The Overseas Highway
|Mileage||124 miles (200 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||2 hours, 30 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||All Seasons|
|Roadways||US Highway 1|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Key Largo, FL▼, Tavernier, FL▼, Marathon, FL▼, Big Pine Key, FL▼, Florida City, FL▼, Princeton, FL▼, Key West, FL▼, Fleming Key, FL▼, more...Stock Island, FL▼, and Sugarloaf Shores, FL▼|
4.8 average from 9 votes
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This drive seems to float across the sparkling turquoise water between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Drive across 43 bridges, one of them 7-miles long, pass 59 Keys and the only living coral reef in North America. Add in beautiful weather year-round, expansive views, exotic flora and fauna and you have all the ingredients for the perfect getaway.
The drive begins in Florida City on US-1 heading south to the Overseas Highway and the dazzling string of islands from Key Largo to Key West.
Just after joining the Overseas Highway, turn left on S Andros Road to visit the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park (H1). Much of surrounding region has been saved from development and this park is testament to that, protecting one of the largest tracts of West Indian hardwood hammock in the United States. Explore 84 rare species of plants and animals, including wild cotton and mahogany mistletoe. Among the many tropical birds that reside here are the white-crowned pigeon, mangrove cuckoo and black-whiskered vireo, as well as a dizzying array of butterflies such as the Schaus’ swallowtail, silver-banded hairstreak, and mangrove skippers. Many of the trails are paved and accessible, allowing for leisurely discovery or cycling. A small entrance fee of $2 per person is charged and correct change is required.
Key Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys and there are a zillion things to do. Consider a stop at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce (I3) on the gulf side for brochures and maps, many of which offer coupons for local attractions. The water beckons and there are a myriad of charters available for any type of excursion. Extreme or serene, you will find the right one for you whether a guided boat tour, kayaking, snorkeling, deep-sea diving, jet-skiing, swimming with dolphins, turtle encounters and sport fishing. Consider making this adventure an overnight getaway with superb dining on fresh-caught seafood, quirky tiki bars and stellar shopping.
Back on the Overseas Highway, dive enthusiasts will love the unique Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the world’s only underwater hotel. Truly a “dive,” spend the night, take a diving excursion or lessons.
Continuing on the Overseas Highway, you arrive at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (H2), the first underwater preserve in the United States. Stop in the Visitor Center to marvel at the 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium, and learn about the unique environment through exhibits and videos or book a guided walking tour. The park was established in 1963 to protect the only living coral reef in North America, and here you find the perfect opportunity to get your feet wet — literally. Don’t miss taking a glass-bottom boat tour, or if you’re more adventurous, a scuba or snorkeling adventure. No experience is necessary for snorkeling, except knowing how to swim. Exploring the coral reef is an incredible journey through color, shape and texture. From soft-leaf sea fans to hard branches of the aptly named elkhorn coral, the reef is home to 80 species of coral and 260 species of tropical fish including the multi-hued parrotfish and great barracuda. No less fascinating are the varied invertebrates, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle star and more. Be sure to try some underwater photography. Snorkelers and scuba divers will also get to see “Christ of the Deep,” an underwater statue symbolizing peace of mankind. Donated to the park in 1966, it is a copy of “Il Cristo Degli Abssi,” by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti. Park concessions have snorkel equipment and kayaks or canoes for rent on-site as well as a full service PADI dive shop. Also enjoy hiking trails, observation tower, picnicking or overnight stays in the full-facility campground for tent and RV’s. There is a vehicle fee to enter the park and a charge for tours which are well worth the money.
Once you cross over the Tavernier Creek Bridge you enter Islamorada, which is comprised of six islands including Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key. Reputed to be the sport fishing capital of the world, try landing a big one on one of the many charters available. Water recreation of every type can be found here, from dolphin encounters, eco-boat and kayak tours to see manatees and birds, swimming, snorkeling, or just lounging on the beach.
The Rain Barrel (A2) is a village of resident artists and crafts people where visitors can explore studios while artists work creating pottery, jewelry, paintings, stained glass and more. Marking the entrance is Betsy, a 30-foot tall and 40-feet long Florida Keys spiny lobster sculpture. Taking your photo in front of her is a must.
