If I find myself in one place for more than two days when traveling, I get a cabin fever and must go on a day trip. We had a whole week in Miami Beach this past February, and there was nothing wrong with long morning beach walks and many other great things that you can do in Miami Beach. Instead – we started longing for something a little more remote, something with more of an island feel and had to get on the road in search of our island paradise. Have we found it? I am going to let you be the judge.
Good to Know:
-The southernmost portion of the continental United States, Florida Keys collectively make up a chain of more than 800 islands. It is 170 miles (about 3.5 hours without traffic one way) to get from Miami Beach all the way to the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys – Key West.
-The Keys are all accessible via just one road US Highway 1 (which is called the Overseas Highway once you are in the Keys). Little green mile markers (MM) which begin just south of Florida City with number 127 (MM127) are the most helpful ways to pinpoint locations along the route.
-The Keys are broken into three categories: the Upper Keys (from Key Largo to Lower Matecumbe Key at about MM 75), Middle Keys (from Craig Key to the city of Marathon at the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge), and Lower Keys (MM47 to Key West, MM0).
We (2 families with 2 teens, a six-year old and 4 adults in a rental minivan) set on a road from our Miami Beach hotel early on a weekday morning with a goal to reach Bahia Honda State Park in Florida Keys. It is 130 miles (2.5 hours of driving without traffic) between Miami Beach and Bahia Honda and having distributed the driving between the best two drivers in our group we knew we could have ourselves a relaxing road trip.
In a true road trip fashion, we made several other stops on our day journey. As I tend to “overplan” our vacation days (and also under the heavy influence of our travel companions who are known as “the opposite of planners”), I am proud to say that we had NOT planned the specific stops on this trip (other than our “destination” – Bahia Honda Park). I had researched a couple of points of interests but we left the road stops decisions to the spur of the moment (and smart phones!). Since many interesting spots are not easily identified from the car window, I suggest you prepare the list of your options and remain flexible.
Here are the stops we made:
For the first hour or so we drove without stopping. First, we were stuck in heavy Florida commuter traffic as we were getting out of Miami and onto the US 1. Then, once in the Keys, we have not really seen anything interesting from the window other than the strip malls and fast food restaurants- for the first 30 miles or so (somehow we even passed world famous snorkeling destination Key Largo without noticing). But before we had time to get REALLY disappointed, around MM 90 we reached Islamorada and things started to change- we were seeing water just outside the car- on BOTH sides!
Near MM 84 we were lured by a billboard sign for Postcard Inn and Marina (84001 Overseas Highway) and made our first stop.
Back in the car, we were getting short on our snack supplies (two teens among us!) and lunch time was almost upon us. So at MM 79.8 we stopped at Lazy Days Restaurant (79867 Overseas Highway, Islamorada). Food was forgettable (solid fried fare) but location – right on the water! – was quite memorable! It was 11:30 am when we arrived so we got ourselves the best beach side tables at the property.
After a leisurely meal we needed to hurry to make it to our destination of the day. To get there we crossed Seven Miles Bridge (MM47):
Bahia Honda State Park, (MM 37) is located on the west end of Seven Miles Bridge in Lower Keys. With its 500 acres (and an offshore island) it is probably the best state park in the Keys with great beach, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, camping, not counting the sight of an old camelback bridge. It is also home to many rare plants and Caribbean marine species not found anywhere else in the United States. Parking could be a problem so I recommend arriving as early in the day as you can (Park is open 8am to sunset).
I like to have the beach all to myself (ok, I can maybe share with my travel party), and I am happy to report that we were able to find a quiet spot further away from the parking lot. There are many charming places in the Keys, and it may seem that it is remote enough for the crowds, but chances are, you will have to share your paradise with others.
We headed out of the Park at about 4 pm – we decided to make a stop at the Seven Mile Bridge on the way back and needed to hurry to make it before sunset.
Seven Mile Bridge (MM 47).
Seven Mile Bridge is one of Florida Keys’ icons and not to be missed – you really CAN’T miss it if you are driving past mile 47 – as it connects the city of Marathon, which is part of the Middle Keys, to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.
There are actually two bridges in this location. The modern bridge is open to car traffic, whereas the older bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists. We parked and walked part of the old Seven Miles Bridge.
The entire length of the old Seven Mile Bridge is 2.2 miles; there is a ramp to Pigeon Key at the end of it which is currently closed (but scheduled to reopen later in 2016).
There were literally minutes left before sunset and we just HAD to see the sunset at one of the Keys’ beaches. We “smart phoned” a great find just a couple of miles away – Sombrero Beach in the city of Marathon. It turned out to be a gorgeous beach on the Atlantic Ocean with picnic pavilions, volleyball courts, a playground, restrooms and showers. It is also free to the public with plenty of parking on site. (Watch out for turtle nests April through October).
The last 2.5 hours of the trip back to our hotel was in the dark and uneventful (Florida days are short in February). May be I do need to plan it out next time – so we could have some fun stops on the last leg of the road (preferably still in the day light!)
Tips for Day Tripping Florida Keys from Miami
-You don’t have to go all the way to Key West (exhausting task for a day trip) to experience Florida Keys. Pick your destination of the day (based on your family’s interests) and research a couple of additional stop options ahead of the trip as most “gems” are not visible from the road.
-While the trip to Bahia Honda State Park from Miami is only 130 miles and should take about 3 hours without stops, beware of the morning commuter traffic which delayed us for about an hour (we started in Miami Beach which makes a trip even longer); so leave very early on a weekday.
Other fun stops to consider:
Theater of Sea (MM84.2) The second oldest marine mammal attraction in the world; offers live dolphin shows, exhibits, a private swimming area and various ways to interact with dolphin, sea lions or rays.
Robbie’s Marina (MM77.5) Feed the tarpon and/or arrange a tour to Lignumvitae Key or Indian Key at the marina.
Anne’s Beach (MM73.4) Lovely, sandy, free beach, with shallow waters perfect for family wading.
Long Key State Park (MM 67.5). Scenic beach site camping (reserve early), hiking, picnicking, kayaking and fishing.
Dolphin Research Center (MM59) non-profit educational center with informative sessions as well as ways to interact with animals.
The city of Marathon is actually known not just for beaches and fishing – it has a lot of history to offer, too. This former fishing village was founded by New Englanders in the early 1800s, making it one of the most historic stops along U.S. 1, aside from Key West.
Turtle Hospital (MM48.5) rescuing and rehabilitating program for injured sea turtles (through the support of admission price paid by visitors); 90-minute educational tour is given several times a day.
Pigeon Key (MM44.8) is currently only accessible via boat tours. The walk ramp to Pigeon Key via Old Seven Mile Bridge will reopen sometime in 2016.
PIN for later: