Road Trip: Miami to Key West
The Pacific Coast Highway.
The Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West. All iconic road trips, each one slicing off a unique piece of Americana.
I’d been thinking about the convertible, wind-in-the-hair, epic playlist adventure through the Florida Keys for years. I researched, I planned, I missed things I shouldn’t have, was disappointed about things I wanted to love and ended up enchanted with things I never planned to see.
I’ve been accused of romanticising certain destinations when I plan, which is fair. I have a vision in mind and a key part of this plan was driving through the Keys in a Mustang convertible. It took me about 10 miles of road to realize that 4 adults and a few weeks worth of luggage in a Mustang wasn’t a brilliant idea. The first leg of the trip (thankfully only 30 miles) was a wind-whipped, furry-toothed, 70 mile an hour ride through an exhaust scented hell.
Tip 1: If you rent a convertible (and I think you should), keep the top up until you hit the Upper Keys.
Tip 2: Six suitcases + 4 people (including one pregnant lady…no, not me) do not fit comfortably in a Mustang. Plan accordingly.
Our first stop was only 40 minutes down the road at Robert Is Here, a long standing family-owned fruit stand near Homestead. We stocked up on critical road trip foods like Key Lime Milkshakes, homemade marmalades and piles of fresh-from-the-farm produce before heading to the official start of the Overseas highway, just south of Florida City at mile marker 127.
The Upper Keys (Mile markers 108 – 65)
To be honest, I was disappointed when we hit the Upper Keys. I naively expected a retro 1960s Beach Boy vibe along the Highway, but it was mile after mile of strip malls and fast food restaurants. A few blocks from the main road, you’ll find sandy, palm tree lined lanes, pretty pastel houses and ocean views that feel more “Beach Boys Kokomo” than Billy’s Kokonuts T-shirt, Beer & Souvenir Shop.
Tip 3: Adjust your expectations and detour from the main road every now and then.
I’m not a diver or sport fisherman, but if you are (or have someone with you that is) the Upper Keys will keep you entertained for days.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (mile marker 102.6) is a great place to snorkel, canoe and kayak. You can rent gear or take a guided boat tour to explore the coral reefs, mangrove swamps, tropical fish and whatever else lurks in the sea grass beneath the waves. If you are a certified diver, you can spend an afternoon diving the wrecks and reefs in Pennekamp.
Just past the weird giant lobster, south of mile marker 82 is Ma’s Fish Camp, a great stop for lunch and a slice of Key Lime pie. If you have kids, consider stopping at Robbie’s Marina instead (mile marker 77.5) , where big and little “kids” can feed the giant tarpon and grab a bite to eat.
Tip 4: Don’t try to cover the Keys in one day. I’m still mad at myself for violating my #1 mantra of road trips… Road trips aren’t about getting from point A to point B. Road trips are about the freedom of having a car, the open road and time to have adventures along the way.
The Middle Keys (mile marker 64 – 40)
The next 30 miles are a slow transition from roadside mini-mall to palm trees and ocean vistas. You become less focused on getting somewhere and more focused on the scenery, the sunshine and the laid back vibe you encounter every place you stop.
If anyone in the car is awake around mile marker 48.5, it is worth a stop to see the rescue, rehabilitation and education efforts going on at the Turtle Hospital. The exterior isn’t much to look at (I think it used to be a motel office), but they do good work.
Tip 5: This is a real turtle hospital, not a zoo. All visitors must be part of a guided, educational tour (90 minutes) to visit the facility and the hospital recommends you make reservations.
Right before you get to the Seven Mile Bridge (mile marker 47), you have to make a decision. Do you stop and walk the 2.2 miles to visit Pigeon Key? Do you skip the Key and just walk onto the old bridge to look for sharks and sea turtles before moving on to the Lower Keys? Don’t worry, the decisions get easier the closer you get to Key West.
The Seven Mile Bridge was my wind in the hair, Thelma and Louise moment of road trip joy. Teal blue ocean waves left and right, playlist on repeat and dozens of tiny islands dotting the horizon. This is the point you start to wonder about the cost of real estate in the Keys and what it would be like to go to work in flip-flops and shorts every day.
The Lower Keys (mile markers 40 – 0)
Bahia Honda State Park (mile marker 37) has some of the few sandy beaches on the Keys. We didn’t have time to fully enjoy the park (sigh), but we did wander and watch other people paddling in the water, napping under the palm trees and getting ready to snorkel Looe Key.
We turned off the highway onto Big Pine Key (mile marker 30.2) and drove slowly along Key Deer Boulevard to see the deer that wander around the island.
If the weather is nice, it’s worth stopping at the Blue Hole, an abandoned rock quarry with an abundance of wildlife (including gators).
One of the best ways to spend time on Big Pine Key is to take a kayak tour with nature photographer and amateur biologist, Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures. Bill will take you out into the backwaters of the Florida Keys where you’ll paddle over stingrays and sharks and enter the magical world of mangrove islands.
The last 30 miles of highway passes by or over places that invoke the spirit of the Florida Keys….Summerland & Knockemdown Key, Pirates Cove and Shark Key until the last Overseas Highway bridge to Key West transports you back to civilization. Almost.
Tip 6: You haven’t officially “arrived” until you find a spot to watch the sunset or a water view tiki hut and a barstool with your name on it.
photo credits: Seven mile bridge, Bahia Honda State Park bridge, Kayaking.
Things to Know:
Plan on 4+ hours if you’re planning a non-stop drive. It will take longer if traffic is heavy or you need to stop for some conch fritters.
Try to plan your trip to avoid heavy traffic days i.e., Friday, Saturday mornings heading south, Sunday heading back to the mainland).
Next time I do this (and I absolutely plan on doing this again) I’ll spend some time in the middle/lower keys before heading to Key West or drive one way and fly back, preferably in this…
More posts to follow about where to stay, eat and have a good time. Stay tuned!
Do you love a good road trip as much as I do? Inspire me (and tell me about it in the comments below)! I’m taking notes….