Best Nature Preserves & Wildlife Areas In Florida Keys

Nature Preserves & Wildlife Areas In Florida Keys

The Florida Keys, a tropical paradise located in the southernmost part of the United States, is not just about turquoise waters and stunning sunsets. It’s a secret haven for nature lovers, teeming with captivating nature preserves and wildlife refuges that offer an immersive experience into the region’s unique ecosystem. Among these treasures, the Key West Wildlife Refuge stands out, providing lush landscapes, diverse wildlife, and tranquil settings that serve as a much-needed retreat from the bustling beach towns. So, pack your binoculars and hiking boots, and prepare to step into nature’s unspoiled masterpiece.

Popular Nature Preserves and Wildlife Areas in the Florida Keys

Wildlife Areas in the Florida Keys

Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas National Park is an ecological gem characterized by untouched coral reefs, abundant marine life, and a labyrinth of seven islands. This unique park is an essential part of the Florida Keys’ natural and cultural heritage.


Historically, the Dry Tortugas played a significant role during the American Civil War. Fort Jefferson, found within the park, was used as a prison for deserters. Its impressive brick masonry and strategic location offer a glimpse into a pivotal era of American history.

What To See

Visitors can marvel at the picturesque views, the pristine beaches, and the majestic Fort Jefferson. The park is also home to an impressive variety of marine species, including sea turtles, tropical fish, and colorful coral reefs.

Birding Seasons

For birding enthusiasts, the park is a paradise, especially during the spring migration. Species like the sooty tern, the magnificent frigatebird, and the brown noddy are common sightings. The Dry Tortugas is also home to the only breeding colony of magnificent frigatebirds in North America.


The park offers some of the best snorkeling opportunities in North America. The coral reefs and seagrass beds are teeming with marine life, providing an awe-inspiring underwater spectacle.

Yankee Freedom Ferry

The most popular mode of transport to the Dry Tortugas is the Yankee Freedom Ferry. It offers daily services from Key West, allowing visitors to enjoy a comfortable ride with spectacular views as they travel to this off-the-beaten-path destination.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary plays a pivotal role in preserving a diverse array of marine ecosystems. Designated on November 16, 1990, the sanctuary is a part of the National Marine Sanctuary System, comprising 15 marine protected areas, and is jointly managed by NOAA, a federal agency, and the State of Florida.

Renowned for protecting North America’s only coral barrier reef…

Sprawling across 3,800 square miles of waters encapsulating the Florida Keys, the sanctuary is renowned for protecting North America’s only coral barrier reef, extensive seagrass beds, and mangrove-fringed islands. These habitats are home to a remarkable variety of marine life, boasting over 6,000 species.

The sanctuary’s responsibility extends beyond natural preservation…

It also safeguards invaluable pieces of our nation’s history, including shipwrecks and other archaeological treasures buried beneath the sea. Visitors to the sanctuary are invited to explore these relics of the past while marveling at the present wonders of the sanctuary’s vibrant marine life.

Key West National Wildlife Refuge

The Key West National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), situated west of Key West, Florida, stands as a testament to conservation efforts in the region. Accessible solely by boat, this refuge encompasses the Marquesas Keys and 13 other islands, spanning an impressive 375 square miles of open water. Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Key West NWR holds the distinction of being one of the earliest wildlife refuges in the United States. Its primary mission is to serve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for native birds and wildlife while providing critical habitat and protection for endangered and threatened species. With over 250 different bird species calling it home, the refuge is a haven for both avian and aquatic life, contributing significantly to the preservation of biodiversity in the Florida Keys.

Diverse habitats that support a wide array of flora and fauna

Nestled within Monroe County, Florida, between Key West and the Dry Tortugas, the Key West NWR boasts diverse habitats that support a wide array of flora and fauna. With only a fraction of its expansive acreage rising above sea level, the refuge’s 189,497 acres serve as vital nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles and other marine life. The predominantly mangrove islands, complemented by sandy beaches, dunes, salt marshes, and coastal berm hammocks, provide essential ecosystems for various species to thrive. Moreover, the seagrass beds and coral reef communities within the refuge contribute to its ecological richness, further enhancing its significance as a key wildlife habitat in the region. As a cornerstone of conservation efforts, the Key West Wildlife Refuge plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the delicate balance of marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the Florida Keys.

