|I have arrived at Mile 0!|
The Overseas Highway is a 113 mile long jaunt across the Florida Straits and the Gulf Of Mexico starting in Key Largo and ending on Whitehead Street in Key West. It's comprised of 42 bridges, the longest being the Seven Mile Bridge. At it's highest point the highway is 65 feet above the water. Parts of the Overseas Highway were built over rail beds from the now defunct Overseas Railroad. A devastating Category 5 hurricane blew through the Florida Keys during Labor Day Weekend in 1935 killing over 400 people while destroying many parts of the Overseas Railroad.
|Seven Mile Bridge with a piece missing! Oh snap!|
But, thanks to some really nice folks who uploaded videos of their drives over the Overseas Highway on YouTube, I felt better. Sometimes I do a little too much research and terrify myself. It is always good to be prepared but it's also good to not destroy your dreams over the 8 million, out of this world, worst case scenarios that most likely will not happen. Seriously, I can literally go from Samuel L. Jackson bad ass muther f@cker to a scared little candy ass in like 0.0001 seconds. And the pep talks I give myself.....
It's like that come to the dark side Kermit the Frog meme.
Innocent Kermit aka candy ass me is like: "I don't know if I can drive that road. It seems really scary. That's a lot of water. What if the car goes off the bridge and plunges into the ocean? What if the bridge suddenly floods with water? What if the bridge breaks in half? I saw those pictures. They scared me. What if I take the wrong exit and drive into the ocean? What if an alligator gets in the car and bites me? What if there is a Sharknado?"
Dark Side Kermit aka bad ass me is like: "There is no WAY in hell you are paying $1200 to fly into Key West. You don't make that kind of money. Besides dork, you wanted to see all of the Florida Keys. How the hell are you supposed to do that from Key West? Oh, you are driving that road sissy girl. And you are going to drive it with a rental car that you are not used to driving. Now put on your big girl pants and let's rock this biatch!"
So that went down one Sunday night back in late March. And honestly, it is not at all a scary ride. It's actually a gorgeous drive.
Let me take you along for the ride.
My family and I packed up our Red Toyota Corolla Rental car and off we went. There was much debate about this car initially. Alamo told me to choose whichever car I wanted in the package class I selected. I was so thrilled that I could choose my car. That was sweet. Initially, we were all drawn to the red car. My son suggested we should pick the red car but my daughter and I were like, red draws attention from cops. ( Not that I was going to be all bad ass or anything. ) I sat in several silver, white and black cars. None of them were as comfortable as the Corolla. Besides, I probably would never buy a red car so why not drive one for the trip. It was fun and different. The red Corolla won!
|Our little red Corvette. Ok. Ok. Our little red Corolla.|
Note: (I did not take the Sound Card Road Route to the Overseas Highway. However, due to a wrong turn around 1:00AM while looking for a hotel in Florida City, I was actually driving on Sound Card Road for a little bit without realizing it. It was very dark and scary so I got off that road ASAP. LOL.)
|We are not in Pennsylvania anymore!|
I had a feeling the fencing was put in place to keep the crocs and other wildlife creatures in the park and off the road. I don't know why, but a sense of relief washed over me. Was I expecting to find hundreds of reptile gangs roaming the streets trying to jack cars and eat people for lunch? Even I am not quite sure the answer to that one folks. There were several crocodile crossing signs posted along the highway as a warning though, just in case.
Kids, we are not in Pennsylvania anymore.
I noticed the concrete barriers along the highway were painted a pale blue color, making it even more beach-like. I was filled with a nervous elation that was consuming every part of me. I could not wait to see what the Overseas Highway had in store for us. Let's go, let's go, let's go!
122 miles to Key West.
Once I passed Manatee Creek I was still driving on US Route 1 but it was no longer called the Dixie Highway. I was now officially on the Overseas Highway. As we ascended the bridge over Jewfish Creek in North Key Largo, the scene took my breath away. The bridge elevated high above the water. It felt as if the world beneath us had disappeared for a moment. My only view was that of sand colored asphalt, arctic blue barriers, azure blue skies and fluffy white clouds. I gasped at the beauty. It felt as if I were driving in the sky.
