San Pedro is an undersea archaeological preserve and state park located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, approximately one mile west of Duck Key on U.S. 1 (Overseas Highway). Visitors can tour the historic station house, which contains exhibits about the first telephone call made from the Florida Keys, and learn about the community’s Spanish colonial past at the Old Town of the Keys History Center. There are two parking lots off of the highway, but most people drive right up to the front door of the park because there are no signs or other indications that this is a state park.
This is not unusual for Florida state parks; they often lack obvious boundaries and seem to merge into each other. However, there is a clear dividing line between public land owned by the city of Miami and the adjacent private property owned by Preston Smith, a prominent local businessman. Although visitors cannot always tell where one ends and the other begins, there is little doubt that all of the contiguous area is privately owned. Even so, the state has long had a claim on what became known as “Old Town” because it provided maintenance services here when the rest of the island was too dangerous to visit. It originally built a small hotel near the dock, which has since been replaced by a restaurant/concession stand.
Guests could enjoy watching movies on huge plasma screens, playing games, listening to music, and dancing under the stars at the open-air pavilion. The resort hosted numerous events, including weddings, receptions, company picnics, family reunions, birthday parties, and bingo nights. While Casa del Oro thrived, the couple struggled with alcohol abuse, financial problems, and personal conflicts.
The park operates seasonally staffed visitor facilities such as a museum, bookstore, and gift shop, maintains the grounds, and provides interpretive programs. Volunteers staff the main office during parts of the year. Interpretive displays can be found along a trail leading to Fort Zachary Taylor, a replica of a mid-1800s farmhouse, and inside the historic station building.
The park offers 75 campsites, 30 with water, electricity, and sewer, 40 without these amenities. Half of the sites are available on a first come, first served basis, while the remainder must be reserved. Camping costs $10 per night per vehicle. The park has three boat ramps, allowing access to the ocean for boaters. Shellcracking is common around the perimeter of the reef flat, especially during spawning season.
Floridian Everglades marl prairie and wetland coastal plain ecosystems dominate the southern portion of the keystone. Elevation ranges from sea level to above 100 feet above sea level. Precipitation averages 46 inches annually, falling mostly in April and September. Temperatures range from 72 degrees Fahrenheit in July, to 77 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Rainfall is accompanied by frequent thunderstorms. Hurricane Alley, the waters surrounding the Florida Keys, experiences constant rainfall, resulting in fertile soils and abundant plant growth.
Despite occasional fires, mainly caused by lightning strikes, the forest canopy blocks out enough sunlight to prevent total ecological destruction. Most trees grow back quickly, and the fire hazard poses little threat to the survival of the ecosystem as a whole.
The park has such amenities as beaches, bicycling, birding, boat tours, camping areas, canoeing, fishing, hiking, kayaking, picnicking areas, swimming, wildlife viewing, and full facility camping. Facilities include bathhouses, barbecues, boardwalks, picnic shelters, playgrounds, and Wi-Fi access. Amenities include bike paths, boat slips, bird observation areas, campgrounds, canoe rentals, fish cleaning stations, laundry centers, picnic areas, recreation programs, and restrooms. The park has ten trails, varying from easy to moderate difficulty, that cover almost every aspect of the keystone’s ecology, geology, and history. Trail information is available online.
The park receives more than 325,000 visitors annually. According to the Coastal Heritage Preservation Foundation, annual visitation increased from 225,000 in 2005, to 325,000 in 2010. Part of the increase may be attributed to enhanced marketing efforts. For instance, the foundation produced a documentary titled “The Story of SPUP”, which was broadcast nationally upon release in 2007. Another factor may have been the establishment of a new ferry service from Long Key State Park to SPUP, which started operation in 2008.
San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places as San Pedr0-1 Station Site (Station Number: 35000256) on December 12, 1970. On October 15, 1978 President Jimmy Carter designated it a National Natural Landmark. In 1997, the Florida Legislature established the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park, which now manages the site with support from the Friends of San Pedro. A concession stand is operated during part of the year by volunteers who sell soft drinks, snacks, ice, T-shirts, hats, and postcards.
After serving as a resupply point for the Union Army during the American Civil War, the town became even less safe to enter after a 1886 hurricane devastated the docks. At least four ships were lost in the storm, and many others were damaged. As a result, tourists stayed away, and supplies ran low. When a second hurricane struck in 1891, the army decided to abandon the facility. Soon thereafter, the entire settlement fell into ruin.
What remained of Old Town was purchased by Preston Smith, who began to develop his property as residential housing. He later expanded the development by adding several luxury homes, including one large mansion named Rosario. During World War II, the home was converted into a hospital, and then a retirement home for nurses. But, like much of the Florida Keys, it sat vacant for nearly twenty years until Tom Jenkinson and Bob Harrison bought it in 1976. They restored the buildings and opened them as a bed & breakfast inn called Casa del Oro (“House of Gold”). Their daughter, Alexis, helped run the business while she attended college. She returned home in 1980, and soon married John Farragher, another resident of the islands. With their help, the B&B grew to become a full-fledged resort, offering seventy-five guest rooms, suites, cottages, and waterfront cabins.
Following John’s death in 1996, Alexis closed down the resort. In 1999, she sold the property to Jack Nicklaus, whose Golden Bear Foundation runs the lodge as a retreat center. The state took over the property in 2001, creating the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park.
- scuba diving
- wildlife viewing
- nature photography
Among the wildlife observed are:
- est Indian manatees
- bottlenose dolphins
- marsh rabbits
- gopher tortoises
- fox squirrels
- pileated woodpeckers
- bald eagles
- blue herons
- brown creepers
- red-shouldered hawks
- wild turkeys
Fish species tend toward:
- largemouth bass
- black sea bass
- spanish mackerel