Discovering Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
Over the past few decades when visiting the Florida Keys we would drive past a dirt road with a locked chain link fence on Windley Key in the upper Keys. A number of years ago the gate, while still locked, displayed a new sign that read “Windley Key Fossil Reef”. Today it is open to the public as a state park. On our recent Keys drive we stopped in and spent a couple of hours visiting the Visitors Center and hiking the park.
If you’re planning a trip to the Florida Keys this often overlooked park is really worthy of a visit. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park provides an interesting exposure of a geological formation known as the Key Largo Limestone. This is a limestone rock fossil quarry; and the material is known locally as “keystone”. The entire quarry is comprised of a Pleistocene fossil reef, estimated between 100-125,000 years old. A majority of the keys are formed on this fossil reef system. The ocean levels rose and fell multiple times after the last Ice Age, and stabilized over the last 5,000 years. The top 25 feet of the old coral reef became exposed, died and laid the foundation to form Windley Key Fossil Reef .
Want to go exploring for fossils? Oddly one place to look is your nearest mall or new hotel or office building. On the floor of many of these places is polished limestone made mostly of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the minerals calcite or aragonite, that contain an abundance of fossils or fossil traces. The fossils under your feet may be macroscopic or microscopic. The macroscopic fossils often include crinoid stems, brachiopods, gastropods, and the remains of other hard shelled mollusk. In Florida the main form are the remains of these ancient coral reefs.
So next time you’re in Florida, visit a coral reef without even getting wet.
Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.
Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.
How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.
The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.
Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.
This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out, southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.
Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.
When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.
Coming to the Keys most people are looking for Sun, sand and water with fresh seafood being a good expectation. Our suggestion is to approach Keys seafood with a simple rule – “the simpler, the better”. Florida’s waters are famous for Florida lobsters (also called spiny lobster or Caribbean lobster) crab, shrimp, grouper and dolphin, and on and on. No it is not the Flipper kind of dolphin but a name for a popular fish. Because of the name issue you will probably find it more often referred to by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi but whatever you call it it is a beautiful mild-flavored white meat fish. Most locals have favorite hangouts often with picnic tables on docks or decks, cold beer and fresh-caught fish on the grill. Maybe throw a lobster on the grill too or a bucket of peel-n-eat shrimp.
One problem is you will find a lot of good places to eat but unfortunately there are probably more mediocre to bad restaurants around. In the past we had come to believe that one of the problems is the tourist character of this chain of islands. With an estimated number of visitors to just Key West exceeding 2.5 million and a local population of under twenty-five thousand it isn’t hard to see where the foundation of the economy is. Generally, in the past, restaurants in the Keys were high priced with little dependence on return customers which is a terrible combination. Over the years we had developed our list of favorites with the majority being local places and a few with long histories and reputations.
On returning after over a decade we were hopeful that the internet had helped to fix this restaurant problem. In this modern age it is very difficult for even small restaurants to escape the comments of thousands of online reviewers. After a week of reading reviews and eating around the Keys we decided that, unfortunately, not much has changed. While you can find great seafood still you really need to know where to look, read reviews and ask locals for advice.
Here are a few of our favorites:
Lorilei’sin Islamorada is another institution in the Keys and a favorite for watching sunsets.
Sid & Roxy’s Green Turtle Inn located in Islamorada has been a Keys institution forever. Sid and Roxy bought the place in 1947 and the current owners work hard at keeping up the reputation. The originator of Key Lime pie.
Herbie’s in Marathon has been in business forever and is a favorite with locals. There have been new owners for a few years but everyone says they’re doing a good job of keeping up the reputation. And don’t get put off by the outside appearance.
Hurricane Hole is just north across the bridge going out of Key West on Stock Island. This is a typical Keys place on a marina with lots of outdoor tables. The food is fresh and good and the prices very friendly.
Ship Wreck Bar & Grill in Key Largo is a little off the beaten path but worth the look. Again this place is a solid favorite with locals and while a little unrefined serves good, fresh Keys seafood and cold beer. Enough said.
In Marathon is Sweet Savannah’s a bakery and ice cream shop. If you are looking for a great slice of Key Lime pie – this is the place. An award winner for five years. 8919 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050
Island Fish Company in Marathon was just an open-air Tiki Hut on the water a decade or so ago. Even then they grilled up some good, fresh seafood at reasonable prices and featured live music in the evenings. We were amazed how they had grown since our last visit. You can’t do that unless you’re doing something right.
Islamorada Fish Company, like the Island Fish Company started out by just open-air grilling fresh seafood out on the docks. A while ago the got a new neighbor, Outdoor World, that started bringing in traffic and their business exploded. Now they are all grown-up, were taken over by Outdoor World and have over a dozen locations around the country. They still serve solid seafood.
Key West is ground zero for good restaurants in the Keys and you could spend a couple of weeks eating out and still have more to try. Like the Keys in general, some of the best food in Key West is served thru a window and enjoyed at a picnic table so keep that in mind as you decide where to eat.
Conch Republic Seafood Company in Key West is a good choice for seafood and at a good price. While it is a favorite with the tourists and the waterfront location offers good scenery it is still a solid choice. Tip: The happy hour buy one get one beer tokens don’t have to be used on the same day.