Could this be the Stairway to Heaven? Perhaps it is.
|Top of the Jewfish Creek Bridge|
Residential homes were nestled behind tropical foliage and 3-4 foot high stone walls and fencing. We really got a kick out of all the manatee mailbox statues poised in front of the houses. Some homeowners dressed their manatees with grass skirts, colorful leis and strings of lights. Some of them were painted in pastels and sporting shades. Others were still donning bunny ears and baskets of colorful eggs from Easter. Some manatees were even accompanied by baby manatees. They were quirky, fun and adorable.
|Manatee and Dolphin mailboxes. So cute!|
|Awwww. Mommy and baby.|
I had to laugh because throughout my journey along the Overseas Highway, I was kind of reminded of Pennsylvania in a way. Many homes throughout the Keys had garbage cans in front of their houses filled with mass quantities of huge, dead palm leaves to be taken with the trash. All my life I have witnessed that sight in PA. Only instead of palm leaves, it's bags upon bags of crunchy maple and oak leaves waiting to be disposed. Anyways, I just found this to be neat. Guess we all have to deal with shedding trees no matter what part of the country we live.
Eventually Key Largo faded into the background and we cruised into the town of Tavernier. There had to be 100 motor boats perched along the highway, some on hitches, others hanging from racks. All of them were for sale. Boat dealerships definitely outnumbered car dealerships in the Keys. There were also several marinas and canals where fishing vessels were making their way into the Gulf of Mexico for some quality time with rod and reel. The Keys were definitely known for their fishing excursions.
|A fishing canal in Plantation Key|
We crossed the Tavernier Creek waterway and entered into Plantation Key, which is one of the keys belonging to Islamorada, the Village of Islands. Souvenir shops painted in yellows and pinks and all the colors of the sea had equally colorful metal sculptures, garden flags and other outdoor treasures displayed around their vibrant island shops. Baby palms still in their infancy were swaying in the breeze, propped up by little wooden stilts to assist in growing nice strong trunks. I also noticed that Old State Route 4A paralleled the Overseas Highway. I never did actually drive on it though.
|Colorful roadside antique store in Key Largo.|
Crossing over the Whale Harbor Channel into Upper Matecumbe Key, which was still part of Islamorada, I lost count of the bridges we had crossed but I am going to say it was only the 4th or 5th bridge we spanned. We really hadn't crossed any super long bridges either. I assumed there would be more bridges the further south we drove. I mean, there are 42 bridges connecting the Keys so of course there were going to be more silly.
It was also rather strange for me to see nothing but open sky and flat roads while driving. I live in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. The Pocono Mountains are part the Appalachian Mountain Range. I grew up in the mountains. My hometown even holds the honor of being the highest city in the state. Some of the villages and townships surrounding my city have an even higher elevation than my city. No, we are not nearly as elevated as the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians are a more ancient and worn down mountain range but, they are still pretty high. Peaks and valleys and even some tunnels can be seen all over the northeast part of the country.
I do see some very pretty vistas on a daily basis in my drives I must admit. I guess perhaps I take the scenery for granted because I've lived here my whole life. When people from other areas of the country visit my neck of the woods, they are completely fascinated with the beautiful forests, endless mountains and gorgeous greenery of the Pocono Mountains. Pennsylvania really is a very beautiful state. I forget that sometimes simply because I live in a part of the state that has had a lot of urban and economic issues over the past 10-20 years.
|Driving in Pennsylvania|
|Endless Mountains of PA.|
The nearly extinct coal and textile industries the area once thrived upon have become painful eyesores of abandoned factories, crumbling breakers and mounds of shale and soot. What once was, isn't anymore. I am a coal miner's daughter. I knew firsthand how devastating the dying coal industry had become to families all across Northeast Pennsylvania. When business was good, the money was great. When business was slow, the constant layoffs my father had to endure eventually left him seeking a new career.
Back to Florida though. As I progressed down the Overseas Highway, we began crossing more bridges. We crossed the Tea Table Channel, The Indian Key Channel, and The Lingumviae Channel into Lower Matecumbe Key, which was the last key belonging to Islamorada. You could see more sandy soil mixed in with the grassy spots along the highway the further south we traveled. It reminded me of golf courses with their sand traps spilling over into the perfect lawns of the green.
