Florida Keys Wilderness consists of many islands off shore of the main chain of non-Wilderness Keys that are bisected by US 1. These islands are administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of National Key Deer Refuge, Key West National Wildlife Refuge, and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. They protect a seemingly endless expanse of sea, sky, and islands between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean south of Florida's southern mainland coast. Although beaches exist on some of the islands, tangles of mangroves make access to most islands difficult. Furthermore, most of the Wilderness islands are closed to public access to protect the sensitive wildlife resources. However, portions of Boca Grande, Woman, and the Marquesas Keys are open to wildlife-dependent recreations uses by the public.
These Wilderness islands are characterized by flat topography which, at points, only rises to 6-10 feet above sea level. Climate, here, is characterized as Tropical-Maritime with a mean annual temperature of about 77 degrees F. The Florida Keys experience the highest level of solar radiation in the State of Florida. The southern latitude and maritime influences contribute to minimal seasonal variation. The coldest average monthly temperature, 68.9 degrees F, occurs during January and the warmest mean monthly temperature, 83.8 degrees F, occurs in August. Rainfall is seasonal with wet periods extending from May through October and annual precipitation totals about 39 inches. Common wildlife on the islands includes the state-listed white-crowned pigeon, the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Key deer, iguana, loggerhead turtle, Atlantic green turtle, Atlantic hawksbill turtle, brown pelican, piping plover, roseate tern, Miami blue butterfly, reddish egret, and great white heron. Common vegetation includes black, white, and red mangrove, slash pines, Gumbo-limbo, Florida butterfly orchid, and yellowheart trees.
The Wilderness area consists of all the Marquesas Keys; Mooney Harbor Key; all the Gull Keys; Boca Grande Key; Woman Key; Man Key; Little Mullet Key; Big Mullet Key; Cottrell Key; Archer Key; Mule Key; Barracouta Keys; Joe Ingram Key; Crawfish Key; Sand Key; Rock Key; Eastern Dry Rocks; all the keys west of Key West; Crane Key; Little Swash Keys; Upper Harbor Key; Big Spanish Key; Little Spanish Key; Crawl Key; Little Pine Key Mangrove; Water Key Mangroves; Water Key; Little Pine Key; Horseshoe Keys; West Bahia Honda Key; Mayo Key; Annette Key; Howe Key; Water Keys islands in Sections 14, 15, 23, and 26; Cutoe Key islands in Sections 19, 20, and 21; Johnson Keys islands in Sections 19, 29, 30, and 32; and parts of Raccoon Key.
Access to these islands (above mean high tide) are permitted only with a special use permit, however, you are welcome to use the surrounding waters for boating, fishing and other permitted recreational purposes. Some islands have special buffer zones, regulations regarding use of motors, or speed zones.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Florida Keys Wilderness.
The wilderness islands in National Key Deer Refuge overlaps Great White Heron NWR. These two areas lie north of the main Florida Keys in the Gulf of Mexico with Key West to the west and Marathon to the east, an area approximately 50 miles wide and five to 10 miles deep.
Key West NWR is a rectangle approximately 15 miles north and south and 25 miles east and west. The refuge begins just west (1 mile) of Key West, the westernmost town in the Florida Keys. The western boundary is just west of the Marquesas Keys.
Access to either of the wilderness areas is by boat only. Public and private boat launches are available throughout the keys.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
The waters surrounding the islands are open for wildlife-dependent activities such as wildlife and wildlands observation and photography, environmental education, and fishing.
There are some beaches that are accessible to the public (Boca Grande, Woman Key, Marquesas Keys), but the islands are closed (to protect sensitive plants and wildlife) above mean high tide. Commercial use would require a special use permit.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Summer daytime temperatures can reach mid 90's, 90% humidity and daily showers. Boaters should bring wide brimmed hats, sunblock, long sleeved shirts, and long pants for long term exposure to the sun. During the winter season the sun is not as intense, however, it can be windy and small craft warnings are constantly in effect.
Safety and Current Conditions
Bring plenty of fluids and standard boating safety gear, PFD's, signaling mirror, whistle and flares. Water temperatures in the winter are cooler and long term exposure can induce hypothermia.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.