East to West Road Trip Through Florida in One Day
By Gary McKechnie
There are few states in America where you can rise before dawn, witness sunrise, and then drive to the opposite side of the state to watch the sun disappear below the watery horizon. In Florida, roughly 400 miles of Atlantic coastline plus 670 miles along the Gulf of Mexico offer numerous paths to choose when planning your own sunrise-sunset road trip through Florida.
After considering several options, including St. Augustine to Steinhatchee, Melbourne to Clearwater, and Miami Beach to Marco Island, I chose touring from Fort Pierce to Anna Maria Island, which connected two new-to-me destinations. That was the extent of the planning. Driving with my wife, Nancy, we used a VISIT FLORIDA's Florida map as our navigator. I prefer paper maps; they remind me of my earliest cross-country road trips, and this journey was meant to be old school.
Sunrise and Sunsets
In Fort Pierce, information about the following day’s sunrise and sunset — as well as tides, temperatures, and phases of the moon — are posted at nearly every waterfront hotel, restaurant, and marina.
Awake just after 7 a.m., we walked to a park on the south side of the Fort Pierce Inlet where about a dozen visitors had gathered to watch the sunrise. Another dozen locals were at the end of the jetty with their fishing poles and tackle boxes.
Finding a spot by the dunes, at 7:37 the sun climbed up and over the horizon, firing off solar fingers as we fired off a series of pictures. After sunrise we walked out on the jetty, where the wind, surf, casting anglers, and the sky’s natural color wheel suggested it would indeed be a good day.
A New Way to See Old Florida
Our road trip through Florida was delayed by a few hours, not due to any mechanical problem, but because Fort Pierce is the home of the can’t-miss A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery, and their doors opened at 10. If you’ve ever seen stands of sea oats flutter in a coastal breeze, gazed at the Everglades beneath a cotton candy-colored sky, or found a stand of palms as you paddled along a backwater creek, you’ve seen sides of Florida that Backus captured on canvas. In the gallery are a few dozen of his original paintings (some for sale, believe it or not) as well as giclée prints, Backus-inspired jewelry and accent pieces, and rotating exhibits. Combined with the sunrise, his images were a wonderful prelude to a Florida journey.
Within 15 minutes, we were crossing wide-open plains on Highway 70. Even in a state filled with 20 million people, there are still places where the emptiness seems endless, which we savored until it was filled in by the town of Okeechobee. It appears things have hardly changed in the city’s old commercial district, where a long park borders a row of independent shops and restaurants facing Highway 70 along Park Street. On the square, Gladys’ Restaurant was a perfect stop. Here since 1951, it was a treat to find a real diner where servers still call their customers “honey.”
After lunch, we drove a few miles south to take in the northern shores of Lake Okeechobee. Yet even from the top of the levee you can’t fully appreciate the 730 square miles of Florida’s largest freshwater lake. Had we wanted, we could have let 70 carry us the rest of the way to the Gulf of Mexico, but we had time on our hands. It was now only 1:30 p.m. and with roughly six hours to cover the remaining 125 miles I consulted my trusty VISIT FLORIDA map. A slight detour on Highway 98 would lead us out to the country and past a speck of a place called Lorida.
I’d like to buy an ‘F’, Pat.
As we switched over to County Road 17 to visit Sebring and Avon Park, we sensed a change in topography as open plains transformed into forests of oaks and palms. And in a stroke of good timing, the weather found us enveloped by the perfume of orange blossoms from surrounding groves. The hills unfurled as we rolled north on 17, the sights and smells of citrus, and dirt roads and small lakes and remote neighborhoods and general stores offering another nostalgic visit to Florida’s past in this coast to coast road trip.
The anachronisms reached a peak when we turned west onto Highway 64 and drove into the heart of Avon Park. Kids and families were enjoying a Tuesday afternoon on the shores of Lake Verona, the cavernous Avon Park Shuffleboard Courts were silent after a morning of heavy play, and then came the Hotel Jacaranda, which spun the wheel of time back to 1925. A complete surprise, not only are guests still checking into its authentic retro rooms, they are dining in the hotel restaurant, enjoying its spacious lobby, and catching a lift with an honest-to-goodness elevator operator.
The home stretch
With about two hours before sunset, we rolled southwest on 64 before flaring due west on CR 636 into Wauchula. From here, dropping onto US 17 south took us into Zolfo Springs where you can fing the intriguing Cracker Trail Museum & Village.
Twenty miles southwest on the outskirts of Ona is Solomon’s Castle, the creation of artist Howard Solomon that now includes the castle, a restaurant, and B&B, but we couldn’t stop; the length of the detour plus time to truly experience this quirky creation would have jeopardized our end goal. Instead, U.S. 64 was a straight country road west as the landscape began to look familiar again, with convenience stores and strip malls and city services appearing on the outskirts of Bradenton.
Even with the late start and frequent stops, though, 64 brought us to the coast an hour before sunset, and Anna Maria Island seduced us at first glance. After exploring the island, we returned to the intersection of Highway 64 and 789 where Holmes Beach Park is the island’s central gathering place. People were dining at the beach café, a band was playing, and a festive vibe could be felt all along the waterfront.
In 12 hours, we witnessed a majestic sunrise, saw Florida through the eyes of A.E. Backus, drove across the grasslands of South Florida, dined at a circa 1951 restaurant, took in a view of the state’s largest freshwater lake, cruised through hills exploding with the perfume of orange blossoms, watched families enjoying a day on a lake, discovered an historic hotel, found ourselves on the Florida Cracker Trail, and completed our trans-Florida trip, a most memorable and pleasing journey.
As we had done since departing Fort Pierce, we looked west. Before us the sun was sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Our road trip through Florida was complete. Our memories were just beginning.