Many cars were pulled off to the sides of the highway near the edges of the channels. People were fishing from little bridges, dipping their toes in the sea and snapping pictures of the stunning blue waters. Osprey nests with their straggly sticks and branches could be seen perched atop many of the light posts jutting out of the channel waters. Hundreds upon hundreds of weathered lobster traps lined the highway near Robbie's Marina, waiting for their turn to lure in some tasty crustaceans.
From the Channel #2 bridge, past Craig's Key and I could see the Channel #5 bridge curving west into the Gulf, high above the straits. It appeared to span forever into the water. I could see no land in front of it. I looked to the Gulf side. The differentials in the depth of water painted a maritime canvas in shades of sapphire blues, emerald greens, brilliant aquamarines and the palest of turquoises. The scene was like a Van Gogh painting come to life, swirling all around me. I was falling head over heels with the Florida Keys and this romance had only just begun.
|Aerial View of the Channel #5 Bridge|
The trees reminded me of maples and oaks although there were definitely more than a few which I could not identify. And there had to be at least 15 different varieties of palms living in the Keys. The towering Royal palms were naturally the most recognizable Floridian palm. They are native to Southern Florida. It's their signature tree but, there were also many others varieties of palms I spotted.
Some of the palms had uniquely patterned bark while others had unique leaf formations. Some palms had thick solid trunks while others branched into many skinny trunks connected by one main root. One of the coolest things I viewed in Long Key were the skips in greenery where the trees opened to views of the Gulf. The aquamarine water was almost completely level with the road. Only a few feet of boney white sand stood between my rental car and the Gulf of Mexico. Bet this part of the highway floods occasionally, I thought to myself. I was thankful today was not one of those days.
|I just loved all the palms. So many types.|
Up next on our journey was the Long Key Bridge over the Long Key Channel which was also really long. They definitely got the descriptive right when naming these parts. We were really starting to roll along more bridges. Some of them were rather lengthy too. Of course there was always a slight twinge of anxiety as I crossed over these longer bridges but the scenery and the scent of the salt water air kept me calm. To my right, in the distance, you could see Channel Key looming in the gulf. Channel Key is not inhabited by humans but is home to many varieties of mangrove trees and sea birds. It looked so lonely in the water. The Loner Key.
The water of the Gulf was definitely a little wild in Long Key channel on this day. The choppy waves were rocking and rolling for sure. We drifted through Conch Key and Duck Key, which were both smaller keys. Through Duck Key, I noticed the Gulf side of the road had way less greenery and scrub than some of the other keys. You really had an amazing view of the sparkling water while driving through most of Duck Key. I really enjoyed that.
Yet another bridge over Tom's Harbor #4 brought us into Grassy Key, which is one of the keys that make up the city of Marathon. Marathon is smack in the middle of the Florida Keys. We had reached the midway point of our journey. As we cruised through Crawl Key, Long Point Key, Fat Deer Key and Vaca Key, all keys incorporated into the city of Marathon, I finally understood what the locals meant by Old Florida. Vintage motels in shades of pink, yellow and seafoam, built in the fifties and sixties, were nestled along the Overseas Highway.
|I just adored all the colorful shops and buildings.|
Some of the more modern buildings did try to mimic the styles of Old Florida as best they could. I found to be really cool but, most of the modern buildings, in my opinion, took away from the vintage, Old Florida style that was once the city of Marathon. Don't get me wrong, it was still a fantastic little island town with lots of marinas, restaurants and shops. It was also definitely the most touristy spot we had seen so far on our adventure.
However, I think Marathon has so much potential to turn back time and design the entire area to be a truly vintage Old Florida city. Maybe there should be ordinances where new business must follow a certain style and architecture fashioned after Old Florida. Parts of Cape Cod have an ordinance similar to what I just described. They must use cedar shingles on their homes. The architecture, especially pertaining to the dormers, must follow true Cape Cod cottage design and in some areas homes cannot be more than 1 1/2 stories high.
I am not the mayor of Marathon though so I just enjoyed the scenery and kept my opinions to myself. The passing lane started to merge into one single lane each way as we drove through Knight Key, the last key of Marathon. The buildings disappeared and once again the highway was lined with Floridian greens and some really large white rocks. I glimpsed water through the trees again. It was about that time.
