This post will take you on a drive from Miami to Key West along the Florida Keys, across a long row of Caribbean islands.
The Florida Keys is a chain of tropical islands, 112 miles long. The chain begins at the bottom of Florida’s mainland and ends at Key West, after innumerable islands connected by bridges.
The single islands are called keys and there are 800 of them in the whole island chain. Keys like this one:
The Miami to Key West drive: Pigeon Key
The Key West drive takes four to five hours – provided you only stop once or twice. That way, however, you will lose most of the sights on the roadside.
If you can, use two or three days driving down, stay a day or more in Key West and then you can drive back in a day.
We went to the Florida Keys to find out what there is to see – and found white beaches, small harbors, canals and seaside villages. Corals, turtles, dolphins, iguanas, all kind of wildlife.
We even found crocodiles:
Watch up, crocodiles on the road!
The first signs of wildlife we got before the Keys when leaving behind the Everglades.
Right after this road sign there was a huge injured crocodile laying on the roadside, hit by a car. So slow down when there’s a warning!
We will put the Florida Keys on the map:
Drive from Miami to Key West on the Map
The Miami to Key West driving itiinerary on the map
This is the drive through the keys. First through Miami suburbs and the Everglades.
The Keys consist of two groups of islands called the Upper and Lower Keys. The Upper Keys are the ones that come first:
Miami to Key West: The Upper Keys
Islamorada, one of the Upper Florida Keys
Closer to the continent, the Upper Keys are more developed than the Lower. There’s more accommodation and activities, most of which are based on water and the reefs.
The main islands of the Upper Keys are Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
As the name says Key Largo is a big island, and as the first island in the chain it’s a busy place. Almost next to Miami Key Largo draws visitors.
If you like boat trips, diving or snorkling, Key Largo might be for you , and also if you like corals.
To help more people see the fantastic Caribbean corals they built a coral reef state park In Key Largo, the John Pennekamp State Park.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Looking at corals through glass-bottom in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The coral reef park’s main attractions are the snorkeling and glass-bottom tours to the reef. Here we are on a glass-bottom boat tour!
Right offshore you can see this kind of corals:
Corals in John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
The snorkeling and glass-bottom tours take about three hours and daily departures are many.
As we are a big family there were different needs. While for the small ones the glass-bottom boat was perfect, the others wanted to snorkel. A good thing was that both tours started and ended at the same time and nobody had to wait for others.
The snorkeling tour to the corals
For the snorkeling tour you rent gear and on the tour swim as you like on the reef. In the crystal clear water all corals and fish are well visible and you can even touch them.
Corals exist in all colors and in addition 500 different fish, many of them bright in colors like the turquoise parrot fish. The angelfish again is yellow and striped.
In addition they have a few short woodland trails for hiking and a small beach. Next to the beach is a family picnic area by the water.
Otherwise the park is all mangroves:
Mangrove hammock in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Both tours were great and we loved seiing all the fish and corals. In general, Key Largo is a good place for coral watching because the reef is at its widest here.
In all the coral reef extends from Miami to Key West, all the way along the Florida Keys
More about the coral reef state park: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Drive from Miami to Key West: Tavernier
Drive from Miami to Key West: a Tavernier beach
On the next island Tavernier we found an apartment that was big enough for our three-generation family, the complex was Ocean Point Suites. See Ocean point Suites at Hotels.com
As we wanted to have more time for the Upper Keys we stayed two nights in Tavernier.
Florida Key hammock and sea
The apartment turned out to be good, it was clean and spacious and we liked the location of the complex in a thick mangrove hammock. A real Florida nature experience!
There was a small yacht harbor in the grounds and a tiny beach that looked good but was not good enough for swimming. Instead we used the big pool they had, and a better beach at a car distance.
Tavernier: yacht harbor and apartment complex
From this base we explored Tavernier and went to the Theater of the Sea on the next island Islamorada:
Theater of the Sea
Theater of the Sea, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Located on Windley Key (a part of Islamorada) Theater of the Sea is famous for its dolphin and sea lion shows:
Dolphin show in the Florida Keys: Theater of the Sea
The family destination shows sea mammals, tropical fish, parrots and other tropical wildlife:
A sea lion show
The sea lion show was stunning and so was the parrot show. Parrots can do so many things when you teach them.
Theater of the Sea parrots
We walked in a pond and fed the fish that came close after their portion. Almost too close thought the little ones…
Tropical fish coming close
The little ones just loved the day and it certainly was a trip highlight for them. So brave they touched the dolphins and sea lions whenever there was a chance. Everything was super exciting for the kids!
Feeding big, colorful fish
Theater of the Sea in a photo gallery:
Photos of the Islamorada attraction Theater of the Sea
Islamorada alsohas a Dolphin Research Center that we didn’t visit.
Fishing in the Florida Keys
Islamorada consists of seven different islands, all of them great places for fishing.
On one of the islands we found a pretty marina and stayed there watching sports fishermen return from the sea. With the fishermen a large number of pelicans arrived, trying to get their share of the fish.
