On a map, Pigeon Key doesn’t look like much more than a tiny dot to the east of Big Pine Key. At just five acres, it’s one of the smaller islands among the Florida Keys and lacks the cafes, bars, and swanky boats that made the southern Florida island chain famous. But when it comes to history and nature, the tiny island with a funny name has quite the claim to fame.
Pigeon Key’s remarkable history dates to the early 1900s. Between 1908 and 1912, 400 workers lived there while taking part in one of the most significant engineering projects in American history: the Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, also known as the Seven Mile Bridge.
Prior to this project, the Keys were unattached to the mainland (and each other). Boats were the only way to move both people and goods and freight; it was a slow and cumbersome process. However, connecting the island of the Keys by rail and rail bridges was no easy feat, as there was little land and huge sections of water to build across. Today, their remarkable achievements are commemorated with eight historic buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and exploring those buildings is just the beginning of what you can see and do on the island.
How to get to Pigeon Key
The prettiest way to visit Pigeon Key is under your own steam. You can get there on foot or by cycling along the old Seven Mile Bridge. Despite the name, the distance to Pigeon Key from Marathon (the nearest neighboring Key) is only two miles each way, so you’re not committing to an entire seven-mile walk. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive to Marathon Key from Miami, home to the closest major airport.
On any given morning, you’ll see walkers, joggers, and cyclists enjoying the car-free space and the gorgeous views. When a new bridge was built for motorists, the old Seven Mile Bridge was converted into a fitness path, proving to be hugely popular. Bikes are available from Bike Marathon Bike Rentals.
Alternatively, you can hitch a ride on the Pigeon Key train trolley. It’s a bright blue-and-gold trolley pulled by a train engine on wheels. It’s the only passenger vehicle authorized on the old bridge, so you’ll probably want to buy tickets in advance as it only departs four times per day from Marathon Key.
Pigeon Key tours and activities
The island, its historic structures, and its programming are maintained and managed primarily by the Pigeon Key Foundation, which runs daily Pigeon Key tours, overnight marine science field trips, special events, and summer camps. Admission is charged to access the island and costs $25 for adults, $23 for veterans, and $20 for children aged 13 and under. If you don’t take the Pigeon Key train across the bridge, admission is cheaper, at $15 for adults.
Visitors can book online as early as two weeks ahead of time. You can also book in person by dropping by the Pigeon Key Visitors Center (1090 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, FL 33050). The Pigeon Key train only seats about 20 people, so it’s best to book early if that’s your preference.
Join a guided history tour
Guided history tours of Pigeon Key take about one hour and are timed to coincide with the trolly rides. The experience consists of a guided walk through the grounds and buildings with an expert from the Pigeon Key Foundation. Guides share the stories behind the buildings that housed railway workers and played a key role in seeing the project through to completion. In the tour, you’ll learn why connecting the Keys first by rail and later by highway was such a significant engineering accomplishment (and financial gamble).
After the tour, swing by the nearby Pigeon Key History Museum to see artifacts from the island’s development in person. The tour is included in the island’s cost of admission.
Feed the sharks
While on Pigeon Key, you’ll likely notice the island’s saltwater pool. It’s not for people to enjoy a refreshing swim, but instead, for sea creatures to enjoy. After the 1:00 PM history tour, the group heads to the pool to feed the animals. As the pool is open to the ocean and animals can come and go as they please, you might see sharks, large fish like groupers or tarpon, and species like moray eels or hermit crabs.
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While you can’t swim or snorkel in the pool, you can enjoy time in the water at other locations around the island. Sea turtles are abundant in the water off Pigeon Key, and you might also spot angelfish, parrotfish, grouper, or queen conch.
You’ll need to bring your own snorkel gear and “swimmer/diver in the water” flag (which you can buy on Marathon Key). You also need to check in at the Visitors Center to sign a liability waiver. Visitor center staff can also advise on the best spots to go, though the area around the island’s dock is usually a safe bet.
Catch-and-release fishing is permitted off the small dock on the opposite side of the island from the saltwater pool. Fishers aged 16 and old require a fishing license and everyone must bring their own fishing gear. You can buy a fishing license in person from an authorized retailer or buy it in advance online.
Do some birdwatching
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The wildlife on Pigeon Key isn’t limited to the sea. The island is a flightless bird rehabilitation center and home to osprey, pelicans, a great white heron named Edgar (a favorite among the staff), and many other species. For this reason, pets are not allowed on Pigeon Key. You may want to also download an app to help you identify birds you see while exploring the island, even if you’re not there specifically to find feathered friends.
Have a picnic on the beach
You can visit the dining hall once used by railway workers on Pigeon Key, but the only thing it serves anymore are stories from the bygone era. So if you want to eat or drink on the island, you’ll need to bring it with you. Fortunately, there are plenty of shady spots on the island ideal for a picnic lunch.
If you rent bicycles from Bike Marathon, you’ll want to visit its next-door neighbor, Mr. Beans’ Books and Beans. Its coffee is highly rated, and it has a good selection of bagels, muffins, and pastries. (Plus, you get to say hello to Mr. Beans, the adorable black-and-white shop cat).
Tips for visiting Pigeon Key
- The breezes across the island can make it feel cool, but you’ll still want to bring water, sunscreen, and a sun hat to visit Pigeon Key. You can’t buy those things on the island, so if you don’t have them, you’re out of luck.
- Keep an eye on the Facebook page, as Pigeon Key often hosts special events open to all visitors (like movie nights).
- Arrive about 10 minutes before your tour begins to check in.
- Bring a bag you can comfortably carry with you all day. There aren’t any shops on the island, and if you’re headed to the beach, you’ll need to carry everything you’ll need (like a towel and sunscreen) with you for the whole day.
- The historic island isn’t open 24/7. Pigeon Key’s hours are 9 AM to 4 PM year-round.
Where to stay on Pigeon Key
Unfortunately, you cannot stay overnight on Pigeon Key. The island doesn’t have any hotels or rentals, so the only way to stay there is to be a junior camper in one of the children’s overnight marine programs. But you can stay on nearby islands like Marathon Key and Duck Key, which will put you pretty close to Pigeon Key.
We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
Airbnb at the Florida Keys Brewing Company
If you’d like a twist on the traditional bed and breakfast concept, check out the Florida Keys Brewing Company Airbnb. At this cute rental, B&B stands for “bed and beer,” not “bed and breakfast.” The community-minded brewery on Islamorada has a two-bedroom, one-bath vacation rental apartment directly above the tasting room. It’s clean, affordable, and eco-friendly (four bikes are included in your rental). The “bed and beer” starts around $150 per night.
Hawks Cay Resort
Hawks Cay Resort on nearby Marathon is a full-service resort with pools, a lagoon, a spa, several restaurants, a marina, and hotel and villa-style accommodations. It’s an excellent base for exploring the central Florida Keys, and rooms start around $223 per night.
Isla Bella Beach Resort
Isla Bella Beach Resort is about as close to the Seven Mile Bridge as it gets. But that would mean pulling yourself away from the resort’s gorgeous views, as each room has an oceanfront view and a private terrace. Rooms start around $247 per night but can be much more expensive in the peak season (winter).