Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda is an island in the Florida Keys archipelago. It’s located in the lower keys, southwest of Marathon.

The island has some of the most beautiful views in the Florida Keys, and several of the most beautiful beaches in the Florida.

Location

Bahia Honda is located on the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West.

The island sits immediately below Ohio Key, and above West Summerland Key, near the south end of the famous Seven Mile Bridge.

Mile Markers

Bahia Honda occupies approximately three miles of the Overseas Highway, from mile marker 36 to mile marker 38.5.

Bahia Honda is 36 miles, or approximately 45 minutes, north of Key West.

Bahia Honda is 127.5 miles, or approximately 2 hours and 36 minutes, south of Miami.

History

The name “Bahia Honda ” has been used for hundreds of years. It has been found on old sailing charts, dating back to the earliest Spanish sailors and explorers.

Bahia Honda is a Spanish name which means “Deep Bay”.

The deep water was a natural refuge for the sailors, and a place where they could safely anchor. The deep water provided safety from dangerous coral reefs and shallow waters around the Florida Keys.

Before the Spanish used Bahia Honda, the island was probably used by native Americans as a seasonal fishing camp, like many other islands in the Florida Keys.

On other nearby islands, shell middens and other artifacts have been discovered, which give archeological clues about the island’s early human presence.

In modern times, Bahia Honda was first used as part of the famous Overseas Railway.

Overseas Railway

In the early 1900s a rich oil baron named Henry Flagler commissioned a railway to create easy access to Florida.

At this time Florida was first becoming a popular destination, and was being opened to northern settlers and visitors for the first time.

The railway was largely responsible for the massive land boom in Florida.

By the early 1900s, Henry Flagler had already built large sections of the Florida East Coast Railway. The route stopped near Miami, around the Key Biscayne area.

For various reasons, including the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Flagler decided to extend the railway further. He wanted to connect Florida with the thriving port town of Key West.

At that time Key West was a rowdy, busy port town. It was a hub for marine transportation, had a relatively large population of island residents. It was only reachable by ship.

Flagler’s railway was built between 1905 and 1912. It reached Bahia Honda in 1908. The bridge construction was a massive undertaking, and was extremely challenging.

The railway was completed in 1912, and was celebrated as “the eighth wonder of the world”. It operated for the next 23 years, providing a reliable transportation service between Miami and Key West.

The railway was essential for supplies, access and evacuation; the only other route at the time was by sea.

A steam engine on the Florida East Coast (FEC) Overseas Railway Bridge at Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys

On September 2, 1935 a late-season hurricane struck the Florida Keys. Due to crude meteorological forecasting at the time, and other human blunders, the storm took the Keys by surprise.

The storm was a powerful category 5 hurricane with 200 mph winds and a 17 foot storm surge. At the time it was the most powerful recorded hurricane to hit the United States, and it remains one of the most severe hurricanes in history.

A rescue train was derailed during the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which hit the Florida Keys

It became known as the infamous “Labor Day Hurricane”, also sometimes known as the “Storm of the Century“.

The storm swept train cars off of the tracks and killed many people. Large portions of the railway survived, but in some areas, only stone foundations remained.

In 1935 the country was struggling through the Great Depression. Like everyone else, the Florida Overseas Railway company was struggling financially.

Rather than repair the railway, the owners of the Overseas Railway decided to sell the railway and real estate to the State of Florida.

What was the sales price for this Florida Keys real estate? $640,000.

After the State of Florida acquired the railway, engineers incorporated it into the Overseas Highway construction project, which was already underway.

Instead of building new bridges in some sections, engineers added paved roadways on top of the old railway trusses. This method was used because the lower train section would not be wide enough for a double-lane highway.

Many people assume that the bridge carried trains on one level of the bridge, and cars on top, as a double-decker bridge. But, that’s not the case. The Bahia Honda bridge was never used for both trains and cars at the same time.

It was used exclusively for trains until the tracks were destroyed, and then it was converted into a motorway for automobiles.

The old bridge was in use until 1972.

Historical Bridges

The metal truss train trestle at Bahia Honda Bridge, part of Florida East Coast (FEC) Overseas Railway built by Henry Flagler from Miami to Key West

The Bahia Honda bridge is notable because it’s a metal railway trestle, instead of a concrete arch, as was used in other sections of the Florida Keys.

The metal truss system was used because of the deep water channel, which complicated the construction effort.

