Nature Tripping: Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center

Live Oak Hammock at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center


Every time I go to Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center in Davie, I'm surprised there aren't more people there. Sometimes I see no other visitors.

Despite that, or perhaps in part because of it, it's one of my favorite places to spend a few hours. Whether it would be yours depends on your expectations of a park or nature center.

While I enjoy places like Wakodahatcheee Wetlands or Green Cay Nature Center in Delray Beach, Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center (despite being more active in what a friend called its "heyday") is low-key in comparison.

In numerous visits to Long Key over the last few years, I've never seen large wading birds nesting, roseate spoonbills strutting their pink feathers or alligators devouring unfortunate creatures. There's also been a notable and welcome absence of people speedwalking, yelling into smartphones or lining walkways with tripods that hold the gigantic super-zoom cameras they aim at spoonbills ... or alligators chomping on unfortunate creatures.

Long Key, described as "a 157-acre extension of the Pine Island Ridge complex that was once home to the Tequesta and Seminole Indians," offers a calmer experience in an area quiet enough to hear the breeze rustling through its live oak hammock and the call of the ospreys soaring just above it.

Managed by Broward County Parks and Recreation, this natural area which incorporates the site of the old Kapok Tree Restaurant that closed in 1988  also includes an equestrian trail, a visitor center that houses event facilities, a butterfly photo exhibition and a photographic mural by Clyde Butcher.

The nature-inspired art is not confined to the inside. Outdoors, alongside a lake bordered by a lush green lawn populated by several iguanas, is a 120-foot-by-88-foot sculptural artwork that environmental artist Lorna Jordan designed as part of the Broward County Public Art and Design Program.

Lorna Jordan's "Island Garden" at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
Looking up from inside Lorna Jordan's "Island Garden"   and "Island Garden" (2009) from outside  (© Colleen M. Dougher)
I love the swirly design of "Island Garden" (pictured above), but I always yearn to see more greenery the kind that would attract more butterflies and birds — surrounding it. Though I regularly reap the benefits of Long Key Nature Center being a seemingly well-kept secret, I also would love to see more people enjoying the space ...  picnicking on blankets, exploring the grounds or painting landscapes.

I envision that it could be much like the Seurat painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatt.

The crafty spiders of Long Key

On the upside, parking at Long Key is plentiful. In fact, one of the first things you may notice after passing through the entrance is the vast number of parking spaces, and plenty of them empty.

On quiet days, when the park doesn't see much action, crafty spiders busy themselves by building their intricate webs right across the trails. Sometimes, even as late as in the early afternoon, I'll encounter a web that looks as though it's been there since at least the day before.

Spiders at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
The spiders of Long Key (© Colleen M. Dougher)
The giant arachnids are a turnoff for some. One Yelp reviewer, after noting that the Long Key Natural Area" was "absolutely beautiful and stunning ... nature at it's finest and purest," went on to say that it's a" park for the Jurassic Age" and that he would not return.

"Walking around, my girlfriend and I noticed these gargantuan, man-eating spiders invading our peripherals," he noted in his two-star review. "It was not just one in a lonely corner; these spiders were everywhere."

There was a time when I would have felt the same, but now that I've come to know spiders a little better, I consider them one of the park's many natural attractions. Ditto for the basilisk lizards that get up on their hind legs and run across the back patio of the nature center.

Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
The back of the nature center, the rocking chairs and the view from the center's patio  (© Colleen M. Dougher)
Sometimes the lizards are the only ones out there enjoying the patio, which looks like a scene in a Country Time Lemonade commercial. It features rows of rocking chairs overlooking a lily pond/restored wetland area and a bridge that crosses over the water, connecting the center to the short trails through the oak hammock.

While crossing that bridge I've seen a raccoon family, a few herons and what appears to be a resident family of common moorhens. There are also plenty of turtles including Florida softshells and red-eared sliders — as well as damselflies and gorgeous pond lilies. Long Key is also where I spotted the first - and only - armadillo I have ever seen. 

Florida softshell turtle and Green Heron at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center

Damselfly and Pond Lily at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
View from the bridge: Florida softshell, green heron, damselfly and pond lily (© Colleen M. Dougher)
The reward for crossing the bridge is the walk through the live oak hammock (which you can also access from the parking lot). It's a peaceful and seemingly magical little forest where tiny birds chirp from high up in the trees and Schaus' swallowtails, zebra longwings and other gorgeous butterflies glide gracefully (but rarely stop long enough for a nice photo). 

Ephemeral wetland habitat
Ephemeral Wetland Habitat at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
Ephemeral wetland habitat (©Colleen M. Dougher)

Before leaving Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center, be sure to check out the ephemeral wetland habitat just off the parking lot closest to the gate. If you're on the way in, it's on the right and if you are on the way out, it's on the left. (There's hardly any shade in there so I always hit this spot on the way out, before jumping into car and pumping up the A/C).

Just look for the sign that marks the start of a trail through what looks like a big field of weeds, but is described as "one of the most ecologically important areas of the natural area."

As its name would imply, ephemeral wetlands are dry most of the time, but fill with water during heavy rains. Since there's obviously no fish in that field, the area becomes an important breeding ground in which amphibians' eggs and hatchlings have the advantage of not being eaten by fish. According to the sign at the trail entrance, the calls of many species of frogs (including squirrel tree frogs and southern leopard frogs) can be heard here on summer evenings. Unfortunately, the park is typically closed at night, so you will have to use your imagination, or watch the Long Key calendar for any upcoming special night hikes.

By day, visitors to the ephemeral wetlands can find chrysalides as well as butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, damselflies, caterpillars and other interesting insects ... some of which I had never seen before seeing them there. While winding through the field, I also saw some small birds and a hawk and heard a belted kingfisher. Here are just a few photos of the chrysalides and insects I've photographed in the ephemeral wetlands area:

Insects at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
Insects at Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center
Long Key's ephemeral wetland habitat (© Colleen M. Dougher)
 Think twice about hitting that short trail early in the morning after a really heavy rain. I tried that and could net get all the way through the path ... because I didn't have my galoshes. Actually, I don't own galoshes but they would have come in handy that morning, as would long pants since tiny yet  fierce bugs kept landing on my legs and biting them.

Despite that, the relatively short drive to Long Key Natural Area and Nature Center, was as always worth the time. If you'd like to check it out for yourself, here are some details that might help.

What you need to know:

Parking: Plentiful

Seating: Occasional benches throughout, rockers on patio, a picnic table by the lake

Beverages: Vending machine or BYO.

Restrooms: Inside the nature center.

Admission: Free, with the exception of $2 admission for those who visit the exhibition hall (or $5 for a one-year pass to the exhibition hall).

Pets: Not allowed.

Location: 3501 SW 130th Ave., Davie (It's off Flamingo Road just north of Griffin Road). Here's a map and directions.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed on the day after Thanksgiving and on Christmas.

Contact: 954-357-8797 or e-mail Longkey@Broward.org.