Florida Road Trips: It’s About the Journey
By Gary McKechnie
Travel satisfies so many needs that it’s easy to overlook one very important fact: You really don’t need to go anywhere. Well, by definition you’ll go somewhere, but when you’re on a Florida road trip the real satisfaction lies in the journey itself.
That means that on a Florida road trip, it’s OK to shut off the GPS. You can scrap the itinerary. Just let freedom and creativity be your map and you’ll find so much awaits you down the road.
Five for the road
Having explored Florida’s back roads since the 1970s, I’ve discovered roads that took me from busy highways into the rolling hills of citrus country. I’ve found peace and tranquility on remote two-lane roads leading into the Everglades. I’ve ridden waterfront byways woven into the gentle curves of Florida’s northern coast.
On every road trip I was in search of authentic Florida. Old Florida. And it turned out to be easier than expected. Away from the interstates are countless areas that almost always seem frozen in time; each easily reached on two-lane back roads and scenic byways. Here are five of my favorites. Start your engine and I guarantee you’ll find 10 times as many…
Head for the Hills
One of my favorite regions in Florida is along what’s known as the Lake Wales Ridge, a 150-mile sand ridge that creases the center of the state. South of Haines City, busy Highway 27 connects wonderful towns along the ridge, but a few miles east is an even better road that does the same thing.
Highway 17, aka “The Scenic Highway,” demonstrates truth in advertising as it traces a path around small lakes, through orange groves, and up and down rolling hills. It is a Florida road trip circa 1957. Along the way you’ll travel into Lake Wales where you’ll find the enchanting, postcard-perfect Bok Tower Gardens. In Avon Park the historic Hotel Jacaranda anchors a charming downtown highlighted by a retro cool shuffleboard court. In Sebring, the downtown circle is filled with independent merchants and, on the shores of nearby Lake Jackson, active art galleries, an art museum, and a civic theatre. Don’t stop just yet. Highway 17 leads to Lake Placid, the “Caladium Capital of the World” that’s also renowned for dozens of murals that relate the history of the town and its people. The town’s other point of pride is the American Clown Museum & School which, as of this writing, has graduated more than 1,500 clowns.
Only in Florida.
The Coast is Clear
Four wonderful roads – S.R. 399, U.S. 98, Route 30, and Route 30A – link Pensacola to Apalachicola (and vice versa) to create a road trip packed with 150 miles of super-scenic Florida. It’s best experienced on a motorcycle, but in a pinch a car will do.
From Pensacola Beach, 399 skirts along the Gulf Islands National Seashore for a 20-mile stretch that may be Florida’s finest coastal ride; the black pavement stretching across white sands only yards from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At Navarre Beach, 399 connects to U.S. 98/S.R. 30 and continues past Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Choctawhatchee Bay, and Miramar Beach before S.R. 30 splits off before splitting once again. This time it is 30A that sticks to the coast to reach the hidden village of Grayton Beach, home of Grayton Beach State Park, where natural Florida is at its natural best. After passing through Seaside and other planned coastal communities, 30A works its way back to U.S. 98 and through the traffic of Panama City before releasing you to vintage fishing villages like Mexico Beach followed by Port St. Joe where St. Joseph Peninsula State Park can be seen across the waters on the far distant cape.
One more detour awaits. Along the edge of St. Joseph Bay, scenic 30A once again elevates the drive. After curving east, it passes a popular filling station-turned-oyster bar at Indian Pass that itself leads to a back road to Indian Sound and the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. To the east where 30A locks into U.S. 98, it’s a calming and captivating drive along St. Vincent Sound and Apalachicola Bay for the last few miles to the unique oyster fishing/artist community of Apalachicola.
All in a day’s work.
One of my favorite road trips was discovered by accident. Heading south from Jacksonville, I pulled out a paper map (remember those?) and discerned a barely legible line tacked onto the east bank of the St. Johns River. It turns out this was State Road 13.
One of Florida’s finest roads less traveled, S.R. 13 roughly traces the route followed by naturalist William Bartram in the 1770s, which explains the road signs reading “Bartram Trail.” Even adjusting for the centuries, you may feel the adventurer’s sense of discovery as you motor along the shore of Florida’s most visible waterway. There are canopy roads within few feet of the St. Johns, scenic pullouts, log homes perched on the river banks, tributaries like Trout Creek that make for great fishing spots, and marina restaurants that lure fishermen and diners with the catch of the day.
Few Floridians have ever heard of this road or of places like Palma, Picolata, Tocoi, and Riverdale. On this short but sweet road trip you’ll find these and other off-the-beaten path gems. Making the trip even better is the fact that you’ll never forget them.
One of the few Point A-Point B drives I would love to repeat was one designed with a specific purpose. In this case, it was to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean before taking a leisurely day-long drive across Florida to see the sun set on the Gulf of Mexico.
Described in greater detail at Visit Florida, this monumental road trip between Fort Pierce and idyllic Anna Maria Island began with sunrise viewed from the jetty at Fort Pierce. From Fort Pierce Highway 70 crosses vast stretches of mostly wide, empty, and liberating land all the way to Okeechobee, a lovely town on the lake’s north shore where time appears to be standing still. While most drivers would follow Highway 70 for the final 125 miles to the Gulf Coast, remember that this is a road trip that rewards detours.
Highway 98 launches you northwest and into a Florida Cracker countryside of open pastures, palm trees, and cattle – which is only natural since the two-lane mostly follows the historic Florida Cracker Trail. After passing the isolated communities of Fort Basinger, Plains, Lorida, and Istokpoga, it loops into dependable Highway 17 toward Sebring and then Avon Park before a slow arc on S.R. 64 dips toward Zolfo Springs, home of the wonderful Cracker Trail Museum and Pioneer Village.
From here, Highway 64 is the final stretch. Within an hour you’ll find yourself at the Gulf of Mexico resting comfortably on the soft sands of Holmes Beach. And right in time for sunset.
Circling Lake Okeechobee is one of my favorite road trips on earth, and after driving S.R. 78 along its western shore from Okeechobee to Moore Haven I just kept going. South of the lake is a land that few ever see; a place where there are few people, no towns, and an emptiness that has the magic to spark a surge of adrenaline.
With a paper map beside me, I stitched together a rambling route that took me on the region’s long, lonely roads – straight roads that shot east and west followed by ones that ran for miles to horizons on the north and south. I could have driven for days. Ultimately, though, I found myself at a destination that perfectly matched the feel of the region.
As a Florida native, I didn’t expect a simple road trip could change the way I viewed my home state. But it was on this unforgettable road trip that I met true Floridians: Members of the Seminole Tribe at the Seminole Nation’s Big Cypress Reservation.
Looking for Old Florida, I had found it. A road trip had taken me there.
Florida road trips. It’s all about the journey.