The Bahia Honda Channel bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with several other notable bridges in the Florida Keys.

The Bahia Honda bridge was one of the most difficult stretches of the Overseas Railway because of the deep water channel it crossed, and strong tides.

A section of the Overseas Highway Bridge at Bahia Honda

Ownership of Bahia Honda

Bahia Honda is some of the most valuable real estate in the Florida Keys.

Not surprisingly, it has a complicated ownership history.

Over the decades, Bahia Honda has been owned by both private landowners, the State of Florida, Monroe County, and a combination of all of those entities.

In 1984 the last remaining private land was sold, and the Florida Park Service acquired the last remaining land.

With that sale, the State of Florida and the Parks service assumed full control of Bahia Honda Key.

Today, Bahia Honda is part of Monroe County, along with all of the Florida Keys.

Before the East Coast Railway stretched to Key West, Bahia Honda Key was the end of Miami-Dade County.

Bahia Honda Residents

Aside from Bahia Honda State Park and other staff, Bahia Honda does not have any residential housing, permanent residents, or neighborhoods.

Since 1984, the entire island of Bahia Honda has been owned by the State of Florida, and operated as a state park.

Hours

The state park is open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset.

The private concession building is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

Entrance Fee

There is an entrance fee to enter Bahia Honda State Park.

If you have a Florida State Parks pass there will be an additional $0.50 entrance fee, which is specifically levied for parks in the Florida Keys.

If possible, it is best to pay with either credit card, or be prepared with exact change. Some visitors become upset when change is not available at the entrance shack.

For the most up-to-date rate information, check the Florida State Parks website.

Amenities

Bahia Honda State Park has many amenities for visitors and campers. Some amenities are available to all visitors, and some are reserved for campers only.

  • There are outside showers and changing areas near the main restrooms, across from the concession building.
  • A privately-run concession building provides services and supplies.

There is a small general store/snack bar on the island.

The general store sells basic beach goods, and also rent kayaks, sunscreen, hats, snorkeling gear, and other necessities. There is also an on-site dive shop.

Visitors should try to come prepared and bring everything they need, since choices will be limited in the store, and prices may be higher.

There is a small restaurant or snackbar on site. The menu offerings are limited and may vary depending on availability. The menu includes things like pizza, salads, deli sandwiches, hotdogs and ice cream.

Campground

Beach at Bahia Honda State Park, viewing the Milky Way

Bahia Honda State Park is one of the best campgrounds in the Florida Keys.

The campground offers 80 campsites. The offerings range from primitive tent camping to full-hookup RV sites and fully furnished beach cabins.

The campsite has restrooms and bath houses with hot showers, which are exclusively for campers’ use.

The Sandspur section of the campground is closed because it was destroyed in Hurricane Irma. As of this writing, there is no plan to reopen the Sandspur campground.

The campground is exceptionally popular, so it is difficult to get reservations. Many people “camp out” on the reservation system and try to make reservations as soon as the bookings are made available, eleven months in advance.

Bahia State Park Cabins

Bahia Honda State Park has 6 cabins for rent. They are in three duplex units; two unites in each building.

The cabins are stilt houses, built high off of the ground to help guard against flooding, hurricane damage and storm surge. One cabin (#2) is accessible, with a wheelchair lift.

The cabins are lovely, and include linens, furnishing and other supplies. Not surprisingly, they are some of the most popular cabins in Florida.

Booking and reservations fill up almost immediately as they become available, and are often impossible to secure.

Reservations usually need to be booked at least eleven months in advance, as soon as the bookings are made available.

Even then, many people use crazy methods to get these bookings, so you’ll need good luck and determination.

Marina and Boat Ramps

Bahia Honda State Park has a protected marina and boat basin, just north of Calusa Beach.

  • There are 19 boat slips with water, electric and black water pump out facilities.
  • There are two boat ramps

The areas around Bahia Honda are often very shallow. The controlling depth in the boat basin area is reported to be 4.5 feet, which may change due to tides and sedimentation.

Boaters should contact the state park and dockmaster for the most detailed and updated information before making plans.

There are specific boating laws and regulations which apply to Bahia Honda State Park. Boats must remain 400 feet from shore after they are out of the marina area.

Be sure to learn and follow boating regulations, anchoring regulations and other boating requirements.

Beaches

In 1992, “Dr. Beach” rated Bahia Honda and Sandspur Beach to be the best in the United States. This brought attention to Bahia Honda’s white sand and warm water.