41 miles to Key West.
The road elevated slightly. I looked to my right. There were cars parked in a lot near the edge of the bridge. People were walking on what seemed like a really long pier right next to the highway. It wasn't a pier though. I missed the sign as I drove onto the bridge. These people were walking on the old Seven Mile Bridge. A part of it is still open to pedestrians. Oh boy. I knew I was going to drive this bridge, I just wasn't sure when. Guess now was when. I was about to embark on the longest bridge I had ever seen in my life.
|Oh boy! That's a loooooonnnng bridge.|
To my right, the gap between the new Seven Mile Bridge and the old Seven Mile Bridge widened. It was hard for me to keep my eye on the road and still entertain my growing fascination with the 100 year old bridge running parallel to me. I could not stop looking over at it. About 2 -2 1/2 miles in, an island came into view. This island jutted out from underneath the old Seven Mile Bridge. Super tall palm trees jutted up from the island, swaying in the wind. Wild, overgrown grasses and tropical bushes covered the island. What appeared to be a yellow house, sat smack in the middle of the tropical foliage.
Did someone live there? Wow! It must be really cool and a little intimidating to live on that island I thought to myself.
|Aerial View of Pigeon Key and Seven Mile Bridge|
As I looked down the new bridge, I noticed it was elevating again. This time much higher. I looked over at the old Seven Mile Bridge. A chunk of it was missing. It left a decent sized gap in the bridge. Guess no one was walking this part of the bridge I thought to myself. It also began to look more antiquated. As I rode higher on the bridge, the old bridge was no longer visible to me. It was still there, I just couldn't see it for a few moments.
Once again I was driving in the sky. It was so beautiful and crystal. I loved this feeling. I was so thankful to be on this highway on such a gorgeous day. The weather was on it's best behavior, providing my family and myself with a sunny and serene journey. I believe there are moments in the present, as you are experiencing them, where you realize that the memories you are forming will remain vivid and everlasting long into your golden years. Moments so keen and powerful and amazing that your brain senses they need to be filed into a special part of your mind to be remembered forever. This was definitely one of those moments.
|I could not stop looking at this historic, old bridge. I was fascinated.|
As I descended down the bridge, the old bridge was now visible to me again. I still couldn't see any land except for a wee bit in the distance. There was nothing but gorgeous shades of 2 parts hydrogen and one part oxygen all around me. There were a few boats cruising the waters beneath me but even they were few and far in between. The further down the bridge we drove, the more visibly you could see the age of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. I could see rocks and metal strewn along it's path.
On one part of the bridge, a tree and some bushes were growing from the concrete. That was a surprising yet lovely sight to see. Life always finds a way to thrive and survive, even in the most unexpected places. Two uninhibited little clumps of island appeared, flanking each side of the bridge. The little island to my left was called Money Key and it's partner, a little further south and to my right, was called Little Money Key.
|I drove this puppy!!!|
Later I found out that the gaps were added to the bridge on purpose to make the more damaged parts of the bridge inaccessible to any type of vehicle or pedestrian for safety reasons. Good call. As we neared Duck Key, I looked over and saw people once again walking along the Old Seven Mile Bridge. I also spotted a few snorkelers bobbing around in the turquoise water near the pillars of the old bridge. Not gonna lie, that took me completely off guard. Snorkeling is huge down in the Keys because of the precious coral reef growing everywhere around them.
Duck Key was not nearly as populated as some of the other keys and was way less touristy. Most of our view consisted of fenced in greenery and sporadic glimpses of the Atlantic. We crossed the Little Duck Missouri Channel Bridge into Missouri Key which was teeny. Blink and you missed it. I was now on the Missouri Ohio Channel Bridge. Of course the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals popped into my head for a moment. I could feel my face twisting into a frown. This should be the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Channel in my opinion. It didn't get any better when I saw the sign stating what Key I was now driving on.
Just kidding! No it didn't.
|Pittsburgh Key. I own it!! I do. For real. It's my house key. LMAO!|
I must say, the further south we drove, the more beautiful the scenery. We crossed over the Ohio Bahia Honda Channel into Bahia Honda Key. For a good part of the drive through Bahia Honda Key, there was no view of the water, just trees. I was bummed by this.
