We spend 5 nights in the Keys touring the islands, sampling the local food, and even enjoying a Margarita in Margaritaville! And spend $0 on lodging.
Is There Free Camping in the Florida Keys?
We had packed our tents and tent camping gear in the naivete of first-time-Florida-Keys goers. We left the fifthwheel and the dogs up in Palm City, and planned to do the Keys right after we got off the boat from our Bahamas Cruise with just the truck – without the RV.
We had heard that RVing in the Keys was pricey and that you had to book your stays far in advance. We also didn’t want to get stuck on what we presumed would be narrow island roads. The thinking was that we would find a little pull off in the mangroves or on the beach and pitch our little pup tent when it was time to sleep, if we didn’t find a reasonable campground you could tent at.
Is there free overnight parking in the Florida Keys?
Not only are there “No Camping” signs everywhere on the Keys that is not a campsite, but there are “No Overnight Parking” signs everywhere too.
Every street, every park, every public beach (of which there are few).
So this called for some creativity in order to make our improve Keys trip a success.
Fortunately for us, our beast of a truck has, of all things, a bench front seat. When we bought it, we hadn’t seen a bench seat in the front seat of ANYTHING that was made after the year 2000, let alone a 2010 truck.
So, we ultimately had two benches in the truck – the back seats and the front seats – making it doable for sleepovers in the cab. (We did consider sleeping in the bed of the truck under the bed cover, but should we have been “caught,” we would have been awoken and politely asked to leave somewhere in the middle of the night vs. surprising a tow truck guy by jumping out of the truck bed.)
Day 1 – Miami to Key Largo
We left the Port of Miami in the late morning and found one of the last Wal-Marts on the way to the Keys to stock up on provisions for the trip. We filled our two 5-gallon Coleman Water Carriers that lasted us the whole time, and some non-perishable food items: PB&J fixings, apples, granola bars etc. We were also exhausted from our cruise (late nights of entertainment, early disembarkation get-up time), so took a nap in the parking lot.
After waking, we made our way to Key Largo, and the sun was just about to set. We found a spot to watch it fade, then the realization hit that we had no idea where we were going to sleep for the night, or anywhere to rest and hang out until it was time to sleep. Luckily, there was a Starbucks on Key Largo for the latter.
Overnight parking in Key Largo
When we were ready for sleep, we drove around the dark streets of Key Largo for about 45 minutes looking for a spot that was the perfect balance between “not obvious” and “suspicious.”
Tension was high – it’s never a good idea to do something that stressful when you are sleepy! Luckily, we got better at it as we went. We settled on an unnamed parking lot behind some businesses where a semi and trailer were parked. While there was a “No Overnight Parking” sign posted at the edge, we were undisturbed.
Well, until the garbage truck came at 6AM the next morning to empty the dumpsters.
Day 2 – Key Largo, Islamorada, & Marathon
We packed a lot of adventure into Day 2. We first stopped at a WildBird Sanctuary before leaving Key Largo where there were lots of rehabilitating birds of all kinds: pelicans, cormorants, owls, osprey, hawks, jays, and more. It was free (with donation recommended), and really cool.
Just be prepared for a little bit of stink when you get to the large back pens!
On Islamorada, we found a free public beach called Coco Beach for a beach walk and some lunch. We also stopped at the Rain Barrel to see one of the tourist sights: the largest anatomically correct lobster statue in the world!
You will also find the Hurricane Memorial and crypt on Islamorada (at Mile Marker 81.5) honoring the 485 people lost during the massive hurricane of 1935.
The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was the strongest and most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history. It was a category 5 hurricane, and Islamorada sustained winds of 200 miles per hour which obliterated the town. During that time, about 700 military veterans were employed constructing the first Overseas Highway to connect the mainland to Key West, and 257 of them perished in the hurricane.
