Posted Oct. 19, 2012
By CHELSEA PILLSBURY
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – “Awesome,” gasped Leah Parker at her first glimpse of the view atop the Cape Florida Lighthouse, located in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.
The 9-year-old girl was a little out of breath after fearlessly trekking up the 109 steps leading to the top.
Leah and her family stood on the foot-wide ledge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean taking in the horizon. The buildings of Brickell and Downtown Miami rise to their left and when they walk to the other side of the lighthouse they can see Coral Gables and Coconut Grove.
“This is our first time to the lighthouse, but I think it has been our daughters’ favorite place so far this weekend,” said Dan Parker, Leah’s father. The Parkers decided Miami was the perfect weekend getaway from their home in Winter Park, Fla., and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park was their main destination.
The lighthouse itself has encountered war, hurricanes and neglect throughout its 187 year life, but still manages to stand tall and entrance both its young and old visitors.
Built in 1825, and rebuilt in 1846, the Cape Florida Lighthouse is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade Country, pre-dating the City of Miami itself by 70 years.
“In July of 1836, during the Second Seminole War, the lighthouse survived an attack. The original lighthouse keeper, Capt. John Dubose, fled the area for safety leaving John W. B. Thompson in charge. Thompson and his assistant climbed to the top of the lighthouse and lit the bottom on fire to dissuade the Seminoles from attacking. After the Seminoles looted the area and retreated a United States Navy schooner came to Thomas’s rescue,” Ranger Edwin Rios explained to a touring group of visitors in front of the lighthouse.
The entire Parker family was focused on the ranger as he told this famous story from the lighthouse’s past. Rios went on to explain how Confederate sympathizers vandalized the lighthouse during the Civil War and how the lighthouse barely survived falling into the ocean from beach erosion in the early 20th century.
“Is the lighthouse still used today?” asked Rocio Catullo, an Argentinian woman visiting Miami with her husband.
“Yes and no,” replied Rios, “The official lighthouse is now Fowey Rocks lighthouse which is located seven miles offshore, however, in 1978, the Coast Guard installed an automated light as a navigational guide.”
The history of the lighthouse spans decades and played its part in various wars. However, if not for the state park’s namesake, Bill Baggs, the lighthouse and surrounding recreational area would not exist.
Baggs was the editor of The Miami News and, with his insistence, the land was kept undeveloped and condo free. In 1966, the State of Florida bought the land and the lighthouse, which has since become not only a historical landmark, but also the home of the number 10 ranked beach in Dr. Stephen Leatherman’s list of “Top 10 Beaches in America.”
“The major factors are clean water, clean sand, beach safety and environmental management. Cape Florida scores very high in all of these categories, making it a top 10 beach,” said Leatherman.
The site is quite popular with Miami area visitors.
“We come up here every few years with our boys and always come to this beach,” said Roxanne Benson, from nearby Key Largo, Fla.
The park receives more than 760,000 visitors a year who partake in sunbathing, swimming, picnicking, camping, hiking, kayaking and fishing.
“Was it last year we rented the bikes?” Benson asked her husband Thomas Benson. “Yeah I think so! Colton [their youngest son] had just learned to ride without training wheels,” he answered. “We rode all over the park; it made it easy to get around and was a good way to go on the trails with the kids.”
A car-full costs $8, which is a little pricier than the $6 fee of the close-by Crandon Beach, but that extra two bucks means a better beach, and easy access to restaurants, bike rentals and one of the best shoreline fishing areas in the region. Not to mention, a free tour of the historic lighthouse and recreated lighthouse keeper’s cottage and kitchen.
Avid bird watchers also frequent the park during various seasons, however, Ranger Jade Lopez remarked that the most asked question he receives regarding wildlife is usually, “Oh my gosh! There’s a raccoon! Are you going to catch it?”
“I’ve only worked here about a month, but I had been trying to get this job for a while. I love coming to work everyday – even when I get questions about raccoons,” said Lopez as he laughed.
“Most come for the beach,” Lopez said he had noticed, “but many will wander over to the lighthouse area and be surprised at what they can learn here.”
By 1 p.m., the parking lots are filling, families have spread out lunch on the picnic tables, umbrellas line the beach, and some await the beginning of the next lighthouse tour. It is clear that Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park will continue to draw locals and tourists for many years to come.
IF YOU GO
Location: 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne, FL 33149
Park Hours: The park is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
Admission Fees: $8 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle, $4 single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle, $2 pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of annual individual entrance pass.
Boating: $20 per boat per night (in No Name Harbor), $8 per boat if not anchoring overnight.
Restaurants: Boater’s Grill – Boasts fresh fish and a view overlooking No Name Harbor. Price Range – $15-$30. Lighthouse Café – Perfect for a quick snack while enjoying the ocean breeze. Price Range – $7-$10
Bicycle Rentals: $3/30 minimum and $5/hour per cruiser, $5/30 minimum and $8/hour per English bike, Tandem or Trike, $10/30 minimum and $15/hour per quad, $15/30 min and $25/hour per large quad that seats four adults + two small children.
Beach Rentals: $7 per beach chair, $20 for two chairs and one umbrella
Watercraft Rentals: $10/30 min and $15/hour per single person kayak or hydro-bike, $15/30 minimum and $25/hour per double kayak or double hydro-bike.
Pets: All pets must be on a six-foot leash and well behaved at all times. Pets may not be left unattended. Pets that are noisy, vicious, dangerous or intimidating to other persons, or damage park resources, will be asked to leave the park with their owners. Pet owners must pick up after their pets and properly dispose of all droppings in trash receptacles. You may walk your pet in the picnic areas, along the sea wall, bike trails, and hiking trails. Pets are not allowed on the beach, wetlands, playground, Youth Camp, lighthouse, keeper’s cottage, Lighthouse Café or Boater’s Grill.
Swimming: There are no lifeguards, so swim at your own risk.
Lighthouse Tours: Tours of the Lighthouse are available at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Thursday through Monday. All may enter the lighthouse but you must be at least 8 years old to ascend the stairs.