A sanctuary dedicated to preserving the region’s natural heritage…

In the heart of the Florida Keys lies the captivating expanse of the Key West NWR, a sanctuary dedicated to preserving the region’s natural heritage. Established over a century ago, this refuge remains a beacon of hope for native birds, wildlife, and endangered species. With its extensive network of mangrove islands, sandy beaches, and diverse coastal habitats, the Key West NWR provides essential breeding grounds and refuge for a myriad of species. From the majestic sea turtles nesting along its shores to the countless bird species that call it home, the refuge serves as a vital lifeline for biodiversity in the Florida Keys. As stewards of this precious ecosystem, the refuge’s custodians work tirelessly to ensure its protection and conservation for generations to come, reaffirming its status as a cherished wildlife sanctuary in the heart of the Caribbean.

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, serves as a vital sanctuary for great white herons, migratory birds, and various other forms of wildlife. Encompassing thousands of acres of open shallow saltwater and mangrove islands, this refuge, often referred to locally as “the backcountry,” offers crucial nesting, feeding, and resting grounds for a diverse array of bird species. Notably, the refuge provides a habitat for wading birds, shorebirds, raptors, and hundreds of other bird species, fostering a rich and dynamic ecosystem teeming with life. Moreover, the refuge’s pristine waters are home to several species of sea turtles, including loggerhead, green, and hawksbill, which forage and nest on the refuge’s beaches. Additionally, visitors to the refuge frequently encounter Florida manatees and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, adding to the area’s allure as a prime destination for wildlife enthusiasts.

A primary aim to protect wildlife…

Located along the north side of the Keys, bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge spans an impressive 130,187 acres, with 6,207 acres designated as land and 123,980 acres as water. Established with the primary aim of protecting great white herons, migratory birds, and other wildlife, the refuge encompasses a diverse range of habitats, including marshes, mangroves, and coastal waters. Notably, approximately 1,900 acres within the refuge are designated as a National Wilderness Area, further underscoring the area’s importance for conservation efforts and preserving its natural beauty for future generations to enjoy. As a key component of the Key West wildlife refuge system, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge plays a crucial role in safeguarding biodiversity and promoting environmental stewardship in the region.

A premier wildlife refuge…

As one of the premier wildlife refuges in the United States, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge offers visitors unparalleled opportunities to connect with nature and observe a wide variety of wildlife species in their natural habitat. Whether exploring the refuge’s expansive saltwater marshes, observing nesting birds along the shoreline, or simply enjoying the tranquility of its pristine coastal waters, visitors are sure to be captivated by the refuge’s breathtaking beauty and abundance of wildlife. With its diverse array of habitats and rich biodiversity, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge stands as a testament to the importance of conservation efforts in protecting and preserving our natural heritage for generations to come.

National Key Deer Refuge

National Key Deer RefugeThe National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957, serves as a vital sanctuary for protecting and conserving the unique wildlife resources of the Florida Keys, with a primary focus on the endangered Key deer. Situated in the Lower Florida Keys, this wildlife refuge spans a hundred-mile stretch of islands, encompassing diverse habitats crucial for sustaining local biodiversity. From pine rockland forests to tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests, the refuge’s varied landscapes provide essential shelter and resources for a wide range of flora and fauna.

A significant contributor to conservation efforts…

Located on Big Pine Key and No Name Key in Monroe County, Florida, the National Key Deer Refuge spans an impressive 8,542 acres (34.57 km2), making it a significant contributor to the conservation efforts in the region. As the only refuge dedicated specifically to protecting Key deer, a subspecies of the white-tailed deer endemic to the Florida Keys, it plays a critical role in safeguarding the species’ fragile population, which currently stands at around 800 individuals. Beyond its role in preserving the Key deer, the refuge’s diverse ecosystems support a myriad of other wildlife species, making it a key component of the Key West Wildlife Refuge network and an invaluable asset for both wildlife conservation and eco-tourism in the area.

