Florida discoveries: wild and historic island in Florida Keys

Indian Key, a state park accessible only by boat, is an easy half-hour paddle over shallow water, off the Overseas Highway in Islamorada.
Indian Key, a state park accessible only by boat, is an easy half-hour paddle over shallow water, off the Overseas Highway in Islamorada.

Who hasn’t dreamed of a private island?

Driving down the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, one can easily imagine a tropical paradise on one of those little green islands surrounded by turquoise waters.

Next time you’re in the Keys, you can visit one — Indian Key — with a remarkable history. It’s an easy half-hour paddle by kayak or stand up paddleboard over shallow water, suitable for beginners and families. You also can visit on a boat tour.

Indian Key, a state park accessible only by boat, is located a half mile off the Overseas Highway in Islamorada. Seeing this speck of fossilized coral overgrown with jungle-like vegetation, it is hard to believe that in 1836, this was the county seat for Dade County, which stretched all the way to Lake Okeechobee.

In the 1830s, when little of Florida was settled, this was home to a prosperous community of wreckers — folks who salvaged goods off the many ships that ran afoul of the nearby reefs. It had two-story houses, a hotel where John Audubon stayed, a post office, stores and warehouses.

Indian Key thrived until August 7, 1840, when Seminole Indians attacked. About 50 to 70 residents escaped, 13 were killed, including a well-known local, Dr. Henry Perrine, a medical doctor and botanist. The town never recovered.

Seminole Indians attacked Indian Key in 1840, killing 13 people and causing others to flee. The town never recovered.

What you’ll find there now is an evocative scene — ruins overgrown with vegetation, streets signs marking paths that follow the original street grid and crumbling stone foundations of buildings. Signage offers details about the community. The island is rarely crowded and is a good place to picnic.

To get there, launch your kayak from the ocean-facing park along US 1 between mile markers 77 and 79. You can rent kayaks from nearby Robbie’s Marina. The advantage of leaving from Robbie’s is that you paddle over an incredible gathering of huge tarpon that are fed by visitors at Robbie’s.

Indian Key was once a coral reef and its shoreline is made up entirely of sharp-edged reef rocks. This makes for good snorkeling, but be careful where you pull up your kayak. There is a dock that is too high for kayakers to use. If you paddle around the highway-facing side of Indian Key, there is a stretch of shore where the rocks are lower and you can pull up a kayak.

To snorkel, look for a shell-encrusted bench on the island opposite the dock. That’s a good place to get in and out of the water.

If you want to visit Indian Key State Park without kayaking, boat excursions from Robbie’s Marina visit both Indian Key and a nearby island known for its trees and plants, Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park.

▪ Renting kayaks at The Kayak Shake at Robbie’s Marina:; MM 77, 77522 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada; 305-664-4878. Half-day rentals for double kayaks $55, single $40, stand-up paddleboards $50.

▪ Indian Key Historic State Park:

▪ Boat tours: $37.50 for a 2 1/2-hour tour to Indian Key and Lignamvitae Key.

Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at