At the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park (H3), you will find a mix of nature and history. The park is made up of Key Largo limestone, which is fossilized coral and was quarried in the early 1900’s to build Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. Today you can learn about its importance to 20th-century Florida history by touring quarry machinery and examining the quarry walls for cross sections of ancient coral. Self-guided interpretive trails and ranger led tours explore the park. There is a small entrance fee.
Only accessible by boat are two interesting unpopulated and pristine state parks. Unspoiled beauty and a look back at the original inhabitants of the Keys can be found at the Indian Key State Historic Site (A3). Discover building remnants, fruit groves and coral fossils at the site of the first county seat for Dade County. Or visit the Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park (H4), saved from development in 1919, by forward thinking William J. Matheson who bought the island. The original caretaker’s home is now the Visitor Center. There is a small entrance fee for both parks and tour reservations and boat excursions can be found at Robbie’s Marina. Robbie’s also features a bevy of tours, charters and rentals.
At the Dolphin Research Center (M1), learn about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Kids will love the Shawn Rodriguez Family Sprayground, where they can run and play in the whirling jets and streams of water. People of all ages will love the interaction with dolphins and sea lions. Take part in programs such as Researcher for a Day and others that offer a chance to get close up and personal with the pod members. There is a fee to enter and a fee for special programs.
Further south on the Overseas Highway, Curry Hammock State Park (H6) is a great family beach with calm, shallow water and seaweed beds perfect for exploring sea life. Traverse a mangrove creek by kayak or canoe — rentals available on-site or enjoy tent and RV camping right on the beach. The park is part of the South Florida Birding Trail and lies along an important bird migration route. Catch a glimpse of the endangered white-crowned pigeon, various raptors, herons, plovers and more. Good facilities and playground. Small entrance fee.
Crane Point Museum and Nature Center (M2) is a 64-acre tropical oasis. Learn about the native inhabitants of the Keys, from artifacts such as a 600-year old dugout canoe, remnants of pirate ships and shipwrecks to dioramas of local wildlife at the museum of Natural History.
Sombrero Beach (W1) offers crystal clear waters and a range of services such as volleyball fields, playground, shower facilities, and is handicap accessible. Nestled within a residential neighborhood, it’s amazing that from April to October loggerhead turtles come on to the beach at night to lay eggs. Best of all, the beach is free.
Sombrero Reef is highly acclaimed for its snorkeling and diving. The spur and groove reef system will delight with dramatic coral formations, sponges, and a fish so colorful they hardly seem real. Clear waters reveal a dreamy landscape swaying in the underwater breeze. Schools of fish glint in the sunlight as they dart to and fro, sea stars lumber on the ocean floor.
The city of Marathon was named by the builders of the original 7-mile railroad bridge. Working tirelessly at an unrelenting pace, workers declared “This is getting to be a real marathon” and the name stuck. Constructed between 1909-1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler as part of the Florida east Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, it is also known as the Overseas Railroad. The old bridge remains, running parallel to the new modern bridge and is open to non-motorized use. People walk and bike ride for the stunning panoramic views of the island Keys, and gazing into blue-green tones of water clear enough to see turtles, dolphins, rays, and fish.
After Marathon, you go over the New 7-mile Bridge, which was built between 1978 and 1982. Not only beautifully designed, it can withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour. Be sure to stop at the viewpoints on both sides to take advantage of picture perfect vistas.
Under the bridge is Pigeon Key (A4). Once housing 400 railway workers, the island (and bridge) are on the National Historic Register. Tour original buildings from the workman’s camp — the Mess hall, Post Office, Foreman’s House, Dormitories and visit the railroad museum. There is an admission fee to the island which benefits restoration efforts. Access to the island is by foot or ferry.
If you’re craving more railway history, stop later at the Flagler Station Oversea Railway Historeum (M5) in Key West. See rare moving picture footage and photographs, historic artifacts, hear the story of Henry Flagler, one of the richest men in the world in 1905, and walk through an actual Florida East Coast Railroad car.
The Bahia Honda State Park (H7) on Big Pine Key is lucky enough to have two incredible award-winning beaches, Calusa Beach near the Bahia Honda Bridge and Sandspur Beach just north of the entrance as well as Loggerhead Beach known for its large shallow sand bar. The park offers a plethora of recreational activities both out of and in the water including daily snorkeling tours to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. There is a fee to enter the park and for tours. Enjoy cabin rentals or tent and RV camping.