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), established in 1980, stands as a vital sanctuary for diverse wildlife species in the heart of Key Largo. This refuge encompasses a rich tapestry of habitats, ranging from tropical hardwood hammocks to mangrove forests and salt marshes. Located just under 40 miles south of Miami off SR 905 (Card Sound Road), the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an integral part of the United States’ National Wildlife Refuge System. Its primary mission is to safeguard critical breeding and nesting grounds for the threatened American crocodile, alongside providing essential habitat for numerous other species.

A haven for several endangered and threatened species…

Moreover, Crocodile Lake NWR serves as a haven for several endangered and threatened species native to the region. Among them are the Key Largo woodrat, Key Largo cotton mouse, Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly, and the Florida semaphore cactus, all facing significant conservation challenges. Additionally, the refuge supports the protection of threatened species like the Stock Island tree snail and the eastern indigo snake. Through dedicated conservation efforts and habitat preservation initiatives, Crocodile Lake NWR plays a crucial role in safeguarding the biodiversity of the region. As a cherished Key West wildlife refuge, it stands as a beacon of hope for the future of wildlife conservation in the Florida Keys and beyond.

Nature Preserves in the Florida Keys

Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory

The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, nestled at 1316 Duval Street in Key West, Florida, stands as a serene haven for nature enthusiasts and butterfly aficionados alike. This enchanting butterfly park boasts a diverse array of 50 to 60 live butterfly species from across the globe housed within a climate-controlled, glass-enclosed habitat. As visitors wander through the conservatory, they are greeted by the sight of vibrant flowering plants, cascading waterfalls, and lush trees creating an immersive and tranquil environment reminiscent of a tropical paradise. Moreover, the conservatory is not just home to butterflies; it also hosts a variety of free-flying “butterfly-friendly” birds, including American flamingos, red-factor canaries, zebra finches, and Chinese-painted quail, further enhancing the immersive experience of the wildlife refuge.

An educational journey…

Within the confines of the conservatory, guests can embark on an educational journey at the learning center, where they can observe live caterpillars feeding and developing on their host plants up close. This interactive experience provides valuable insight into the life cycle of butterflies, fostering a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance of nature. Whether marveling at the colorful fluttering of butterflies or observing the diverse bird species in flight, visitors to the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory are transported to a realm of natural wonder and tranquility. With its diverse array of flora and fauna, this sanctuary serves as a vital Key West wildlife refuge, offering respite and inspiration for all who venture within its verdant confines. The conservatory welcomes guests daily, inviting them to explore the beauty and diversity of the natural world at their leisure.

Crane Point Museum & Nature Center

Crane Point Museum, Nature Center, and Historic Site, nestled within the scenic landscape of the City of Marathon on Key Vaca, stands as a beacon of natural history and preservation in the heart of the Florida Keys. Established in 1976, this nonprofit institution owes its existence to the visionary efforts of the Florida Keys Land & Sea Trust, which recognized the importance of safeguarding the area from potential development threats. Their foresight not only preserved the land from becoming a landscape dotted with private homes and shopping malls but also paved the way for the creation of a sanctuary for wildlife and nature enthusiasts alike. Today, Crane Point Museum & Nature Center remains an invaluable resource for locals and visitors alike, offering a unique blend of educational exhibits, nature trails, and historical sites that showcase the rich biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region. Moreover, its recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021 further underscores its significance as a cherished Key West wildlife refuge.

A testament to the enduring legacy of conservation and stewardship in the Florida Keys…

Situated amid the breathtaking vistas of Monroe County, Florida, Crane Point Museum & Nature Center stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of conservation and stewardship in the Florida Keys. What began as a noble endeavor to preserve the natural beauty of Key Vaca has blossomed into a thriving hub of environmental education and outdoor exploration. Visitors to this remarkable sanctuary are treated to a plethora of enriching experiences, from guided nature walks along pristine trails to immersive exhibits that delve into the region’s rich history and ecology. Moreover, Crane Point’s designation as a vital Key West wildlife refuge underscores its role in providing a haven for native flora and fauna amid the pressures of urbanization and climate change. As a cherished asset to the local community and a beloved destination for nature enthusiasts from near and far, Crane Point Museum & Nature Center continues to inspire appreciation for the wonders of the natural world while serving as a steadfast guardian of the Florida Keys’ ecological heritage.

