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Heading for the Keys?

Johnny Molloy • Jan 26, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Curry Hammock is one of the newer Florida state parks in the Keys. The site, located near Marathon, was purchased in the ’90s and became a day use destination for several years. The 28-site park campground was opened in the mid-2000s, and became instantly poplar.

And why not, with its million dollar views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, colored in those azure waters for which the Florida Keys are known? Beyond the campground, the park offers the Keys in their natural state, whereupon you can swim, paddle, fish, hike, birdwatch and otherwise enjoy what is sure to become a Keys institution over time.

Curry Hammock is actually comprised of five islands strung along the chain of the Florida Keys, approximately midway between Key Largo and Key West. US 1, Overseas Highway, splits the two largest islands, Long Point Key and Fat Deer Key. The developed area of the park, 33 acres, is situated on Little Crawl Key, which is surrounded on all sides by water and connected to the Overseas Highway by a small bridge. The picnic and day use area, covering a half-mile, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The shore between Little Crawl Key and privately-owned Big Crawl Key is the main fishing and kayak launching zone. A restroom and two picnic shelters, along with a play area, offer commanding views. Rock lines part of the beach, to prevent erosion. Shallow water — part of a greater “no-combustible motors zone” — extends outward. The shoreline rock ends near the park campground, which also enjoys great views. Here, a small beach, backed by hard marl, is popular with visitors.

As Little Crawl Key curves to a bay, black mangroves provide shade for picnic tables adjacent to breezier beachline. The beach ends where Little Crawl Key curves into a mangrove-lined bay that narrows into a channel where kayaks ply the tight shady waters. Beyond the developed park area, Fat Deer Key is the largest island of them all. Its shoreline faces both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay, and is connected to Long Point Key by fill, added by Flagler’s railroad men in the early 1900s. Deer Key and a small unnamed island nearby are situated off the main coast and are left in their natural state, which is a hard-to-access mangrove shore. The campground here, with only 28 sites, is one of the state’s newest. Each site has a picnic table, grill, water and electricity, both 30 amp and 50 amp. Some of the campsites have a tent pad, and all will accommodate large RVs. The oceanfront sites start with Campsite #8. Here, you can overlook the Atlantic. Reservations are highly recommended ­— the park sees 100 percent occupancy from mid-December through mid-April. During this time, snowbirding RVers dominate the campground.

Curry Key is a big raptor observation area. When many of North America’s raptors, primarily hawks, begin to migrate south to their southern wintering grounds, they head through the Florida Keys, following land as far south as possible, to ride the thermals that form over terra firma and for better hunting possibilities. Raptors are classified as such by ability to hunt with their superior eyes, their skilled flying abilities and sharp talons to catch their prey, such as rodents, lizards, insects, snakes and other birds, including other raptors. All hawks, eagles, falcons and owls are raptors.

During the fall North American migration, raptors first are funneled by the Florida peninsula, extending south from the bulk of the U.S. But the squeeze really begins when they hit the slender Florida Keys, setting up Curry Hammock State Park as an ideal hawk migration viewing locale. Over 15,000 raptors may be counted during a fall migration period, which lasts from mid-September to mid-November.

The migration is believed to be the largest of peregrine falcons on the planet. Interestingly, upon reaching the Keys, not all raptors decide to go ahead with the open water crossing that lies ahead and turn around. This presents a problem for raptor counters. Some totals include both the southerly and northerly flyby of the birds, while others try to subtract the ones turning back north.

The Keys have always been known for their extensive bird life but it has only been in recent decades that the raptor watch in the Keys has become so far-reaching. No matter when you visit, Curry Hammock is also an excellent place to observe wading and shore birds such as, ibis, plovers, egrets and herons. There’s not too much sitting around at Curry Hammock. The land and water beckon. Traditional boating is not encouraged here, as the park intentionally did not put in a motorboat ramp. A large area fronted by Little Crawl Key, Deer Key and Fat Deer Key offer opportunities for self-powered water sports, as it is a designated no-combustible motors zone.

Here, kayakers paddle the shoreline and shallows while kite boarders and wind surfers shoot out to the Atlantic and back. Swimmers and snorkelers see what lies beneath those famous clear waters, where seagrass beds sway in the current. Anglers toss in a line for snook and mangrove snapper. For paddlers, two major kayaking treks exist. The first one, the Little Crawl Key Circumnavigation, travels 1.5 miles around the island, traveling from the wide open Atlantic, into a bay dividing Little Crawl Key from Big Crawl Key, then enters an intimate channel barely wide enough for a self-propelled boat before opening into a wider channel, which leads out to the Atlantic again.

The Grand Tour, five miles in length, takes paddlers by Deer Key, then over to Fat Deer Key and into the large bay that was once a channel dividing Fat Deer Key from Long Point Key. It then curves along the mangrove shore of Long Point Key, returning to Little Crawl Key. Get a paddling map from the park office.

The Overseas Heritage Multi-Use Trail, the bike trail that parallels US 1, cuts across Fat Deer Key, and the park foot only nature trail traverses 1.5 miles through tropical hammock to a view of Florida Bay. Paddlers can explore the shoreline, comprised primarily of mangrove, of Fat Deer Key in their kayaks. Marathon Key is very near Curry Hammock, and is accessible by the Overseas Heritage Multi-Use Trail and by US 1. Known as the heart of the keys, Marathon is recognized for its fishing opportunities, especially tarpon fishing and offshore angling. Fishing charters are available.

Two beaches, Sombrero Beach and Coco Plum Beach, offer seaside relaxation venues. The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Marathon and is a destination for birders with boats.

This winter, if you head down to the Keys, consider giving Curry Hammock State Park a visit. For more information, visit www.floridastateparks.org.

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