There is no way you would ever end up in Cedar Key by accident. The 50 or so miles along State Highway 24 take you through lonely, empty forests and endless salt marshes, and you soon begin to think you took a wrong turn. Only there have been no turns for at least 20 miles.
John Muir managed to meander his way here in 1867 during his famous jaunt from Kentucky to Florida and fell in love with the area; in fact, he made it all the way to the terminus of the railroad: Osenta Otie Key, where the town was first established. He said about the island:
For nineteen years my vision was bounded by forests, but today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I beheld the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded, except by the sky. What dreams and speculative matter for thought arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!
And then he promptly contracted malaria (a problem on the island until fairly recently) and almost died. But it was worth it.
You have to really aim for Cedar Key to get to this little Gulf island, and the city’s approximately 1000 residents prefer it that way. The only chain anything you’ll see is the Chevron gas station, and it’s so run down and localized you’d never tell. Walk into any local bar (not the gentrified tourist places on the Gulf), and you might be the only person in there who doesn’t know everybody else. Not that it takes long to fit in; Cedar Key residents are stand-offish at first, but be friendly and open, and after a couple of drinks, they’ll warm up to you. Especially if you’re from somewhere other than Florida. “What the Hell are you doing here?” was the normal reaction to telling people we were from Wyoming.
Cedar Key is the kind of town where the community calendar has listings like “Beer” and “Fishing Competition” and “Sunset,” and the front page of the local paper includes the full list of low and high tides for the week and a story about the most recent sturgeon attack (“It’s that time of year again,” say representatives from Florida Fish and Wildlife, “So let’s be careful out there”). Cedar Key is “old” Florida, really old Florida. Older than Disney World, older than Key West. It’s the city that Key West was when Hemingway loved it the 1930s, quiet and gritty and filled with real people who live real lives by the tides and oceans.
It almost feels as if you’ve taken a turn into the bayous of Louisiana instead of the coast of the Sunshine State. Mangrove forests snake around 100-year-old railroad tracks; French- and Spanish-style architecture, worn and blackened and vine-covered in the tropical heat, line the streets. There is a small beach, but that’s not really why people come to Cedar Key. They come to fish.
Fishing charters line the docks, each specializing in a different fishing experience: deep sea, shark, airboat, mangrove and salt marsh, pirate themes, most of which also do tours along to coast. There are also plenty of kayak and canoe rentals for those who want more of a workout on their vacation. Expect to pay $40-$60 per canoe/kayak for a several-hour rental, $50-$100 per hour for a boat rental, depending on the type of boat, where you want to go, and what amenities you want.
For an essential day trip, pack a lunch and plenty of water and rent a couple of kayaks right from the beach and head over to Atsena Otie Key, just across the way. This small island is the original location of the Cedar Key Settlement in the early 1800s. The town there survived two Seminole Wars and several raids during the Civil War, only to be completely wiped out during a massive hurricane in 1986 (when they moved the settlement inland to its current location). Though no buildings remain, you can still see some early and mid-19th century graves in the old cemetery on the island. It’s open for public use and has a dock for boats and beaches for your kayak, and while some areas are closed off for conservation purposes (turtles and horseshoe crabs like to nest in some areas), visitors can wander through the forest and mangroves and search for ruins. The island is owned by the Suwannee River Water Management District and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of Cedar Keys NWR.
There are plenty of things to do around Cedar Key. Shell Mound Park is just up the road and worth a look. It’s a very different part of Suwannee River: this ancient structure was completed more than 1000 years ago from almost 1000 years of shellfish eating and disposing. Native Americans used the mound (deceptively high) to mark their territory and as protection against tropical storms. There are a couple of short, easy yet scenic hiking trails in the park.
When on Cedar Key, you’re surrounded by Lower Sewanee and Cedar Keys national wildlife refuges, and most people spend their time here exploring these areas by kayak, canoe or boat. Paddling ideas can be found here, but do be well aware of the tides. We saw more than one boater and canoeist forget the time and get caught in ebbing waters.
You can also paddle to Seahorse Key, the home of the lighthouse so famously associated with photos of the area. The lighthouse is closed to the public, though the University of Florida (which also runs a research station on the island) hosts tours on the third weekend of October. You can play on the beaches in the fall and winter, but they are closed to the public March through June to protect the island’s numerous nesting birds.
If you don’t have your sea legs yet, trying rent bicycles at one of the motels in town and bike around the island. You can visit the Spanish moss-covered cemetery with graves from as early at the 1870s, then through the unique island neighborhoods with a fascinating collection of homes in any and all styles, and then stop at the Cedar Key Museum State Park.
This small museum is a bit dated, but it has some interesting artifacts from the town’s colorful history and from the Native Americans that used to call these islands homes. The grounds (free, if you don’t want to spend the $4 to get into the museum) also have a salt cauldron and canons from the Civil War and the restored 1920s home of Saint Clair Whitman, the founder of the first museum on the island.
And be sure to stop by the Cedar Key Airport, because where else can you ride your bicycle on the airport taxiway?