Just north of the Sugarloaf Airport is the access point to the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge (A11) which is only accessible by boat. The Refuge was established in 1938 to protect the great white heron which are only found in the Florida Keys. They were hunted almost to extinction for their rare feathers which were used in hat making. On the way here, you’ll see a tall wooden structure. Perky’s Bat Tower was built in 1929 to house bats and in turn alleviate the mosquito problem. Unfortunately after one night, the bats flew off and never returned. Since 1982, the now dilapidated tower is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places.
Just before entering Key West stop at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden (A6). Home to the only frost free botanical garden in the United States, here you will discover many threatened and endangered flora and fauna. Pick up a Garden Guide that describes 8 self-guided tours, two wetland habitats and two butterfly gardens or try the new audio cell phone tours and stroll through the ArtGarden, featuring metal sculptures. There is a small entrance fee.
Crossing into Key West, keep right to continue on Highway 1. Tourism is the main industry in Key West, which means you’ll find plenty of people, restaurants, bars, shopping and nightlife along with your outdoor recreation. Frolic amid the glittery nightlife on Duval Street, lined with restaurants, sidewalk cafes and music venues. Be prepared for party central at night with people of all types. Enjoy the Mallory Square sunset celebration replete with street performers, the historic seaport and attractions of all kinds — a few of which are covered below.
Cultural activities don’t take a back seat. There are many art galleries and museums including the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (M4). Nestled in the heart of Old Town Key West, it is here that Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not. The Hemingway home was built in 1851 in the Spanish Colonial style and is now a National Historical Landmark. Explore Hemingway’s collection of 17th and 18th century Spanish furniture, stroll the magnificent gardens and see swimming pool constructed from a piece of solid coral. The bookstore carries the full catalog of Hemingway’s novels, poems and short stories. There is an entrance fee that includes a 30 minute guided tour.
Refresh your history lessons at the Harry S. Truman Little White House (A9), the Presidents’ winter White House between 1946 and 1952. Docent-guided tours offer a unique glimpse into history and the man. There is a fee to enter.
Visit the alligator and jellyfish exhibits, feed a shark and so much more at the Key West Aquarium (A10). Get close up with hands-on experiences such as touching a stingray, sea stars, and giant hermit crabs. There is an admission fee, though you should look out for coupon packages to this and other Key West attractions.
Audubon House and Tropical Gardens (A8) is a 19th-century home built by Captain John H. Geiger which features exquisite antiques and explores the history of gardening. Behold the extraordinary tropical garden filled with orchids and bromeliads, herb garden and 1840-style nursery. Audubon visited here in 1832 and sighted and drew 18 new birds for his “Birds of America” masterpiece. The Audubon House gallery features a collection of Audubon art and prints. There is an entrance fee.
The Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (H8) is home to the remnants of a 19th-century coastal defense fortress that provided significant contributions throughout the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Learn more from daily tours at noon and 2pm and take advantage of one of the best beaches in Key West where you can enjoy swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, hiking and biking. There is an entrance fee.
Our scenic drive officially comes to an end in Key West, but we can't resist just one more stop.
If you are looking for an incredible off the beaten path adventure, consider a trip to the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are comprised of seven Keys: Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle and approximately 70 miles west of Key West on Garden Key, is Dry Tortugas National Park (H9) which is accessible only by the ferry Yankee Freedom II, private boat or seaplane. Enjoy beach strolls, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, bird watching and exploring the fort. The six-sided 19-century Fort Jefferson was never completed due to the fact that after 30 years of construction, the development of weapons was such that it rendered the building defenseless. It was also used as a prison, once housing Dr. Samuel Mudd for his involvement in the assassination of President Lincoln. Note that the park is remote and undeveloped. There are very primitive restrooms, a primitive campground, no stores, supplies or food, so you must be prepared. You are however, rewarded with spectacular beauty both above and below the water. The Dry Tortugas were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, and named for the loggerhead and green sea turtles that frequent the islands. There is an entrance fee which is covered by the America the Beautiful Pass. Taking the ferry includes on-board naturalists and free snorkeling gear for the day.