National Key Deer Refuge

Big Pine Key, Monroe County

key deer
30587 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key


If we had to pick just one park/preserve in the Keys to visit, it might be National Key Deer Refuge. Mind you it would be a tough choice, but National Key Deer's rare pine rockland habitat might just give it an edge in our eyes. But there's more among its 9,022 acres, including tropical hardwood hammocks, saltwater marshes, wetlands and mangrove forests. It is home to 20 endangered or threatened plants and animals, including its namesake, the key deer.

Key deer are the smallest subspecies of the North America white-tailed deer, typically stand less than three feet tall and weigh less than 75 pounds. Thousands of years ago, the Keys were part of the mainland, the deer that roamed these parts were the size of other white-tailed deer in Florida. But, when sea levels rose with at the end of the last Ice Age, the Keys became a chain of islands and the resident deer were stranded and isolated. They adapted to their limited surroundings and resources by becoming smaller. The majority of the deer live on Big Pine Key and No Name Key, and the two islands make up the heart of the refuge. It's almost impossible to go anywhere on either island without encountering key deer.

National Key Deer is by far the most accessible of the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys, the others being Key West, Great White Heron and Crocodile Lake. Both Key West and Great White Heron require a boat to explore, while Crocodile Lake offers only limited public access as of this writing.

History: During the 1950s, the number of key deer had dwindled to about 50 or less. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine, No Name and nearby islands in 1957 to protect the animals. In 1967, the FWS placed key deer on the endangered species list and the key deer population slowly recovered and now number between 500 and 600.

What You'll See: Hopefully key deer. They wander about Big Pine and No Name keys, down roads, through yards, through the refuge. Pretty much anywhere they want. Which is why strict speed limits were put in place to protect them. But there are other jewels you might see here as well. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a mangrove cuckoo, or visit in late spring and early summer, a nesting antillean nighthawk. There are adventures to be had.

Amenities: We suggest a first stop at the National Key Deer visitors center in the Big Pine Shopping Center to pick up a map of the refuge and some advice as to where to go. The Jack Watson Mannillo Trail cuts through the pine rocklands and is on the rugged and primative side. It is well-marked, but limestone outcrops and wet areas might be difficult for some to negotiate. Blue hole is nearby and offers a less challenging trail and an observation platform. There is adequate parking at both trailheads but no drinking water or restrooms. There are other, unnamed trails throughout the refuge that are open to the public.  

Of Note: There is no entrance fee at National Key Deer Refuge. The refuge is open sunrise to sunset every day of the year. The refuge's visitor center (address above) has limited hours. Check the website above for details. Also note that there is a lot of privately owned land within refuge and should be respected.

Nearby: Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Gardens and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park are two stops on the Great Florida Birding Trail in Key West, about 30 to 45 minutes up U.S. !. Bahia Honda State Park sits a few miles south of Big Pine Key.

Links: The Institute for Regional Conservation's plant inventory for National Key Deer Refuge is here. The Great Florida Birding Trail's take is here.
Cover Photo: A key deer, of course, photographed on No Name Key during our first visit to the refuge in 2013.

Click on the photos below for full-sized images and detailed descriptions.

  • Disappearing Lands
    pine rocklands
  • The Nursery
  • The Blue Hole
    blue hole
  • A Key With No Name
    no name key
Getting There ...
Cross onto Big Pine Key and you're there. If you're unfamiliar with Big Pine Key and the refuge, we suggest a stop at the visitor's center in the Big Pine Shopping Center along U.S. 1.

Photo Gallery for National Key Deer Refuge

Click on the photograph to see an enlarged image. Click on the name to read more about the species.

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.
Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.