On the Atlantic side of the road, we did catch glimpses of the water. Again, the colors were stunning. We also saw what appeared to be people standing way out in the middle of the water. Were these people touched by Jesus? How could they be walking on water all the way out in the middle of the channel? How cool is that? My daughter pointed out that they were on a sand bar. That is why the water was the lightest shade of turquoise or practically colorless in some spots. I found that to be wicked cool. In fact, throughout the rest of our drive we noticed many people in the middle of the water standing around.
Once we neared the end of Bahia Honda Key, the trees cleared and we were once again almost level with the Gulf. We crossed the Bahia Honda Channel Bridge. The barriers on this bridge made me a little nervous. They were not solid concrete barriers. They were short, pillared barriers with open gaps. My anxiety remained with me along the whole span of this bridge but the scenery pushed it to the back of my mind. This bridge gave us the most beautiful, closest view of the water swirling beneath us by far.
In fact, I am pretty sure the water waved at me. Get it? It waved. Ahahahaha. I'm so funny!
I was in the right hand lane closest to the azure waters. I looked across the channel. Nothing but water as far as the eye could see. In fact, it was all blue as far as the eye could see. There wasn't a cloud in the sky over the gulf. If it wasn't for the waves in the water, it might have been practically impossible to distinguish the blue sky from the blue water. Blue is my favorite color and there was so much of it on my cruise. It was wonderful! It made me happy.
|Bahia Honda Bridge. So beautiful this trestle bridge was! I could not stop staring at it.|
My attention was soon diverted from the endless blue as I turned my eyes back to the road. On the Atlantic side, a very tall bridge appeared. This bridge also had a gap in it. I am assuming for the same reason as the Old Seven Mile Bridge. It was put there on purpose to stop any kind of traffic from entering the bridge. Wrong! There were two gaps in the bridge that were opened to allow boats more room to enter the harbor. However, since the bridge has not been used or maintained since 1972, the only the part of the bridge open to pedestrians is the part connected to Bahia Honda State Park.
|The bridge is disintegrating. So sad.|
We passed through Scout Key and over the Spanish Harbor Channel into Big Pine Key. Kids, we may be in Pennsylvania again? Deer crossing signs were posted all over the sides of the road. Now that is something you see all over Pennsylvania. I see them on my way to work. Endangered species signs were also posted along the road. We are in Key Deer country. I did not see any along the highway on my journey but I did see some during my visit.
The lower keys can be described as sylvan meets maritime. There was as much forest as there was seashore. I loved the fusion. Two of my favorite things in one place. The woods and the beach. My house is very much woodland cabin meets seaside beach cottage meets hotel room suite. I strive to incorporate the places I've loved and the experiences I've enjoyed into my living space. Surrounding myself with little parts of the places I've been makes them seem not so far away. It contributes to a serene and positive atmosphere that is much needed in my life.
|Mangroves and palms in a creek by my hotel. So pretty!|
There is a reason I named my home my sanctuary. It really is a sanctuary to me. And no matter where I live, that sanctuary will always be with me. As we drove by Little Torch Key, Middle Torch Key and Ramrod Key, you could tell this area was definitely more laid back and less touristy. Cudjoe Key ( I think it is pronounced Cujo like the scary dog from Stephen King's imagination.), Sugarloaf Key, Park Key, and Lower Sugarloaf Key, where we were staying for the next two evenings, were very quiet as well.
These Keys were ideal for relaxing after doing the tourist thing or spending the day on the water. There were many more channels along these keys as well which made for lots of viewing of mangrove trees with their sprawling, twisting, spindle like roots. Mangrove swamps were the perfect hiding places for many varieties of aquatic life. Maybe the glorious mangroves acted as sanctuaries for all the various tropical creatures that called the water home. I like to think so. We all need a sanctuary.
|Roadside foliage in the lower keys.|
After stopping at our hotel to check in and rest for a few, we proceeded to finish our journey of the Overseas Highway. We drove along the Saddlebunch Keys. The Saddlebunch are a series of mangrove islands that span from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Shark Key. It really reminded me of a mangrove swamp. The trees were not huge but they were plentiful. They hugged the patches of water that separated them. I could only imagine what all those roots looked like under the water.