Dr. Beach described it well:

“Bahia Honda Key is blessed with two wonderful beaches: Sandspur Beach on the oceanside (1992 National Winner) and Caloosa Beach near the Seven Mile Bridge. This is really a piece of the Caribbean as evidenced by the crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms. The ocean water stays warm year-round, making it a beach for all seasons. The beach at Sandspur drops off gently, and the lack of waves make it ideal for bathing by young children and for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking for everybody else.” Source

There are three beaches in Bahia Honda State Park.

  • Calusa Beach
  • Loggerhead Beach
  • Sandspur Beach (Closed)

Each beach is excellent. Unlike other beaches in the Florida Keys, all of the beaches on Bahia Honda have beautiful white sand and beautiful, clear water.

The beaches on Bahia Honda are what people usually dream about when they come to the Florida Keys; they are all among the best beaches in the Florida Keys.

The water is usually warm enough to swim near-round, although it can get chilly at time during the winter.

The water is generally shallow, and allows wading out far into the water without becoming deep.

Depending on the local wind conditions on the day you visit, one beach may be preferable over the other. If one is too windy, try checking out the other, since it may be sheltered by the island.

Calusa Beach

Sunbathing on Calusa Beach in Bahia Honda State Park in the lower Keys

Calusa Beach is located on the southwest tip of the island, next to the old Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge.

Some visitors say it is the best beach on Bahia Honda, but everyone has a different opinion. Calusa Beach is protected from the Atlantic ocean, so the water is often very calm and clear.

The bottom is sandy, with fields of seagrass just offshore from the beach. Large schools fish can often be seen in the crystal clear water.

One downside is that Calusa Beach is relatively small, so it can feel crowded when there are many visitors.

There is a swimming area, and a rope to prevent swimmers from approaching the old railway bridge area, or boat channel.

The deep water channel can have strong currents. Swimmers should be careful and pay attention to their surroundings and beach warnings.

There are covered picnic pavilions near Calusa Beach. The parking lot is very close, and does not require a long walk. The walk would be longer to access other areas on the island, or in the state park.

Loggerhead Beach

Loggerhead Beach is on the south side of the island, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Loggerhead beach is a long white, sandy beach. The water is beautiful; the variety of water depths create many hues of blue and green.

One downside of Loggerhead Beach is that it often accumulates seagrass and seaweed, which may be smelly or uncomfortable for some visitors.

Sandspur Beach

Sandspur Beach is located on the northeast side of the island, facing the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the only long white sand beaches in the Florida Keys, and is probably one of the best beach options south of Miami.

Sadly, Sandspur Beach is closed due to damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Seaweed and Seagrass

Like all beaches in the Florida Keys, large amounts of seaweed and seagrass may wash up on the shore.

The state park generally does not remove sea grass because it is a natural part of the environment.

Some people find it unpleasant to swim near sea grass, and it may give off an unpleasant sulfur smell as it decomposes.

Beach Amenities and Facilities

The beach facilities are generally clean, although this can vary. It really depends on the day, how busy the park is, and how respectful other guests are.

There are some covered pavilions and barbeque grills, especially around Calusa Beach.

Other than the limited number of covered pavilions, there is not very much natural shade near the beach. Visitors should consider bringing a high quality shade or beach umbrella.

Things to Do

Most visitors come to Bahia Honda while driving the Overseas Highway road trip from Miami to Key West.

Some also visit Bahia Honda by itself, in search of beaches, watersports and nature, instead of the busy tourist traps of Key West.

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park is one of the most popular state parks in Florida; it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. It is a major source of revenue and economic activity for the region.

Bahia Honda State Park offers beautiful views of the water, bridges, and other keys.

Visitors also enjoy walks through the small nature trails, exploring tidal lagoons, and wandering the coastal hardwood hammock.

The park has several miles of paved road for cycling and skating. It also offers plenty of places to fish and enjoy a picnic.

Bahia Honda State Park offers kayaks, paddleboards and other water gear for rent so visitors can explore the nearby reef.

One of the most popular things to do on Bahia Honda is just to relax and enjoy the scenery.

The sea floor depth changes, so the ocean is painted with infinite shades of blue and green.

The view from atop the Bahia Honda bridge is one of the most beautiful views in all of the Florida Keys, and is a popular photography spot.

There is one nature trail, leading up the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. There are also several geocache locations in Bahia Honda State Park.

