, wraps, hot dogs and salads. Ice cream is available in refreshing flavors like Key lime sorbet, and they give very generous scoops.
After picking up a few souvenirs from the gift shop, climb to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Here you can see a unique vertical cross-section of Henry Flagler's steel trestle railroad bridge like the bones of an archaeological find. The railroad was destroyed in the 1935 hurricane, but the bridge still offers a clear view into the water below and the perfect perch for a panoramic sunset.
Sunset by the Old Bahia Honda Bridge — Photo courtesy of Rafael Pablos