[Fig. 6(4)] Bahia Honda rivals John Pennekamp as the Keys' most outstanding state park. Granted, the 524-acre park, which includes the entire Bahia Honda Key, can't match John Pennekamp's coral reefs, but its beaches are without challenge, the overwhelming choice as the best in the Keys. In fact, they are among the finest anywhere in Florida and regularly rank among the best in the nation. This could well be the most beautiful beach you'll ever seelong, luxurious white strands of soft, sugary sands bordered by clear, blue-green waters and fringed with tall, graceful, swaying palmsand there's one on each side of the island.
Crystal-clear and deep close to shore, the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic waters on both sides of this tropical island are ideal for swimming and snorkeling for the thousands of visitors who pass through the park's gates on peak days. Snorkeling off the beach in the shallow waters where the seagrass grows you'll encounter a rich and colorful variety of marine life.
The grass beds are home to shrimp, crabs, and a myriad of small fish. You might see a hermit crab creeping along beneath its borrowed shell, or sea anemones anchored in place waving their tentacles in the current. A small octopus might swim by, or you may spot a live queen conch nestled in the grass. But don't touch, conchs are protected, as is all the marine life within the park.
The island was formed from Key Largo Limestone derived from a coral reef similar to the living reefs elsewhere in the Keys. Along with other Keys, the island emerged after a dramatic drop in the sea level millions of years ago. Its rock foundation has been overlaid with a thick cover of loose carbonate sands.
In the early 1900s, when Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad crews were digging the foundations for the original Bahia Honda Bridge, it took them week after week of arduous, frustrating labor to finally hit bedrock. The 5,005-foot long bridge was damaged by hurricanes, but like the Seven Mile Bridge and others on the line, it stood up valiantly to nature's fury, including the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. The bridge was refashioned for the Overseas Highway in the late 1930s.
The old bridge, with two sections removed from the ends, is part of the view of the beaches. In the 1980s, it was mothballed for a modern four-lane bridge that now carries US 1. You can walk out on a portion of the old bridge for panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic.
In Spanish, Bahia Honda means "deep bay," and the channel between the new and old Bahia Honda bridges is one of the deepest natural channels in the Keys. In some places it goes down 35 to 40 feet.
Bahia Honda State Park is also a botanical treasure. Since the late nineteenth century, botanists from around the world have traveled here to study its remarkable plant life. Many of the plants found were carried from the West Indies and Caribbean by birds, winds, sea tides, and hurricanes.
The park's Silver Palm Nature Trail passes through one of the state's last remaining stands of silver palms (Coccothrinax argentata). Also known as silver thatch palm, the graceful tree grows to 20 to 35 feet high, with a slender trunk about 6 inches in circumference and smooth, fan-shaped fronds about 3 inches long. Also look for gumbo limbo, satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum), and seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera). Specimens of silver palm and yellow satinwood have been certified as national champion trees.
Many bird ranges overlap or reach their farthest ranges here. Roseate spoonbills, white-crowned pigeons, great egrets, great blue herons, great white herons, white ibis, laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), brown pelicans, and smooth-billed anis can be observed most of the year. Watch along the shoreline for ruddy turnstones, willits, short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus), and semipalmated plovers. In the winter, ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarnensis), common terns (Sterna hirundo), and royal terns join the party.
Migratory warblers visit in April and October on their way between North American and South America. Black-whiskered vireos and mangrove cuckoo can be seen in the tropical vegetation in the summer and fall.
While walking along the beach, which is always an enjoyable thing to do, look for moving, shadowy schools of black mullet (Mugil cephalus) or silver mullet (Mugil cephalus) in the shallow areas. Black mullet are dark on top and light on the bottom. Silver mullet are light colored all over. You can also see both species jumping into the air, sometimes two or three times in a row, in an attempt to elude a real or imagined predator. In fact, anytime you see a small fish jumping in Florida's nearshore or inshore waters, first think mullet, because that's probably what it is.
One of Florida's most important inshore forage fish, mullet is a source of protein for a wide range of game fish including tarpon and snook. Mullet also make up a good deal of the diet of brown pelicans and osprey.
Mullet roe is prized as a delicacy in the Far East. Long years of overharvest of spawning mullet to supply that market led to a depletion of the species throughout Florida. A net ban passed in 1994 by statewide vote eliminated the use of gill nets in Florida, which in turn reduced the harvest of mullet. The species is on the comeback in all parts of the state.
Along with beaches and nature trails, the park has numerous other facilities you can learn about at the visitor center. There is a snack bar and book and gift shop. The observation deck on the bridge offers dramatic views of the park, the water, and neighboring Keys.
The park's concessionaire has snorkeling gear for rent and offers daily snorkeling trips to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. You can also rent sea kayaks. The park also has a 19-slip marina and two ramps for trailered boats.
The state park maintains six very nice waterfront cabins, each with two double beds and two bunk beds. Dishes, cookware, towels, and bed linens are provided. The cabins are accessible by boat. Guests must stay at least two nights, but may stay no longer than two weeks. Moderate rates are highest in winter and spring, lowest in summer and fall. Limit six persons per cabin. Phone (305) 872-2353.
Like the beaches, Bahia Honda's 80 campsites are the class of the Keys. There are well-spaced, well-kept, scenic bayside and oceanside locations that are less expensive than many commercial campgrounds. There are showers and restrooms. All the sites may be reserved up to 11 months in advance. Those not reserved are first-come, first-served.