We then began crossing over Shark Channel. Admit it. As soon as you read Shark Channel, the theme from Jaws popped in your head. It's ok. It popped in my head too as soon as I saw the sign. I cracked a few jokes about a great white named Bruce. We all got a chuckle out of them. Well not really. I was the only one who laughed at my jokes. I peered into the water looking for a fin. There was none. This is so much NOT Shark Channel. Lies!
Of course, after driving over the Shark Channel what better name could there be for the Key swimming next to it than Shark Key. Shark Key is gated though. I know this because I wanted to explore Shark Key but there was a big iron gate blocking the road. No Shark Key for you Chrissy. It's okay. I tagged myself there anyways because technically I was on Shark Key. It looked pretty from what I could see.
|Technically I was in Shark Key. Although not in this pic.|
My daughter and I got a good chuckle out of the random man pulled over on the side of the road taking a picture of an iguana. All along our journey we had witnessed this. It wasn't the same man but it was always a singular male pulled over, taking a pic of a huge green iguana. And as we inched further south, there were tons of iguanas on the side of the road. They were all over, just chilling on the side of the road, sunning themselves.
Occasionally we would come across iguana road kill and that always made us sad. We also noticed a white bicycle memorial on the side of the road with flowers in it's basket and a white cross. I am assuming someone who enjoyed riding their bicycle on parts of the Overseas Highway, as so many do, died along that part of the highway. I felt so sad. The Overseas Highway is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the country. I had known that from research.
|There were iguanas everywhere!!|
My kids and I almost got t-boned in south Key Largo because an older gentleman decided to pull out from a side street without looking both ways. Thankfully I hit the brakes while he finally looked to his right and noticed I was there. He slammed on his brakes as well. But, the car behind me was tailgating me and almost rear ended me as well. None of it would have been my fault. All of it put my heart in my throat. And the asshole riding my ass had the nerve to honk his horn. He then sped around the both of us.
That incident was my only bad experience driving the highway other than trying to switch lanes in Key Largo. Calm down people. It is not worth your life or the life of anyone else. Be smart and be safe. Once we hit Boca Chica Key you could tell we were getting closer to Key West. Businesses, shopping centers and restaurants began appearing more consistently along the Overseas Highway. There was less scrub and way more palm trees.
|Another colorful Overseas Highway Shop|
Tons and tons of palm trees lined every road. Little beach cottages with their shuttered windows mingled with beach mansions and their wrought iron fencing. Tropical flowers in large planters added splash and vibrancy to the already stunning architecture. Fancy beach resorts and colorful hotels, all very huge I might add, traced the outer limits of the city. Everything looked so beautiful.
As we delved further along the Overseas Highway into Key West, the history and age of this stunning island began to make an appearance. There was certainly a touch of French and Colonial architecture mixed in with the Bahamian/Caribbean style of most homes. Old brick buildings that were constructed in the 1800's stood proudly, having weathered many a storm on that island. Roosters roamed aimlessly along the sides of the road, chilling in their own little rooster world.
As we pulled onto Whitehead Street to find parking, we passed the Mile 0 sign. I did it! I drove the entire length of the Overseas Highway. I was so proud of myself for accomplishing this feat. To look at it on a map, it was pretty incredible to even conceive. Key West was way south of the mainland. Unless you zoomed in on the map, you could barely see the keys were connected by a highway. I am not gonna lie, I was rather intimidated to even take on this challenge but I wanted so badly to experience this.
0 Miles To Key West.
|And the end.|
And in wanting so badly to do this, not only did I come to find that the Overseas Highway is not at all intimidating but I also did not mind for one minute the 2 hour and 30 minute drive. There was nothing boring or mundane about my journey. We were treated to stunning views, laid back cruising, and the beauty of some nature not familiar to us. We were blessed with amazing, perfect weather the entire trip. Our little red Toyota Corolla rental from Alamo treated us so very good. She kept us safe. We got to taste the Caribbean without having to step foot off of United States soil.
I cannot wait to take this journey again! It was one of the most incredible dreams come true and I would love to relive this dream a few more times!!
"Okay .....show me." - Christine
The Florida Keys Chronicles- My Adventures