This gave us a new appreciation for the Overseas Highway we were driving on. A lot of the old construction is currently used for pedestrian bridges out over the water, where many people go to walk, bike, and fish. Other sections were left as memorials – decrepit sections of bridge slowly being reclaimed by the ocean, but reminding travelers of the lives lost.
On Marathon, we lingered. Cait had a friend who had lived on Marathon Key, and she recommended a local restaurant called Burdine’s. The food was fabulous (you HAVE to get the hush puppies and the Chicken Florentine Burger!) and with it you got a waterside view of the boats coming and going.
We then went to Sombrero Beach, which is probably the largest public beach on the Keys, and laid out in the sun until it was ready to dip below the horizon.
We found a little park called the Jesse Hobbs Park to use the restrooms, brush our teeth, and reorganize the insides of the truck cab. It was delightful to find the bathrooms very clean and modern. We actually returned here in the morning after over-nighting in a marina parking lot, and once more when we were on our way back to the mainland.
Day 3 – Bahia Honda, Big Pine, No Name, Key West
On Day 3 we crossed the famous 7-Mile Bridge stretching from Marathon to Bahia Honda.
We entered the Bahia Honda State Park, which was voted one of the nicest parks in all of Florida. It has miles of natural beach, that are very colorful with purple, orange, and yellow sponges washed ashore. Bahia Honda also boasts the largest stands of the threatened Silver Palm tree.
Big Pine Key
For lunch we had another local’s recommendation to hit up the “No Name Pub” located out on Big Pine Key, near No Name Key. As we made our way onto Big Pine Key, we saw lots of signs to slow down and watch out for the endangered Key Deer. There is a National Sanctuary on this Key for the deer, which looks pretty much like a dog-sized white-tail. We were really hoping to see one!
There is a big deal about being able to actually find No Name Pub, since it doesn’t have a name. In reality, it is easily found on a GPS. The pub is no-frills (beer served in plastic disposable cups), unless you count the thousands upon thousands of dollar bills – real money – hanging on the walls, ceiling, rafters, and anywhere else a staple or nail could hold them!
No Name Key
After lunch, we went to explore the mysterious “No Name Key” in hopes of spotting a Key Deer. We drove all over this little key (slowly) looking for the famous deer, with no luck.
We decided to move on, and next we were off to Key West! And wouldn’t you know it, as we left Big Pine Key, we got a real treat: two Key Deer crossed the road in front of us!
The Conch Republic, the home of Duval Street, and the Southernmost Point, among other things; we finally made it to Key West!
We quickly realized that scooters and bikes were the way to go in Key West. Our big dually truck seemed way too large for the narrow streets and the number of people in them as well! Since the day was coming to an end, we parked our truck on one of the off-streets and biked down to Mallory Square to see the nightly Sunset Celebration, where street performers and vendors gather to wow, entertain, and make a sale.
We rode along Duval Street to see what it was all about. Lots of restaurants, bars, fun and fancy shops, and all sorts of people! Due to the busyness and quite frankly the price tag on everything, we were just observers for the evening, soaking in the famous locale.
We returned to the truck for a hodge-podge dinner. The park that we were parked in had several full-sized bocce ball courts in it, and it seemed to be league night. Three teams were playing, so we settled down to watch for a while.
We were amazed at how good these players were, and it was fun to see the locals enjoying their version of this paradise: sipping a few beers, cranking some tunes, and playing bocce ball in the warm evening. It was such a polar opposite from the partying and indulgence found along Duval.
The Secret to Free Camping in the Florida Keys (from the Experts)
We met and talked to some other “car campers” at this park lot who were skipping the expensive campgrounds. Rigs ranged from ratty old sedans to nice shiny camper vans. From northern Florida to Canada, these folks had been coming down here for years to take advantage of the climate and the laid-back culture.
At night, they each dispersed into the streets of the island, each with their own favorite spots, which they rotated every couple days to avoid notice and irritating the house owners. We did the same that night.