Molasses Reef

Molasses Reef, a coral reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is located to the southeast of Key Largo, within the Key Largo Existing Management Area. This reef lies to the east of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. A victim of a significant ecological disaster on August 4, 1984, the motor vessel Wellwood ran aground on Molasses Reef, causing extensive damage. This grounding led to the destruction of 5,805 square meters of living corals and injury to 75,000 square meters of reef habitat.

One of the most popular scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the region

Despite this devastating event, Molasses Reef has remained one of the most popular scuba diving and snorkeling locations in the region. Numerous dive sites marked by mooring buoys attract marine enthusiasts who are drawn to the reef’s clear water, abundant fish population, and plentiful boulder corals. As a classic outer reef with a well-defined spur and groove system of coral development, Molasses Reef serves as a vivid example of a thriving marine ecosystem. Its survival and recovery from the Wellwood disaster underscore the resilience of nature and highlight the importance of marine conservation efforts.

Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden

Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden, nestled at 518 Elizabeth Street in Key West, Florida, is a cherished educational sanctuary for orphaned parrots. Established over 30 years ago, it stands as one of the pioneering parrot sanctuaries in the United States, dedicated to providing a nurturing environment for these majestic birds. Despite its modest size, Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden holds a significant place in the hearts of bird enthusiasts and conservationists alike, serving as a vital wildlife refuge within the Key West community.

Home to a diverse array of avian inhabitants…

Home to a diverse array of avian inhabitants, including eight different species of macaws and two hybrids, the sanctuary offers visitors a unique opportunity to observe and learn about these fascinating creatures up close. Beyond its role as a sanctuary, Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden serves as an invaluable educational resource, fostering awareness and appreciation for wildlife conservation efforts. As visitors stroll through the lush greenery and vibrant blooms of the garden, they are not only treated to a visual spectacle but also invited to connect with nature in a meaningful way. In preserving the legacy of Nancy Forrester’s vision, this sanctuary continues to uphold its mission of providing a safe haven for parrots while promoting the importance of preserving biodiversity within Key West wildlife refuges.


Where can I see wildlife in Key West?

For wildlife sightings in Key West, don’t miss Dry Tortugas National Park, situated about 70 miles west of Key West. Accessible by ferry or seaplane, this park boasts diverse marine life, including vibrant coral reefs and abundant fish species. The Yankee Freedom ferry offers daily trips to the Dry Tortugas, providing opportunities to spot sea turtles, tropical birds, and dolphins during the journey. Additionally, Key West itself features several nature reserves and parks, such as the Key West Wildlife Refuge, where you can encounter migratory birds and native reptiles.

What are the best times of the year to visit wildlife areas in the Florida Keys?

The ideal times to explore wildlife areas in the Florida Keys are generally during the winter and spring months. From November to April, the weather is mild, and wildlife activity is at its peak. This period aligns with the dry season, resulting in fewer mosquitoes and more comfortable outdoor excursions. Additionally, many migratory bird species flock to the Florida Keys during winter, offering excellent bird-watching opportunities. However, summer and early fall can also be rewarding for observing marine life such as sea turtles and tropical fish.

Are there any entry fees or permits required to access nature preserves in the Florida Keys?

Most nature preserves in the Florida Keys typically do not require entry fees or permits for access. However, certain attractions like state parks or guided tours may have nominal fees associated with admission or activities. While entry to the Key West Wildlife Refuge is free, some guided tours or educational programs may incur fees. It’s advisable to check in advance for any specific requirements or fees associated with your planned activities.

Can I camp in any of the nature preserves in the Florida Keys?

Camping options in the Florida Keys are limited, but Dry Tortugas National Park offers a unique camping experience on Garden Key. Overnight camping in the Dry Tortugas requires a permit, obtainable through the park’s website or the National Park Service. The campground on Garden Key offers primitive facilities, including tent sites and composting toilets. Reservations for camping in Dry Tortugas often fill up well in advance, especially during peak season, so early booking is recommended for a memorable night under the stars in this remote wilderness.