Just because we have a free driveway to park in doesn’t mean we need to stay there for two whole months. Right? Right. We always planned on breaking up our stay at my dad’s house with a few weeks at some of the awesome state parks here in the keys. What we didn’t know was if we could secure one of the highly sought after sites. Turns out we did, and this last week we spent seven blissful days camped oceanside at Long Key State Park.
It’s easy to see why this park is so popular. Every site is on the water with a view just like this.
It’s not a very big park, with only 57 sites total (8 for tents or vans only), which means the sites fill up fast. As in they are all booked up to a year in advance fast. Because people book so far in advance there are a lot of cancellations. The challenge is snapping up one of those cancels before someone else does.
Tim solved that problem by making a handy dandy little website that checks for cancellations every 5 minutes and emails us when one pops us. We set up an alert for three of the state parks down here (Long Key, Curry Hammock, Bahia Honda) and picked a date range from the beginning of January until the 3rd week of February. Within a few days we had booked not one, but two different weeks here at Long Key. We’re still hoping to get another week at one of the other campgrounds, but so far the correct dates haven’t popped up yet. Tim is making the site available for all of you to use. You can find it by going to reserve.wanderinglabs.com. As of right now it works for any park that uses ReserveAmerica for reservations. One thing we’ve observed is that most people don’t cancel until a week or two before their reservation, so if you set up alert for next November chances are you won’t see any results for awhile. Please use the site and let us know how it works for you. We’d love to hear your success stories!
Even though we love it here, Long Key state park is probably not for everyone. You won’t find a manicured beach free of seaweed, you won’t find full hook-ups (water & electric only), you will hear some road noise, and if you need groceries or want to go our for a bite to eat expect to drive about 40 minutes in either direction.
All of that is just fine with us. We always like the more natural campgrounds, and appreciate the fact that in addition to our own beach we have privacy from our neighbors. We also like the price tag of only $38/night here. That might sound like a lot for a state park, but if you consider that this time of year all the private parks in the Keys are over $100/night, it’s the best deal going. We liked Long Key so much that we spent six days there without ever leaving the campground.
In addition to hanging out at our site enjoying the view we explored the trails…
Watched the sun set…
And went for a paddle where we spotted some local wildlife.
Finally, on our last day at the park we ventured out. First we took a 14 mile bike ride from one end of Long Key to another and then back to the campground.
Then we drove up to Windley Key to visit the Fossil Reef Geological State Park. This is one of those places that at first glance should have been boring. A long abandoned rock quarry is not usually high on my list of places to visit. But all the online reviews raved about how cool it was, and with only a $2.50/person entry fee we figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out.
Turns out the Internet steered us right in this case. Not only is the history behind this place fascinating, but the old walls of ancient coral were so cool! We were fascinated by the fossilized coral and I took a million macro shots of the brain and star coral hidden in the exposed walls of the quarry.
This quarry, along with many others throughout the Keys, was used to mine fill for the building of the overseas railroad in the early 1900s. The history of the railroad is pretty interesting. Instead of a government funded public transportation project, this railroad was the personal project of a wealthy oil man, Henry Flagler. Flagler was responsible for much of the early growth in Florida and had already built the Florida Eastcoast Railway from Jacksonville to Miami, turning the wilderness into cities and resorts along the way. When he decided to extend the railroad from the main land to Key West, stretching over 100 miles, including many miles of bridges to span the stretches of ocean between the keys, most people thought he was crazy. Flagler was determined though, and (most importantly) willing to spend his money to make is happen. The railroad was completed in 1912 and for 23 years carried passengers and freight from Miami to Key West.
The end of the railroad rode in on the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. This intense hurricane (the strongest and most intense to ever make landfall in the states) severely damaged or destroyed much of the railroad. Estimates to repair the railroad were so high that the company decided not make repairs, sold the remaining rail bed and bridges to the state of Florida, and within a few years the first version of the Overseas Highway was completed.
The fill from the Windley Key quarry was used to build up the rail bed as well as the approaches to the multiple bridges that spanned the channels between the keys. After railroad construction was completed the quarry continued operating until the late 1960s. Instead of fill, they began cutting the limestone into big sections and sending it to Miami for polishing. The result was a decorative building stone called Keystone that can be seen on buildings around the U.S., including the post offices in Miami and St. Louis, a cathedral in New York City, and the hurricane memorial in Islamorada.
After the quarry closed years of proposed and rejected development followed until the state purchased the quarry and surrounding land in the mid-80s. In 1999 the park was opened to the public. Today visitors can stroll along the wooded paths through native trees, view some of the original quarry machinery, and marvel at the perfectly preserved fossilized specimens of ancient coral animals in the quarry walls.
We spent nearly two hours touring the park and studying the guidebook. Who knew an old quarry could be so interesting? After all the exploring we were in need of nourishment and ended the day with dinner out at MA’s Fish Camp where we indulged in local seafood and giant slices of Key Lime Pie.
This week we’re back at our spot in Big Pine Key. While it’s great to have a free place to stay and an amazing back yard to use, I have to admit I miss that ocean view. We have another reservation at Long Key for the second week of February though, and we’re still hoping to get a fews days at Bahia Honda between now and then. Until then I guess we’ll just have to make do with a walk to the bridge for our ocean view.