Couple of tips for free overnight parking in the Keys:
1) Don’t park in front of someone’s house,
2) Try to find a spot with a wall or a dense row of trees,
3) Try to find a spot without even a sidewalk so people don’t walk by and peek in your windows.
Day 4 – Key West
The next day we awoke to the early call of the islands many “wild” roosters and went for a nice bike ride around the entire island.
We visited the West Martello Tower, which had been converted from a run-down military fort into a beautiful tropical garden! It is free admission (donation appreciated) to see some of the most beautiful trees, orchids, and other tropical plants. Located right next to Higgs Beach and the White Street Pier, you should definitely step in when you’re around.
It was warm in the Keys the whole time we were there, but the hottest days were when we were in Key West. We biked to all the beaches to determine which one was best, but ended up determining that the public beaches weren’t Key West’s strong point.
The water was cloudy, and you couldn’t see the sharp hunks of coral and rock just beneath the surface that caused more than one stubbed toe. A lot of the beaches also had the ammonia stink from the rotting seaweed, which doesn’t make for a pleasant day at the beach.
We also checked off some bucket list items:
Southernmost Point Mile Marker and a Margarita at the “real” Margaritaville!
Fun Fact: this is actually the end cap for the sewer!
That evening we skipped the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square for a quieter sunset homage from the White Street Pier.
Day 5 – Snorkeling Sombrero Reef
Our fifth and final day, we waved goodbye to Key West and began the long trek back to Florida’s mainland. But we did have one final adventure in store: Snorkeling!
We chose to snorkel Sombrero Reef located 6 miles off Marathon Key. We had read that the reef here was one of the healthiest, and one of the most satisfying for seeing lots of marine life. We snorkeled with Starfish Snorkeling.
I was both excited and terrified to snorkel – with a few possibly unrealistic fears of being eaten by sharks or being bitten by a barracuda. But we both wanted to see what it was like, and the Key really need to be experienced from the water.
Unfortunately, the day did not go completely as hoped. First of all, the seas were rough. Waves crashed over the bow of the power catamaran, spraying the passengers seated up front (luckily we had chosen a spot in the back). Four to five foot swells rolled the boat when we finally got to the mooring out at Sombrero Lighthouse on the reef.
We were there not 10 seconds before we all saw a sea turtle from the boat! We took it as a good omen and were excited to get in the water. Little did we know… Read the full account of the day’s events from Caitlin’s perspective:
Blog: Getting Stung by Jellyfish & the Home Remedy that WORKS
The tour took about 2 hours total, and Caitlin managed not to lose her lunch on the the long nauseating ride back to shore. We then got changed and hopped back in the truck for the long, 6+hour drive back to Palm City, FL.
At least we had a beautiful sunset to send us off!
Check out the aerial drone footage we took while we were there:
Key West Beaches & Reviews
- Fort Zachary Taylor Park & Beach – While we did not make it to this park and beach, we heard from many locals and vacationers alike that this was the beach to go to.
- South Beach – Small and located behind and squashed between some resorts. Busy.
- Dog Beach – As the name suggests, this is the dog-friendly beach. It is very small and crammed between a couple of hotels. LOTS of dog traffic here, so if you didn’t bring your canine companion you probably won’t want to deal with other peoples’ petsâ you-know-what. It is not cleaned by the city, but (hopefully) by responsible pet owners.
- Broken Glass Beach – First of all, probably the worst name for any beach. If the name doesn’t scare you off, it (like most of the beaches we visited on Key West) was very rocky.
- Higgs Beach – This is where we ended up laying our towel down. It looked the nicest sandy-beach wise, but the layer of sand above the rocky foundation wasnât enough for Cait’s tender feet. Rocks in the shallow areas were hard to see in the cloudy water.
- Smathers Beach – the largest public beach on Key West on the south edge of the island. This one had a bit of strong odor to it, so we did not stay long.
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