Nearby Cities and Attractions

Bahia Honda sits on the Overseas Highway between two of Florida’s most popular cities: Miami and Key West.

Each city attracts millions of visitors per year, and many visitors come specifically to drive the famous road trip from Miami to Key West.

Bahia Honda sits in a beautiful spot on the Overseas Highway. It’s in the lower keys, which many consider to be the most beautiful section of the island chain.

Bahia Honda is 11 miles south of Marathon, which is one of the larger and more prominent islands in the Florida Keys.

If visitors venture off of Bahia Honda, there are a variety of other things to do nearby.

Many visitors enjoy seeing nearby Sombrero Beach, the Turtle Hospital, and the Dolphin Research Center.

Snorkeling in Bahia Honda

Snorkeling conditions are generally excellent in Bahia Honda State Park, especially for beginners.

It is one of the best places for snorkeling from the shore because of the easy beach entry. The water depth in the state park beaches is generally 4-6 feet deep.

The scenery is not the best snorkeling ever, but it is still fun and enjoyable.

Snorkelers often see small coral heads, soft coral, tropical fish, shells, conchs and lobster.

Dolphins and manatees can sometimes be seen.

The best snorkeling in Bahia Honda State Park is found offshore on a nearby reef, and is only reachable via boat.

A privately operated concessionaire inside Bahia Honda State Park operates daily snorkeling tours. They take guests to the nearby Looe Key Marine Sanctuary.

Snorkeling tours and other activities may vary depending on wind and weather conditions.

SCUBA diving

Scuba diving is allowed in Bahia Honda State Park. It’s mostly recommended for beginners because the beach entry is shallow and easy. There is an on-site dive shop.

A diver-down flag is required for diving at Bahia Honda.

Fishing

Fishing is a popular activity at Bahia Honda State Park.

Anglers fish from shore, along seawalls and on nearby sandbars. They also venture offshore aboard fishing charters near Key West and Marathon.

The concessionaire rents kayaks and snorkeling gear.

Nature

Much of Bahia Honda consists of a protected wetland ecosystem, shallow waters and other fragile natural areas.

The wetlands are important for many species. Migratory birds rely on the area for nesting, and juvenile marine life use them for protection until they can venture off into the sea.

The protected areas are also home to mangrove forests which help protect the Florida Keys from hurricanes, erosion, storm surge, water pollution and other impacts.

There is a butterfly garden exhibit called “Wings and Waves”. The lower Florida Keys are an important area for butterflies, including some endangered species.

Sand and Sea Exhibit

There is a nature education center in Bahia Honda State Park, called “Sand and Sea”.

The Sand and Sea exhibit offers a variety of educational materials, including the history of Bahia Honda, Florida Keys ecology and live marine life exhibits.

There are hundreds of species of plants and trees on Bahia Honda. Visitors are often happy to see dolphins, rays and other marine life.

Bird Watching

Bahia Honda is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and has some of the best birdwatching in Florida. The protected wetland areas of the park are especially important for birds and wildlife.

A wide variety of wading birds and shore birds live on the island, or use it in their migratory paths.

Every fall, more than 30 species of migratory birds come to the region in search of warm weather. Bahia Honda comes alive with hawks in the fall, as they make their annual winter migration.

Bahia Honda is also home to endangered species, including the white-crowned pigeon and others.

Watch the Sunset

The sunset at Bahia Honda Bridge in the Florida Keys

Bahia Honda is a great place to watch the sun rise and set. The sunset is often especially beautiful, and can cover the sky in brilliant reds and oranges.

Many photographers like to capture the Old Bahia Honda Bridge in the foreground, with the sunset in the background.

The sun’s location changes according to the season, so some times of the year may be better than others.

Photography

Bahia Honda State Park is an excellent place for photography.

Calusa Beach offers some of the best photography locations in the Florida Keys, especially the photogenic railway bridge.

Photographers can approach the bridge and are able to talk upon the upper sections. The high vantage point is a great photography spot.

The abandoned sections of the historic Bahia Honda Bridge are especially good for photography.

Dogs

Dogs are allowed, subject to rules. They are mostly allowed in the campground. They are not allowed on the beach, and are restricted from other areas.

Pets must be on a 6 foot leash at all times. Pet owners should check the Florida State Park page for more details.

Sources

Henry Flagler Museum

Bahia Honda State Park

Cover Photograph: Viktorwills, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons