Only one road connects the Florida Keys and the natural wonders they offer, but it's as much a part of the journey through the island chain as the aquamarine waters that surround it. In fact, the 110-mile Overseas Highway is so iconic that it was designated an All-American Road under the National Scenic Byways Program. The program's prestigious honor goes to highways that have scenic, cultural, historical or recreational significance and are one of a kind, making them a destination unto themselves.
Key Largo and Islamorada
The award-winning road trip begins east of Everglades National Park in Key Largo, where the jaunt over Jewfish Creek Bridge marks the first of 42 bridge crossings. It's also the first sweeping view of the jewel-hued sea that contains the only living coral reef in the continental United States. At mile marker 102.5, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park beckons scuba divers and snorkelers with daily boat tours to its reefs and seagrass beds, home to an estimated 600 species of tropical fish.
Continue south on the historic roadway – completed in 1938 – to the six-island strand known as Islamorada between mile markers 90.7 and 63. Charter boats cluster here as thick as mangroves, a testament to Islamorada's reputation as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Sailfish lure anglers toward the deep-blue depths of the Florida Straits, while the calm backcountry flats yield bonefish, tarpon and snook. The narrow, sandy sliver of Anne's Beach, a popular spot with kiteboarders near mile marker 74, offers a chance to cool off in the Atlantic.
Marathon and Beyond
Marathon, where the Keys' old-fashioned charm still thrives, signifies the midpoint in this southern sojourn. Wreck diving, fishing and kayaking inspire exits from the auto, as do the educational efforts of the not-for-profit Dolphin Research Center, founded in 1984.
Beyond Marathon lies the less-developed terrain of the Lower Keys, accessible via the Seven-Mile Bridge (actually, 6.79 miles long). From mile marker 47, it's possible to walk or bike on a piece of the discontinued Old Seven-Mile Bridge to historic Pigeon Key, a five-acre island that housed the crew building the final stretch of Henry's Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway in the early 1900s. (The rail line was the precursor to the Overseas Highway.) This detour provides an ideal vantage point for spotting the Keys' resident sea turtles, pelicans and occasional osprey, plus access to top-notch snorkeling from a quiet beach off Pigeon Key.
Ten miles farther south, Bahia Honda State Park rents ocean kayaks and operates daily snorkel excursions to Looe Key Reef. Camping, biking, swimming and tarpon fishing (mid-March and mid-April) are also available.
The Overseas Highway comes to an end in Key West at mile marker 0, where a red, yellow and black buoy-shaped monument designates the spot as the southernmost point in the continental United States. Less than a mile away, the more than 56-acre Fort Zachary Taylor State Park houses the town's most beautiful beach, shaded bike paths, calm waters for swimming and snorkeling and a National Historic Landmark fort dating to the Civil War.
Celebrate the culmination of the journey with one of Key West's legendary sunsets, a burst of orange-yellow fire marking the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico at the end of Florida's only All-American Road.
This article is brought to you by The Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council. For more information on The Florida Keys & Key West, visit fla-keys.com.