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Four state parks on the way to kiss some seal and dolphin friends

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A day trip to the Florida Keys

My work took me down to Islamorada today which was a perfect excuse to hit a couple of state parks since so many are very close!  Although there are 10 state parks and two national parks between our house and our destination, we only had a few hours outside of our required visit.  We picked 4 destinations from the passport today:

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail

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Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

This park is relatively small but packed with trails through rare plants and unusual geological features.  Some interesting plant examples include:

Mastic tree which is a larger tree that bears a sweet, small fruit that is so sticky that it will glue your mouth shut if you eat too much of it!  Don’t worry, warm water will loosen your lips again. 

Mastic Tree

Jamaica Dogwood aka Fish Poison Tree Parts of the tree were used to stupefy fish for easy capture.  This is now an illegal practice in Florida.

Prickly apple cactus Like the Dancing Lady orchid of Jonathan Dickinson Park, this is a rare cactus threatened by illegal collecting.

Prickly Apple Cactus

Gumbo Limbo Sap from the tree is used to make “bird lime” which is a sticky paste used to trap songbirds. In the early 1900’s, this wood was also used to carve carousel horses.

Gumbo Limbo

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Just outside of the visitor center is a carved-out arena that marks the quarry used to remove large blocks of limestone and coral for Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad.  It is pretty amazing to imagine centuries in the past when the same place I was standing in was a lush coral reef – vibrantly colored and teeming with life.  Now, there is evidence of the fossilized remains throughout the park from the dramatic fans sweeping up the quarry wall to the little bits of fossilized brain coral peeking out between the roots in the forest trails.   

There is a very nice booklet you can take around the park for a self-guided tour of the fossils, historical artifacts, and geological features.  We didn’t get to see the entire park and look forward to coming back to do the rest of the trail tour. When you come to visit, be sure to talk to the rangers – we heard some neat stories about the hidden features in the park and descriptions of what the area must have been like in the active days of the quarry with hundreds of workers bustling to carve out the beautiful stone slabs for the railroad. Just think about how alive with activity this place must have been then!

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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

We stopped here briefly to scope out the snorkel tour situation and to see what is available from shore.  There is a very nice little visitor center with an impressive aquarium display, concessions and booking for watersports, and a very nice calm beach.  While you could easily have a very nice day at the beach and paddling around the near lagoon area, the main draw is the coral reef and underwater landmarks like the “Christ of the Abyss statue” and near shipwrecks, which do require a boat to access.  The rangers do report that some of the reef has been damaged from hurricane Irma, but this has actually brought out larger schools of fish and other sea creatures for easy viewing.  I can’t wait to come back to check it out!

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Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

Stepping through the gate is like stepping into the Jurassic Park of The Lost World.  This site was rescued from condo development and now is part of the largest tropical hammock preservation in the USA.  There are some easy, short foot trails from the parking access area.  Beyond that, you can get a back-country permit to explore several more miles through rare foliage, endangered animals, and natural beauty – watch out for natural hazards like the poisonwood trees!

It has been pretty dry for months, so most of the hammock foliage is a little wilted right now.  I plan to come back once the rains have returned so I can see it looking green and lush.

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Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail

Bring your bicycle or pull over and step onto this path to explore the keys at a slower pace.  There are several nice chunks that inspire some very nice bicycling adventures – I think my first might be to bike from Key Largo to the Islamorada Beer Company and back.  There are also lots of opportunities to cycle a century ride from Key Largo or Miami to Key West like this one with the Everglades Bicycle Club. There are also some good fundraising rides like the Bike to the Beach.

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Theater of the Sea

My work visit brought us to the Theater of the Sea which is a beautiful little park that has been family owned and operated since the 1940s.  Read about its history here. The sea animals’ lagoons were originally quarries used to harvest stone for the railroad.  The park now uses an impressive system that pumps water from the ocean through all of the enclosures.  When you stand close to the pools, you can see them teeming with natural plant life, both underwater and including the mangroves along the edges.  The animals are robustly healthy and several are of relatively senior age compared to average.  I suspect this is due to the excellent living conditions and care they receive at this facility.  Many animals have been rescued and rehabilitated to enjoy a comfortable life at the facility. Once we finished the work part of the day, we did get to meet some of the Theater of the Sea family.  It is safe to say that was the highlight of the day, especially for Jeff! I think my favorite was Bella the sea lion. She has a neurologic condition that affects her coordination and balance. Despite this, she has learned to compensate incredibly well. You can see the concentration and focus that she puts into her tasks – she really is amazing! What fascinated me the most is the fact that her neurologic signs resolved for a few weeks after she gave birth – I have no idea why that should happen and couldn’t find a similar human report. I am so curious about that! Bella is also incredibly sweet. I really underestimated how much my heart would melt when getting kissed and hugged by a sea lion.

I also loved the story of Stormy and Sherry, the mated dolphins with their own son – all living together as a happy dolphin family. Stormy reminds me of our beagle, Daisy. No matter what he was supposed to do, he would rather roll over for a good belly rub instead.

Finally, it was a little intimidating, but ultimately really neat to meet Ally the alligator. She likes getting her teeth brushed and LOVES jello squares. She didn’t want anything to do with us until we pulled out the jello, then she was all about coming to say hello. She had little splashes of paint around her door because she knows how to hold a paint brush and paint pictures – nothing I would ever picture a gator doing! She also has very soft hands for holding – it is almost sweet if I didn’t know she would probably eat my hand for a snack if she was hungry enough. I will admit that she is the star of one of my favorite photos from this trip – featured for this blog post. PSA: Only cuddle gators when guided by a professional with adequate restraint!

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We also had a tasty lunch right on the beach at Mile Marker 88. The day was sunny, water perfectly calm, and company very pleasant.

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Harry Harris Park

We stopped by Harry Harris Park to see what’s there.  I liked the tide pool that is sheltered from waves and presumably scary big sea creatures like sharks.  It also sounds like there is some nice snorkeling near the shore – don’t forget your dive flag!

Harry Harris Park

Also, you know I love trees!

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We walked about 6 or 7 miles today on our various park adventures.

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