The Overseas Highway, the southernmost leg of U.S. Highway 1 and sometimes called, "The Highway That Goes to Sea," is a modern wonder. The road, that follows a trail originally blazed in 1912 by Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad, stretches from Miami to Key West.
Today, motorists can travel the highway in less than four hours from Miami. However, drivers should allow time to experience the natural beauty of the ever-changing scenery of the seas and wilderness bordering the roadway, and the magnificent sunrises and sunsets.
History of the Overseas Highway
Before 1935, the now Overseas Highway was the East Coast Railroad line. But, after a Labor Day hurricane caused severe damage to the original railway infrastructure along the route, the railroad to cease operation. Construction of the highway began a year or so later. Its foundation included some of the original railway spans as well as the coral bedrock of individual keys and specially constructed columns.
When it was completed in 1938, the highway marked the beginning of an incredible adventure for the North American motorist, who could now travel 113 miles of roadway and cross 42 bridges to travel from Miami to the southernmost point in Key West. In 1982, 37 bridges were replaced with wider spans, including the well-known Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon.
What to do along the way
The Overseas Highway is just as it sounds, overseas. This means you’ll see some spectacular views, but you’ll also have stretches of road with nowhere to stop, unless you’re interested in pulling off into the water. But, as long as you’re prepared driving the Overseas Highway is a memorable experience.
The first Key you’ll hit along the Overseas Highway is Key Largo. If you’re in need stretch your legs, stop at the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. Spanning mile markers (MM) 54.5 to 58.5 bayside, the eight-foot-wide Grassy Key Bikeway is landscaped and furnished with a split-rail fence as well as bollards to prohibit automobile access. The Heritage Trail is a paved recreational path that features crossways between bay side and ocean side and includes benches, an art bicycle rack, and a limestone column sign with an Overseas Heritage Trail map.
Next you’ll hit Islamorada, where you’ll pass the very eclectic History of Diving Museum. It’s a fun stop filled with diving artifacts and gadgets used long ago. It’s also a great place to learn more about mankind's quest to explore under the sea.
Marathon is the next Key you’ll be passing, which means you are halfway to Key West! And the Dolphin Research Center is definitely worth the trip. Spend an hour learning about these incredible sea-mammals or spend the day and swim with them, too. What is great about the Dolphin Research Center is that conservation and education is at the heart of everything they do. So you can be sure these animals are treated right and you’ll leave there wanting to keep them protected.
The famous Seven Mile Bridge starts at the edge of Marathon, too. This is the largest segmental bridge in the world and separates the middle and lower keys. Take in the sights while driving over this long stretch, they are truly incredible.
The next main Key you will hit is Key West, which means you’ve made it to the end of your Overseas Highway adventure. Of course, once you’ve made it this far, it’s worth heading all the way till the end of the island, just so you can say you drove the entire length of the Overseas Highway.
Where to stop, eat, and sleep along the way
One important lesson to keep in mind: Don't start your trip hungry. Between the long stretches of oversea highway and slow-moving traffic, it can be a long distance between one stop to the next. But, once you’ve made it to the Keys, here are some great places to stop for a bite to eat. The conch fritters at Alabama Jack's in Key Largo are a must. The no-frills seafood is served at their roadside location. If you’re only up for a snack? Who can resist a cool slice of Key Lime Pie? Try a slice at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, also located in Key Largo.
Time your trip down or back during breakfast or lunchtime for a stop at the fifties-era diner in Marathon, the Wooden Spoon, where you'll find friendly service and excellent eats.
Once you’ve hit the Keys there are lots of hotels, resorts and Bed & Breakfasts that line the Overseas Highway. Assuming Key West is your final destination there are plenty of budget hotels you can stop over in along the way to catch some Z’s. And who knows, you may just end up staying there longer than you think. Gilbert’s Resort and Marinalocated around mile marker 108 on the bay side. It’s on the water, like pretty much everything in the Keys, and should run you anywhere from $100- $150 a night, depending on the time of year.
If you can make it to Islamorada and need a place to crash try the Rainbow Bend Fishing Resort. Rooms run anywhere from $80-$150 per night but vary depending on the season. The resort also offers on-site fishing, swimming, and diving tours as well.
In Marathon try the Sea Dell Motel, located between mile marker 49-50. Rooms at the Sea Dell should run about $100 per night. It’s also a great place to stop for an overnight, the motel is located pretty close to a whole bunch of Marathon attractions, like Bahia Honda State Park, the Dolphin Research Center, and fishing and diving excursions.
Of course once you’ve made it to Key West, the options are endless. Here are the top Key West hotels to book.
Seasonal Traffic patterns
If you are planning to head down to the Keys over a holiday weekend, you will hit traffic. One of the major flaws of this highway is the single lanes in either direction, which, as you can imagine, slows the pace of traffic down quite a bit. There are however, a few things you can do to avoid the traffic like leave at an off-peak hour. It may inconvenience the group you are with but leaving really early in the morning or really late at night, will help ensure that the normally four-hour trip doesn’t take you eight.
Holiday weekends aside, Miami to Key West shouldn’t take more than four-hours. Winter months tend to attract more tourists, which does crowd the roads a bit, but as long as you plan ahead you should be alright. The highway is a bit more packed during rush-hour, but nothing more than average.
Tips for Driving the Overseas Highway
The Overseas Highway is not your average freeway so it’s best to pay attention to the rules of the road. The speed limits are highly enforced on this highway and fluctuate pretty frequently so stay on top of how fast you’re driving. If you’re an impatient driver, this may not be the best route for you. Despite speed limits of 45-55 mph, traffic often moves at a slower pace since there are motorists entering and leaving the highway constantly.