Cruising the Scenic Highway: A Guide to the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys Scenic Highway is the stretch of US Route 1 that travels through some of the nation's most spectacular tropical scenery. The route spans from Key Largo (Mile Marker 110 is just north) to the very tip of Key West (Mile Marker 0), the southernmost point in the continental United States. 

Driving down the highway, where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico meet, is an experience unlike any other. The drive offers views of a sandy, shallow shelf paired with calm waters reflecting bright turquoise, emerald, and aquamarine colors, stretching as far as the eye can see. Add beaches and swaying palm trees and you have the essence of relaxation. 

Crossing the island chain via US Route 1 exposes you to sights and activities you might not otherwise see or do. Travelers will experience breathtaking parks, water sports, historic sites, museums, island cuisine, sunshine, a tropical atmosphere, and friendly locals enjoying the laid back lifestyle of the Keys. 

The Keys also have a wonderful blend of unique cultures. Historically, Bahamian and Cuban influences are dominant, as natives from the nearby countries have been traveling to the Keys for hundreds of years. The culture, music, art, architecture, and cuisine are steeped in these island traditions. Experience for yourself Cuban, Bahamian, and Caribbean food, dance to Salsa music, listen to the relaxing rhythms of a steel drum band, and visit the many museums and galleries full of art influenced by these cultures. All this and so much more is awaiting along the Florida Keys Scenic Highway. 

Stop #1: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

This State Park provides a surprising element: Most of it is underwater. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park starts a foot off the shore and flows outward three miles into the Florida Straits, encompassing the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. Nearby dive shops can get you ready to discover this underwater world. It's said there are 55 varieties of coral and 500 species of fish, ranging from blue-striped grunts to green moray eels. You'll also find a few shipwrecks, some dating as far back as the 1600's. 

Non-divers will also find plenty to do. Explore a 30,000-gallon aquarium and choose between four different types of boat tours, including one aboard a glass-bottom vessel that lets you stay high and dry while viewing the reefs. You can also rent a canoe or kayak, or simply park yourself by the lagoon and enjoy the calm waters and sunshine. Campsites are available, and RVs are welcome. Nearly 50 sites have full hookups, complete with a picnic table and grill. If you stay here, or anywhere in the Keys, bring a telescope or binoculars to watch the night sky—it's clearer here than nearly anywhere else in Florida. 

102601 Overseas Hwy., MM 102.5 (Oceanside), Key Largo, Florida 33037

Stop #2: Anne's Beach

On lower Matecumbe Key, you can stretch out on the sand and slip your toes into turquoise water at Anne's Beach. Enjoy a swim in the calm, clear Atlantic Ocean while kiteboarders take advantage of tropical sea breezes. Watch fisherman, stone crabbers, and lobster drivers capture their bounties. Linger along a secluded boardwalk, walk your dog, and picnic at a shaded table among the native mangroves. Park in either of the two small lots a fourth of a mile apart. The best news? It's all free. 

Overseas Hwy., MM 73.5 (Oceanside), Marathon, Florida 33036

Stop #3: Dolphin Research Center

This marine research and educational facility also helps the area's injured marine animals and is the only federally licensed facility in Florida that's allowed to help injured manatees. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions are the center's main residents—learn about their personalities and behaviors. In addition to educational tours and shows, visitors can interact with the dolphins for a small fee. Reservations are required. 

58901 Overseas Hwy., Grassy Key, MM 59, Marathon, Florida

Stop #4: Seven Mile Bridge

The Seven Mile Bridge (Mile Marker 47) links the Middle and Lower Keys by crossing a channel between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. It was the longest segmental bridge in the world when it was built in 1982. If rises 65 feet for boat clearance, making it the highest point in the Florida Keys and offering breathtaking views. And, it runs parallel to Flagler's 1912 railroad bridge, which has arches reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. Some portions of the bridge are still accessible to pedestrians and bicyclist. 

Approximately MM 40-47, Overseas Hwy., Key West, Florida

Stop #5: Bahia Honda State Park

It was just another island until Henry Flagler's railroad connected the mainland to Key West. Even though the railroad is gone, Bahia Honda became one of the southernmost state parks in America. If you stop before reaching Key West (a little more than a half hour away), you'll find camping, fishing, diving, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and one of the country's top beaches. 

Snap photos of Flagler's historic railroad trestle and enjoy the Atlantic and Gulf views. Relax on the beach, take a swim in the crystal clear water, explore the nature trail, or picnic in one of the pavilions. For a few hours or a few days, the park has year-round appeal. 

36850 Overseas Hwy., MM 37, Big Pine Key, Florida

Stop #6: National Key Deer Refuge 

Standing just about two feet high, key deer are miniature versions of their much larger cousins, the white-tailed deer. When their numbers were rapidly dwindling in the 1950's, they were given protection of this 9,200-acre refuge, comprised of pine rockland forests, freshwater wetlands, saltmarsh wetlands, and mangrove forests. 

Within the boundaries of National Key Deer Refuge, deer numbers have increased to nearly a thousand, an indication that they, like other refuge wildlife, are thriving. There are walking trails, wildlife viewing areas, and a visitors center less than a mile from the intersection of US Route 1 and CR 940. 

28950 Watson Blvd., MM 33, Big Pine Key, Florida

Stop #7: Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

In the 1930's Ernest Hemingway made Key West his home. Some say it was the idyllic setting of Key West that inspired him to write classics like For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, and A Farewell to Arms from the privacy of his second-story writing room. Others say it was sheer coincidence. Regardless, the works earned him the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Today, his former home is a museum, whose popularity often results in crowded tours, is considered a Key West must. Stroll the grounds for a more peaceful experience and to see descendants of Hemingway's legendary six-toed cats. Note that the museum is a cash-only enterprise. 

907 Whitehead St., Key West, Florida

Stop #8: Key West Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum

There are only 14 lighthouses in America older than this one, which was activated in 1848 with a woman as a keeper—a rare occasion for that period of time. Climb the 88 steps to the top where you can take in a wonderful view of the island—it's a perfect vantage point for photographs. Afterward, tour the Keepers' Quarters filled with historic instruments, maps, and photos that depict a rich maritime history. 

938 Whitehead St., Key West, Florida

Stop #9: Mallory Square

In the 1960s, a few friends began to gather on the wooden docks of the old salvage warehouse district at the west end of Duval Street to watch Key West's spectacular sunset each evening. By the '70s, the sunset watchers' ranks had swelled a bit, with a few free spirits strumming guitars, and craftspeople selling their wares.

Today, Mallory Square, a souvenir shopper's mecca by day, transforms itself into a rollicking circus each afternoon, with hundreds of people showing up for the Sunset Celebration. Arrive an hour before sundown to see an assortment of entertainers—tightrope walkers, jugglers of torches or chainsaws, musicians, strongmen, and trained acrobatic cats. As a result, this sunset celebration one of the most popular shows in Florida. The festivities continue for about an hour after the sunset.

1 Whitehead St., Key West, Florida 33040

Stop #10: Southernmost Point Marker

One of the country’s most photographed landmarks, the giant yellow, red, and black buoy-shaped monument marks the  Southernmost Point in the continental United States, and notes that Cuba is only 90 miles away (if you’re up for a swim). It can get very crowded during the day so arrive early and catch a sunrise photo.

Whitehead and South St., Key West, Florida 33040