Tamara Scharf admits she was a little “crazy/naïve” when she decided to walk from Key Largo to Key West in a week. But she found it exhilarating, despite “looking like a leper” from the all the mosquito and no see um bites she endured at dawn and dusk each day.
She’s one of those adventurous German-born lovers of the outdoors who can’t get enough of natural Florida. Physically fit, she walks everywhere. (She doesn’t own a car.) She walked alone and carried only a small backpack.
She has worked as an archaeologist and museum curator and now lives in Fort Lauderdale.
Tamara is publishing a book about her walk through the Keys and shared these highlights with us, including her recommendations for the best sections of the Keys to walk if you have just one day. She also walked across the Seven Mile Bridge, and recounts that experience here. (Want to buy her book? Get it on Amazon!)
Why walk the Keys?
By Tamara Scharf
I walked the Florida Keys solo in October 2013, and the question I was asked many times before, during and after walking 105 miles from Key Largo to Key West, was:
‘Why walk the Florida Keys?’
We all know and love the drive to Key West. It leads us over countless bridges with turquoise waters, and we love to imagine driving down there in an open top car with Jimmy Buffett music playing. Right? I can’t argue with that. However, I can offer you another — no less exhilarating — way of experiencing the Keys.
There are many internet articles regarding biking the Keys, specifically referring to the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (FKOHT). (Here’s one from Florida Rambler.) Try to find information about walking the Keys, however, and it’s a different story. When I was planning to walk the Florida Keys, I found it almost impossible to find any information. Worse, while walking the Keys, I did not meet one other walker the entire week! Let’s change this.
I walked the Keys for several good reasons. First, I wanted a full week (not just a three hour drive) of seeing wonderful views, meeting lovely people and getting a real feel for the vibe of the Keys. Also, I was at a crossroads in my life and needed a time out to ‘find myself’ and realign my mind and body with nature. The Keys were the closest and most logical choice. I could walk them in roughly a week and considered them relatively safe for solo female walkers. There were no long desolate stretches and I mostly would be walking close to residential neighborhoods and stores.
Of course, not everybody can take a week or more off from responsibilities, or has the physical strength or inclination to walk over 100 miles. What would I say to those who want to walk a smaller stretch, or a couple of day’s worth of the islands? Which section is ‘the best’?
If only I could decide.
Without wanting to be facetious, the best section is from Key Largo to Key West! Walking the Florida Keys means there is magic in every single day, at every step, and around every corner. Anywhere in the Keys you will never be far away from the alluringly turquoise ocean, quirky and colorful areas with an artsy feel, and plenty of bridges to gaze into the water from. What’s not to love?
However, below I will try to narrow it down for those who want a ‘best of’, or only have a day or a few days to spare.
Walking the Seven Mile Bridge
One of my favorites is a 20 mile stretch between the end of Marathon (starting with the Seven Mile Bridge) and Big Pine Key, with a possible 15 mile extension down to Sugarloaf Key.
At first, I was not at all enamored with the prospect of having to cross the Seven Mile Bridge. I started walking the bridge with trepidation and admit it may not be for the faint of heart. The shoulder to walk on is narrow and cars (as well as big trucks) are driving by at alarming speed, with drivers hanging cameras and heads out of windows or – as I saw plenty of times – truck drivers playing with their phones. Nobody but me seemed to pay any attention to the road! I found it helpful to look at the beautiful ocean and saw a green turtle and dolphins, which I found preferable to looking at distracted drivers.
It feels a little strange to praise this particular section, when it also happens to be one where the FKOHT takes a long break, meaning you will be walking by the side of the road the whole time. However, one does get used to the traffic. Walking the Seven Mile Bridge turned out more exhilarating than scary. An added bonus is being able to admire Henry Flagler’s handiwork, as the famous Old Seven Mile Bridge (once part of the Florida East Coast Railway) runs alongside. There is also historic Pigeon Key to look at from a distance.
Immediately after the bridge is Veterans Park on the left, a great place for a lunch stop, from where you can admire the Seven Mile Bridge and cool off your legs in the ocean.
Next up will be more lovely bridges and vistas! After Veterans Park comes an area of little bridges and channels. I promise that you will be blown away by this little stretch and its turquoise and crystal clear waters. There will be a series of small Keys on the way: Little Duck Key, Missouri Key and Ohio Key.
Walking on, another magnificent Henry Flagler railroad legacy can be seen in the distance: Bahia Honda Bridge. If you decide to carry on past Bahia Honda State Park, you will walk the modern bridge (old Bahia Honda Bridge is in disrepair), but the old bridge will follow alongside and make for unique photo opportunities.
A stop at Bahia Honda State Park
Should you decide to split this somewhat long distance of 20 miles up a little, which I highly recommend, you have the option of staying overnight and camping at Bahia Honda State Park. If you don’t like camping, you might want to check out the fabulous cabins that can be rented at this wonderful state park. Be warned, they book up months in advance.
