Endangered Key deer, a Labrador retriever-size subspecies of white-tailed deer, occur only in the Florida Keys. About 10,000 years ago, rising seas separated the Keys–and the deer’s larger ancestors–from the North American mainland. The stranded deer shrank, generation to generation, in response to the islands’ less nutritious food sources. Only about 50 Key deer remained in the mid-20th century, due to habitat loss. Federal protection, slower speed limits, and the 1957 establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge have boosted today’s count to between 600 and 700.
Key deer roam the refuge and its trails year-round, especially at dawn and dusk. Take Key Deer Boulevard north three miles from US 1 to access Watson Nature Trail, a .7-mile loop through Big Pine Key’s verdant forest. Or link old fire roads for a four-mile loop around No Name Key–where deer flock to a freshwater lake contained in a limestone bowl. On Watson Boulevard, about five miles northeast of the visitor center, look for barriers marking a fire road that leads into a tropical hardwood hammock. Pick up a map at the visitor center (staff will highlight the route). And pack bug dope.