Miami to Key West, the tropical Upper Keys
We tired the seafood restaurant on the pier and went to a huge shop where probably all items you ever need for fishing is sold.
Islamorada fishing pier with a large fishing shop
In the shop, however, we dropped a credit card on the floor and didn’t even notice it. In a short time the staff found it but we had already left. The super friendly staff a huge effort and tracked us and we finally got our missing card back.
A Florida Key pelican waiting for its fish
The next bigger island is Marathon and before it you will drive through some uninhabited keys. Those keys have a wild, varied nature and one of them a marked nature path in the mangroves.
Then the Lower Keys:
The Lower Keys
Rocking chairs on the porch in the relaxed Lower Key style
The Lower Keys are the islands between Marathon and Key West.
You will soon notice a difference, the Lower Keys are a lot more laid-back than the islands in the north. And more laid-back means more Caribbean!
Drive from Miami to Key West: Marathon
The island or Marathon is one of the biggest among the Florida Keys. So busy and crowded Marathon doesn’t look very inviting from the Overseas Highway.
To see the real Marathon you have to leave the main road. There, in side streets it looks very different and you will find more nature and great places to go. Like Caribbean-style houses, networks of canals and yacht harbors. And mangroves.
A Marathon attraction is the Crane Point Hammock, a museum and nature trails, and another one is the Sea Turtle Hospital:
Marathon Sea Turtle Hospital
Sea Turtle Center in Marathon, Florida Keys
The Turtle Hospital is located at Mile Marker 48.5. It’s a small non-profit organization taking care of injured sea turtles.
Their mission is to give animals a new life after a disease or accident. Sea turtles are endangered animals that often get hit by boat motors.
Photos of the hospital that rescues endangered sea turtles:
On Marathon you can learn about sea turtles
The center has a small exhibition that all visitors are free to look at and for a fee they arrange guided tours where they tell more about the big animals.
A huge sea turtle in the exhibition
Read more about the sea turtle Center and how they protect sea turtles
Drive from Miami to Key West: Sombrero Beach
Marathon’s Sombrero Beach is like a paradise
Then, the next Marathon sight is a secret beach. To find to Sombrero Beach turn south from the US 1 Mile Marker 50 and drive a few miles through a residential are.
Sombrero beach in photos:
The best beach of the Florida Keys
Sombrero beach is our favorite and certainly one of the best beaches in all Florida. The sand is white and water almost always calm. That makes Sombrero Beach very good even for kids.
There are good facilities like outdoor showers and a well-planned picnic area with a playground.
Our favorite paradise beach that also suits children
We just love Sombrero Beach and will return if we ever come back to the Florida Keys.
Then about the historic railroad:
Henry Flagler’s Railroad
The old railroad bridge of the Key West railroad
After Marathon comes the Seven Mile Bridge. As the name says it’s seven miles long. Driving on it I got a feeling that the bridge never ends.
The Seven Mile Bridge and Henry Flagler’s railroad
Side by side there is a new bridge and an old one, built in 1912 for Henry Flagler’s railroad.
So there was a railroad all the way to Key West but they replaced it by the Overseas Highway:
Seven Mile Bridge, part of the Overseas Highway
Then, further south we found a little paradise:
Drive from Miami to Key West: Pigeon Key
Drive from Miami to Key West: Pigeon Key
Pieces of the old railroad and ruined bridges exist almost throughout the Keys:
US Highway 1 and an old railroad bridge
From Marathon you can walk along an old railroad bridge to the small islet of Pigeon Key. And at the same time try to spot black seabirds, stingrays and dolphins:
Walking to Pigeon Key along an old railroad bridge
Pigeon Key has some original wooden houses used to accommodate visiting school groups. Built in the tropical style, on poles:
Pigeon Key, an islet in the Florida Keys
The Pigeon Key hike was a relaxing walk but made us sweat. It looks like the further south we get the warmer the sun gets.
If it’s too hard for you to walk to Pigeon Key you can take the tourist tram they have for that purpose.
Never mind the heat, the closer to Key West we came the happier I was. I felt I was in the Caribbean!
A black seabird on the bridge
Some people say the real Caribbean begins at the Seven Mile Bridge. Less crowds, less development and wilder nature – and open views to the sea:
Driving on To Key West
Driving to Key West: open views to the turquoise Caribbean Sea
Further on there is the charming Bahia Honda State Park that has mangrove wetland, beaches and a large camping area to stay overnight.
Why didn’t we bring a tent? Would love to camp, right here or somewhere else in the Keys. To get a real Florida nature experience and not just a hotel stay.
Arriving in Key West at the end of Florida Keys
The last islands on the way to Key West are Big Pine Key, Cudjoe Key and the long Sugarloaf Key.
Big Pine Key is known for its exceptional deer that are the size of large dogs. We didn’t spot any however.
Almost in Key West!
So that was the drive from Miami, all the way along the key chain. Now we can’t get further, the next island is Cuba and there’s no road.
We have come to Key West that you can read about in the post How to Spend One Day in Key West.
Goodbye, see you in Key West!
Key West at the far end of the Florida Keys