Overseas Highway: US 1 through the Florida Keys

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Nobody knows where US Highway 1 begins.  It’s up north somewhere, maybe in Maine.  Perhaps a few road tripping explorers have searched for the elusive Northern Terminus, but they’ve never been heard from again.  It’s hard to imagine anyone would bother with the north end of US 1, considering the appeal of its southern end, and the miles and miles of water that must be crossed to reach it.

One of my goals during my long South Florida weekend was to reach Mile Zero for the first time in my life.  It’s rather embarrassing that I’ve lived in Florida for so long, yet never made it across the Overseas Highway to Key West.

I started out of Miami early on a Sunday, with hopes of making it all the way down and back to the mainland in one day.

Even as I drove past the final businesses on the Florida mainland (including what I can only assume is the Southernmost Cracker Barrel, on the right), I had 128 miles to go.  That would be two hard hours of driving on an Interstate, but US 1 is much slower.  Once you pass underneath the big green sign and make your last pit stop, the road narrows, and modern-day luxuries like passing lanes are only occasional treats.

As you leave the mainland, the road leaves you with few choices.  It’s two lanes, no median, flat, and straight.  Decide now to be content with whatever speed the person in front of you is going, back off, and set the cruise control.  The guy behind you won’t be nearly as patient, but he’ll get tired of riding your bumper after a few miles.

A viaduct with baby-blue concrete walls breaks up the monotony.  That paint job would be ugly in 49 other states, but it works here.

I promise, this really is a fun drive, but there’s a little more disappointment before you get to the good stuff.  Once you reach Key Largo (the first large island south of the mainland), you’re in for a long stretch of divided 4-lane highway (still slow thanks to the speed limits) that’s almost completely devoid of oceanic views.  Instead, a collection of motels, restaurants, and gift shops line the highway.

I enjoyed the neat neon sign at the Green Turtle Inn, but it was the only photo stop I made, as I passed through Key Largo and Islamorada.

Islamorada’s full name is “Islamorada, Village of Islands”.  As the name suggests, it’s a collection of islands that stretches for several miles. 

You’ll have occasional views of the water as you pass through Islamorada, but the Overseas Highway doesn’t really open up until you reach…

Channel #2

Channel #2 is at the southwestern end of Lower Matecumbe Key.  This is the first long bridge to cross, and the first place where you get a good look at one of the historic arched bridges that originally carried US 1 (and before that, the Overseas Railroad).  Like many of the old spans, this bridge is open to fishermen and pedestrians, and there’s a parking area at the northeastern end.

If you stop and take a brief walk along the old bridge, you’ll have a good view across the water (and through the power lines) towards the next bridge along the highway.

7 Mile Bridge

Once you make it across several more small islands, and through the town of Marathon, you’ll reach one of the Overseas Highway’s most impressive and well-known spans, the Seven Mile Bridge.  As the name suggests, it’s roughly seven miles long, and it’s a thrilling seven miles.  This is where you really start to appreciate the bizarre nature of where you are.  You’re driving your car across the sea.  With the next island miles away, and almost no land on either side of the bridge, there’s nothing but water all around you.

Okay, there is one other thing nearby.  Right next to the new Seven Mile Bridge is the old Seven Mile Bridge.  It was one of the original pieces of the Overseas Railroad, and now, the first 2.2 miles serves as a pedestrian walkway and bike route.

Some of this bridge is made up of arches (like the one at Channel 2, pictured earlier on this page), but the pedestrian section consists of pillars and steel spans, perfectly spaced, stretching out for as far as the eye can see.

The original Seven Mile Bridge was built between 1909 and 1912.  It carried the Florida East Coast Railway until 1935, when a hurricane inflicted serious damage to the railway.  Afterwards, the state of Florida purchased the bridges and built an automobile road to Key West, which served until 1982, when the new Seven Mile Bridge was completed.

If you walk or ride the entire 2.2 miles to the end of the pedestrian/bike path, you can exit the bridge onto Pigeon Key.  The tiny 5-acre island was used as a work camp for Henry Flagler’s railroad crews, and now the entire island serves as a museum, preserving the railroad’s history.

In addition to walking or biking out to Pigeon Key, you can also take a ferry from Marathon.  Admission to the island is $11 for adults, and provides access to all the historic buildings on the island. You can find out more at the Pigeon Key Foundation website.

From the rise in the bridge over Moser Channel, you have a brief chance to enjoy the view from a slightly higher perspective.  From here, there’s nothing in sight but water, and the two bridges.

Just beyond the end of the Seven Mile Bridge, you pass across a few small keys, then enter Bahia Honda Key, which is home to Bahia Honda State Park.  The dramatic old Bahia Honda Bridge begins in the middle of the park, and you can walk across a small portion of it.  I bypassed the park on my way to Key West, then stopped here on the return trip.  It turns out, this is a great place to watch the sun set.

I’ll tell you much more about Bahia Honda State Park on this page

National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key

The cluster of islands just west of Bahia Honda provide the only natural habitat for the Key Deer, an endangered species that’s similar to White-tailed Deer, but smaller.  Not only will you want to slow down to look for them, you’ll be required to.  Traffic on US 1 is the biggest threat to the Key Deer — car vs. deer collisions kill 70% of the deer that die every year: 30 to 40 deer deaths, on average.  So, the speed limit slows dramatically throughout Big Pine Key and its neighboring islands (nighttime speeds are even more drastically reduced).

Make a left at the intersection of US 1, Chapman, Wilder, and Key Deer Boulevard (it’s the largest intersection on the island), then turn into the shopping center to find the Refuge’s visitor center.  I decided, instead, to drive aimlessly around Big Pine and the neighboring “no name” key.  I spotted one deer, which ran into the mangroves and brush before I could pull out my camera.

North of US 1, there are also a handful of other nature viewing areas, including the Blue Hole.  It’s an official stop in the Refuge, but the official sign was missing.

There’s a viewing platform at the end of a short path.  A woman I met there (who seemed to be a regular visitor) told me that there’s only one alligator in the lake, as far as she had ever seen, and it was hiding at that moment.  However, she did direct my attention to a tree branch near the edge of the water…

… and a very large, old iguana that was hanging out there.

From Big Pine Key, Key West is only about 28 miles away.  The rest of the drive into the city feels less open, since there are numerous small islands on either side of the road.

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