The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail was the state’s most used bike and pedestrian path in the 2012-13 fiscal year, with 1.9 million visitors generating more than $91 million in direct economic impact.
A report by the state Department of Environmental Protection also found that John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, and Bahia Honda State Park near Big Pine Key were also in the top 10 when it came to the most visited state parks.
Pennekamp ranked fifth, with 769,751 visitors; Bahia Honda ranked eighth, with 582,093 visitors, the study found.
Park Manager Pat Wells attributed Pennkamp’s popularity to visitors wanting to dive and snorkel some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the United States, he said.
“A lot of our tours go into the National Marine Sanctuary,” he said.
The millions of dollars in improvements to the Overseas Heritage Trail over the past several years is turning the Florida Keys into an international bike tour destination.
Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours owner Mark Terrill has felt the increase in business as trail improvements are continuing to be made, he said. The company rents bikes and other equipment, and offers numerous multi-day trips along the Heritage Trail.
Terrill is working with a group of female athletes from the Athena Organization in San Diego, who will be doing a bike, run and kayak trip starting in Key Largo and ending in Key West, he said.
About 120 members of a group called Pedal Across Wisconsin will be biking the Heritage Trail in December, and similar groups from New Jersey and Georgia will be biking the trail in January, he said.
“These people definitely have money,” Terrill said. “They stay at nice hotels. They are not trying to do the Keys cheaply but just want to bike the Keys.”
Once a month, Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours offers a “Century Ride,” in which riders trek 100 miles a day through the Keys, Terrill said.
The Heritage Trail parallels the Overseas Highway, a designated National Scenic Highway and All-American Road. The recreational pathway incorporates 23 of the historic Flagler Railroad bridges. The longest, continuous section of paved trail is between Mile Marker 106 in Key Largo and Mile Marker 72 in Islamorada.
The trail now encompasses more than 72 miles, which will extend to 106 miles when complete.
Much of the remaining trail is being designed or is under construction by DEP’s Office of Greenways Trails. It’s funded by the Florida Department of Transportation through a federal grant program for alternative transportation.
DEP has spent more than $13 million on the trail so far.
Overall, the Florida Park Service reported a direct economic impact of nearly $1.2 billion on local economies throughout the state in the last fiscal year, hosting a record 25.5 million visitors.
Direct economic impact is defined as the amount of new dollars spent in the local economy by nonlocal park visitors, and funds for park operations spent in the local economy. More than $77 million was contributed to general revenues in the form of state sales taxes, according to state Department of Environmental Protection records.
“With more than 25 million visitors at our parks last year, it’s clear that Florida’s state parks are among the best in the world,” Gov. Scott said in a prepared statement.