Bahia Honda is another highlight of the Florida Keys, not least for having the most beautiful beaches in the world, recognized on a national and international level. If you stop here, you will see why. There are a few little beaches here, but my personal tip is Sandspur Beach at the northern end of the park. It’s like having landed in a tropical paradise!
What’s more, at low tide there is a sandbar next to the boating channel. Get ready to party, with locals anchoring boats and putting up chairs, tables, umbrellas and even barbecues on the exposed sand. It will be tough to tear yourself away from this.
The walk along Big Pine Key
Walking on (preferably the next day), there is yet another bridge and West Summerland Key, before you get to Big Pine Key. Finally, here it is again possible to pick up the FKOHT path in parts along the main road. You can decide to stay on Big Pine Key for a while or overnight and spend some time to search for the elusive Key Deer. I saw some! In any case, further along, the area does not lose any of its charm as you pass over Little Torch Key, Ramrod Key and Summerland Key.
You will definitely need two days if you plan on walking past Big Pine Key. I would never recommend walking more than 20 miles in one day. Ideally I would not go past 15 miles per day and possibly less if you want to stop at a beach, have a long lunch break and just soak up some of the vistas. Don’t make the mistake of rushing through it all.
The stretch between the beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge and Bahia Honda (your first possible overnight stop) can feel strenuous, with little to no shade, and is plenty for a day’s walk. I did walk the whole 20 mile stretch into Big Pine Key but it was tough and I probably wouldn’t do it again in one day.
You might want to consider a three day walk starting at the Seven Mile Bridge and ending at Sugarloaf Key, which would roughly be around 35 miles. If you add on a day, you could walk all the way down to Key West, adding on another 17 miles. This is a suggestion for seasoned hikers or the very fit, as it will be strenuous.
In my opinion, the stretch after the 7 Mile Bridge is one of the most beautiful, with the historic sights of the two magnificent old bridges, wonderful beaches and lots of open water views. Plus, ending at Sugarloaf Key, there is Sugarloaf Lodge, a somewhat aged but charming motel with all rooms looking out on the tranquil bay, a tiki bar and a little marina close-by. There is also the historic bat tower which will particularly interest those amongst you who are history buffs and mosquito magnets, like me. Here is evidence of the struggle with the little blood-suckers going back a hundred years!
More recommended sections to walk
There are a few other stretches worth mentioning for a day of walking.
I particularly enjoyed open areas with bridges, where the breeze would often bring some relief from the sun and where it was possible to gaze at the waters most of the time. This included, amongst others, the area around and south of Windley Key in Islamorada.
There is also a nice stretch starting at Bud’n Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, passing by Teatable Key, Indian Key, through Lower Matecumbe Key and ending at Long Key State Park. Walking over bridge after bridge, this 13-14 mile stretch feels like being permanently suspended over the ocean.
Similarly, the stretch from Long Key down to Marathon would also be perfect for a day’s walk for a seasoned hiker. This stretch can be about 14-17 miles, depending on where in Marathon you desire to stop. The first bridge from Long Key, the Long Key Viaduct, is definitely worth a walk. As it is a long old bridge, now for pedestrians and cyclists only, it makes for a very pleasant walk too away from traffic.
Only have half a day to spare or don’t feel like walking quite so many miles in one day? I recommend the old Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key. It’s a little over two miles to get to Pigeon Key from the start of the old bridge in Marathon, so the round-trip would roughly be five miles. It’s a good walk but nowhere near as long and strenuous as my other suggestions. Plus, there is the option of taking a guided tour at Pigeon Key and brush up on some important local history, as well as admiring historic houses and beautiful views. Information on tours, times and prices can be found in this Florida Rambler article.
Tip for walkers
Below are some tips for walkers of the Florida Keys, whether it is just for a day’s walk, a few days, or the entire island chain:
- The best time to walk is in the winter, roughly between November and April. Outside of the winter months, the climate (humidity and heat) and frequency of storms can severely hamper your walk. Even in the winter time, do not underestimate the sun and possible heat.
- Bring plenty of water and electrolyte drinks to replace lost fluids and minerals.
- Imperative items are a hat, sunscreen, phone, bug spray, band-aids, snacks and sunglasses.
- If you can, wear long sleeves to shelter from sun and mosquitos/no-see-ums.
- The walking shoes/sandals should be very well worn-in.
- Pay close attention to the traffic and when faced with having to walk on the side of the road, the law states that we must walk into the traffic, not with our backs to it.
A good thing is that one is never too far from civilization and there are usually stores and pharmacies to be found along the route. If you are worried about transport, or don’t want to leave your car somewhere for a few days, consider getting on the Greyhound bus. It is a short trip from the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area to the Keys and back, with stops in Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West.
Why not do as I did, walk the entire Florida Keys and find your own favorite part of these magnificent islands?
If you have any questions on how to go about it, what you might need and how to prepare for such a walk, I have written a small book about my experiences which will be published in early May 2016 (www.walkingthekeys.com). You can also drop me a line via the website and I will be more than happy to help you plan your own adventure, or answer any questions.
Last but not least, if you have walked The Keys, I would absolutely love to hear about your very own experiences.