It’s another week here in East Tennessee, and for 2018, that means another round of frigid temperatures and wintry weather is bound to be on its way. Over the last couple of issues, we’ve offered some advice on ways to enjoy the beauty that winter brings to the mountains, whether you prefer to brave the powdery slopes or prefer the comfort that a warm car provides. Of course, there are some of us who want absolutely nothing to do with the “joys of winter” and prefer an extended vacation in warmer climes, whether that be California, an isolated island in the Caribbean, or the warm beaches of Florida.
This will be our last excursion to the Sunshine State for a while. Last month we covered two of the state’s most treasured natural areas. Everglades and Biscayne National Parks are spectacular environments which rival the beauty of our own Smokies. We had amazing visits to both, although they were still recovering from the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. After visiting both parks, we drove further south to the very end of the Florida Keys. While Dry Tortugas National Park was our final goal, we decided to postpone that trip for another time when we could be certain that everything was running again smoothly.
Since we were already in Key West, we decided to spend the remaining three days we had at the Southernmost City in the U.S. While the sights and sounds of Duval Street are the main draw on the key, there is so much more that the community has to offer. Numerous boat tours venture out into open waters so visitors can take part in professionally-guided snorkel and scuba diving trips among the coral reefs. Those who love adventure can charter a sailboat or even go parasailing. Nearby Big Pine Key offers the chance to see the endangered Key Deer. Not much bigger than a dog, these miniaturized deer are native only to the Florida Keys and number less than one-thousand individuals.
We found a hidden gem tucked away on the far western end of the island. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park covers just over fifty acres, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in spectacular scenery and an amazing historical legacy. The park is basically split in two separate areas. The northern half is dominated by the aged stone façade of Fort Zachary Taylor itself, while the southern portion is a series of white coral beaches, pine forests, and palm trees.
Reaching the park is a bit confusing, as there are several turns and a roundabout, although you should be fine if you follow the signs which begin on Duval Street. Keep your eyes open and you may see some ships at the adjacent Naval base which abuts the park. Be prepared with your wallet in hand, as you will be required to pay a small fee to enter the park. While this may come as a shock to us Tennesseans, Florida state parks aren’t free. A car with two people runs $7.00, although additional visitors must pay $0.50 each.
Although most visitors run straight to the water (ourselves included), the fort is an amazing piece of history which should not be missed. Arrive by 11:00 A.M. and you can take part in a guided tour by one of the park rangers to learn how important the fort was during the Civil War as well as the Spanish-American War. Construction began in 1845, making its age over 170 years! Although it never saw any battles during the Civil War, it was an important stronghold for the Union cause. Although many portions of the original fort were demolished or renovated over the years, it is still an impressive structure to look at.
After touring the fort areas, it’s time to hit the beach! Don’t stop in surprise once you reach the water, however. This isn’t like the beaches on the mainland that have hundreds of feet of snow white sand. Beaches in the Florida Keys are rocky and composed of crushed pieces of coral. While it may be hard to build a good sandcastle, it shouldn’t negatively impact your visit if you remember to bring sandals or some water shoes. We actually enjoyed the change, as we were able to beachcomb for sand dollars and a variety of unique corals.
Bring along a picnic lunch or some hot dogs for dinner, as there are picnic areas and grills scattered under pine trees along the length of the beach. A small café nearby offers a variety of drinks and dining options for those who don’t feel like cooking themselves. Here visitors can also check out snorkeling equipment, surfboards, and paddleboards. We enjoyed snorkeling in the shallow waters and were surprised to find a variety of colorful fish just off the shore. We even found several rather sizeable lobsters among the rockier areas. Be sure to stick around for the sunset if the skies are clear. The far west end of the park has a seawall which makes a perfect place to see the best sunset in all the Florida Keys! Check out the park’s official website at www.fortzacharytaylor.com/index.html for more information.