Lovers Key State Park
By Charles Sobczak
Florida Realtor & a Florida Author
Consisting of four barrier islands, Lovers Key State Park encompasses 1,616 acres that include a stretch of 2.5 miles of white sandy beaches, 744 acres of mangrove-fringed waterways, and 8 miles of hiking and nature trails that thread through the beaches and islands. Originally named after University of Florida engineering graduate Carl E. Johnson, who helped design and build the causeway that connects the park to Bonita Springs along County Road 865, the park is now commonly referred to simply as Lovers Key.
Like many of Florida’s state parks, Lovers Key is a day-use-only facility–opening every morning at 8 a.m. and closing at sunset 365 days a year. Because of its strategic location between the urban centers of Naples to the south and Fort Myers/Cape Coral to the north, Lovers Key State Park is one of the most visited parks in the state, topped only by Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, Florida. Although no camping is allowed, the park is a great place for fishing, biking, hiking, sunbathing, picnicking, swimming, and more.
The name Lovers Key dates back to the turn of the last century when it was said that young couples favored the sunsets along the beach that extends between New Pass to the south and Big Carlos Pass to the north. In the early days Lovers Key was accessible only by boat, and the seclusion it offered was a welcome respite from the early Florida land boom of the 1920s. Black Island, which is where a 2.6-mile hiking loop and a 5-mile canoe and kayak trail are now located, was slated for a resort-style development in the late 1960s. The island was cleared of all native trees and mangroves and dredged in anticipation of this new subdivision. After a public outcry to halt the development, the state of Florida purchased almost all of the island and added its acreage to what was then the Carl E. Johnson State Park. Since the acquisition by the state, the mangroves and hardwood coastal hammocks have returned, and the land where houses were destined to rise is now covered in palm trees and native plants.
One unique feature of Lovers Key State Park is that it has a nice two-slot boat ramp located on the bay side of County Highway 865 where anglers and boaters can launch their vessels to explore the backwaters of Estero Bay (Florida’s first aquatic preserve) and the numerous surrounding passes. There is a $2 launch fee per boat. There are also canoe and kayak launches in the park free to all paid park visitors. One section of the park is part of the Great Calusa Blueway.
Another great feature of Lovers Key is the picnic area and children’s playground located in the northeast corner of Black Island. Numerous picnic tables and covered kiosks are available for day-trippers for the modest sum of $2 per carload. Because of its name and its 100-year-old reputation as a destination for romance, Lovers Key State Park is a particular favorite for beach weddings; a large covered gazebo and tram stop along the beach help to facilitate these events.
The sheer size of the park, coupled with its dredged canals, backwaters, and passes, make it one of the state’s top-rated parks for anglers. The south side of the park abutting New Pass is known for producing some of the largest record snook in the state. Other catches include redfish, sea trout, tarpon, and flounder, and visiting anglers are encouraged to try cast-netting for the plentiful black-striped mullet. Wildlife sightings may include roseate spoonbills, least terns, black skimmers, bald eagles, West Indian manatees, bottle-nosed dolphins, and the diminutive marsh rabbit. Because of its location along the coast, Lovers Key has shelling comparable to that found on Sanibel Island.
A free tram ferries the visitors from the parking lot to the beaches and runs daily from the park’s opening until 5 p.m. Wildlife tours and presentations are offered during the winter season. Contact the park directly for updates on these events.
The concession company operating in the park offers food, beverages, ice cream, and bike, canoe, and kayak rentals along with an assortment of other amenities including guided sightseeing and fishing tours. The park has been working with Friends of Lovers Key (FOLKS, 239-463-4588) to raise funds to build a visitors center near the main parking lot.
Lovers Key State Park remains nearly as untouched and beautiful today as it was 500 years ago. Several times over the past decade this beach has made it into the top 10 in all of Florida, and once you’ve experienced its white sandy beaches, you’ll understand why.
Lovers Key State Park at 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach, between Big Carlos Pass and New Pass.
Things to do at Lovers Key State Park
Lovers Key has more than two miles of pristine white-sand beachfront and was featured on the Travel Channel in “10 Stunning Florida Keys you don’t know about.” The park is also a National Gold Medal Winner and is America’s first three-time state park winner. The park has over five miles of multi-use trails through a maritime hammock, and inner waterways for paddling. Some things to try:
• Go bicycling or hiking. Go on a hike or ride through the Black Island Trail and/or the Eagle Trail through a maritime hammock. The Black Island Trail is 2.6 miles long and the Eagle Trail is 1.5 miles long. There are plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing on each trail. Maps are available with highlighted observation points. You can rent a bike on site or bring your own.
• Paddle through the mangrove estuary. Rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard on site and see why people call Lovers Key “the real Florida.” You may get a chance to see manatees, dolphins, alligators, osprey, and/or bald eagles while paddling through the 2.5-mile mangrove estuary.
• Pack a picnic. There are several picnic areas in the park. You can choose to have a picnic on the beach, the inner waterways or the backwaters. Many of the picnic areas have grills and trash cans. If picnicking isn’t your style, the concession serves food and drinks.
• Sunbathe on the beach and go for a swim. The water is beautiful, and the sun is shining. Get comfortable on the beach and take a dip in the clear gulf waters. This beach is far less developed and less crowded than Fort Myers Beach, so the relaxation is top notch.
• Hunt for treasure. By treasure, locals mean the unique and colorful shells that dot the coastline. The shelling on Lovers Key is some of the best on Southwest Florida’s Gulf beaches. You can take the shells home with you as long as there’s no one living inside.