This blog post will show you the Florida Keys as you follow our drive from Miami to Key West, in fact a very scenic drive along Caribbean islands.
The Florida Keys are a 112 mile long chain of tropical islands. 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 in all there are 800 of them.
Miami to Key West drive, a beach
You can drive from Miami to Key West in four to five hours – if you only stop once or twice. But we wanted to see more of the Keys and spent a whole weekend and a bit more on the road, on the beaches and in the Caribbean nature.
And it was really worth it staying a bit longer. We saw a lot of things that were new to us – corals, sea turtles, dolphins and other kind of wildlife.
In fact we saw the first signs of wildlife before entering the Keys, shortly after the Everglades. There was a crocodile on the roadside, hit by a car.
Watch up for crocodiles, they can cross the road!
Drive from Miami to Key West on the Map
This is the whole drive, first through Miami suburbs and then through the Everglades. The Keys itself consists of island groups that are named the Upper and Lower Keys. So we first entered the Upper Keys.
The Upper Keys
The Upper Keys are more developed and there’s more accommodation and activities offered than on the Lower Keys. These activities are mainly based on water and coral reefs.
The main islands of the Upper Keys are Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
Key Largo is the first and liveliest island of all in the Keys. It’s large as the name says and close enough to Miami and to easily visit for the weekend. Key Largo is a place for you if you like boat trips, diving and snorkeling.
The coral reef you can see here is huge, it extends from Miami all along the Keys. So we went to see the corals:
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Our first Florida Key stop was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park that’s main attraction are snorkeling tours (and glass-bottom boat tours) to the coral reef. In addition there are short woodland trails for hiking, a small beach where you can take a dip and a nice picnic area by the water.
The snorkeling and glass-bottom tours take about three hours and there are many departures every day. You can rent snorkeling gear for the tour and swim in the clear ocean water on the reef. And you can see all the corals and fish that exist below the water!
There are corals in all colors and the reef has more than 500 different fish, some of them very bright in colors like parrot fish that is turquoise and angelfish that is yellow and striped.
The glass-bottom and snorkeling tours were both arranged at the same times and they also had the same length which was good. We had both little and big travelers in our group so each of us was free to choose how to see the corals.
Both tours were good and we all enjoyed our day out in John Pennekamp State Park!
The next island is Tavernier where we decided to stay a bit longer.
We rented an apartment for our big family. It was an apartment complex (Ocean Point Suites) and we stayed there for a couple of nights. The apartment turned out to be very clean and spacious and we liked the place. The complex was in the middle of mangroves which was nice and exotic and there was a small harbor.
And there was a small beach as well. It looked good but was not really for swimming. The sea bottom was not clean enough so we used the big swimming-pool instead. From Ocean Point Suites we explored the island of Tavernier and made a day trip to the Theater of the Sea on the next island Islamorada.
Theater of the Sea
Theater of the Sea on Windley Key (which is a part of Islamorada) is famous for its dolphin and sea lion shows. It’s a family destination with sea life, parrots and other family things and our small ones loved our Theater of the Sea day.
They even went and touched the dolphins and sea lions after the show, and so did many others:
The parrot show was nice too. Parrots really can do many things!
We also walked in a pond and were allowed to feed the colorful fish that came close to our feet. Almost too close thought the little ones…
All this was very exciting for the kids. There was a small beach too but this beach was not really clean either so we had to skip it.
You can easily spend a whole day at the Theater of the Sea. There’s also a Dolphin Research Center that we didn’t visit.
Islamorada Fishing Harbors
Islamorada consists of seven islands in all and the islands are famous for their fishing.
We found a pretty marina and watched sports fishermen return from the sea. The fishermen were followed by pelicans and other birds that were trying to get their share of the fish.
We found a nice seafood restaurant on the pier and a huge shop where you certainly get everything you might need for fishing.
And then – we lost a credit card in the fishing shop, we had dropped in on the floor which we noticed afterwards. The staff were so friendly that they made a huge effort and found us and we finally got back our missing card.
Before the next bigger island Marathon there are some uninhabited keys. These keys have a rich nature and one of them has a marked nature path in the mangroves.
The Lower Keys
The Lower Keys from Marathon to Key West are much more laid-back than the islands in the north. More laid-back and more Caribbean!
Marathon is one of the biggest Keys. It’s busy and doesn’t really look inviting from the Overseas Highway. To see the real Marathon you have to leave the main road and you will find nice scenery and places to go in side streets. Pretty houses, lots of canals and small harbors.
There are also the Crane Point Hammock nature park, and a sea turtle hospital:
Sea Turtle Hospital
The Sea 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 an accident. Sea turtles are endangered and they often get hit by motor-boats.
The Center has an exhibition that you can look at for free and there are guided tours where you learn more about these big animals.
Read more about the Sea Turtle Center and protecting sea turtles >>
Marathon has a secret beach, Sombrero Beach. To find it turn south from the main road US 1 at Mile Marker 50 and drive a few miles through a residential area, until you reach the beach parking area.
Sombrero beach is a secret one, but certainly one of the best beaches in all Florida. It’s a sandy beach with calm waters, very good for swimming! There are good facilities like outdoor showers and a great picnic area with a playground next to it.
We liked Sombrero Beach so much that we just had to return, time after time…
Henry Flagler’s Railroad
After Marathon you will reach the Seven Mile Bridge. As the name says it’s seven miles long. Driving on it I got a feeling that this bridge will never end.
There is an old bridge and a new one. The old bridge was built in 1912 for Henry Flagler’s railroad.
There has been a railroad to Key West but it was later replaced by the Overseas Highway.
There are remains of the old railroad and ruined bridges almost all the way from Miami to Key West:
From Marathon you can walk along an old railroad bridge to the small island of Pigeon Key and there’s a good chance to spot black seabirds, stingrays and dolphins while you walk.
Pigeon Key has some original wooden houses and we saw a school group staying the night in one of these houses. It was a relaxing walk but if you think it’s a too long walk there is a tourist tram as well.
The closer to Key West we came the more I felt I was in the Caribbean!
Some people say the real Caribbean begins at the Seven Mile Bridge. Less crowds, less development and more nature – and open views to the sea.
To Key West
Further on there still is the Bahia Honda State Park that has a pretty beach and a large camping area.
Why didn’t we bring a tent and camp in the Keys? That might be something and a more memorable experience than than hotel nights.
The last islands on the way from Miami to Key West are the Big Pine Key, the Cudjoe Key and the long Sugarloaf Key. Big Pine Key is known for its deer that are the same size as large dogs.
That was the drive from Miami to Key West along the Florida Keys. We came to the lower end of the Keys, to our destination Key West.
My next post will show you Key West: One Day in Key West
More on Florida Travel
I have some more posts on Florida, Miami and the Everglades. You can find them all on the Florida category page.