Take a Leisurely Drive Down to Key West

A boat passes by Sunset Pier in Key West, Florida.

A boat passes by Sunset Pier in Key West, Florida.


Above photo: A boat passes by Sunset Pier in Key West, Florida.

Story and photos by Brad Clement

Brad is a photographer and filmmaker based in Boulder, Colorado.

A road trip on the Overseas Highway brings visitors to the homes of sea turtles, endangered deer and Ernest Hemingway.

On a recent business trip to Miami, I found myself with a few extra days on my hands. I considered whether to return home to Colorado, but once I heard the weather report forecasting several feet of snow, my decision was made. Florida would do just fine. I read about the famed Overseas Highway connecting the Florida Keys and made my plans for a Key West road trip.

The highway is 113 miles long and part of the 2,300-mile U.S. Route 1, which runs from Maine to Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States. With no hotel reservations (It was off-season), I jumped in the rental car and headed south from Miami to Key Largo. Once in Key Largo, I found no shortage of places to stay, many reasonably priced. I opted for a quirky spot originally built in the 1950s made up of several brightly painted bungalows on the water.

Crossing Seven Mile Bridge

 

On my second day in the Keys, I drove to Marathon, Florida, and visited the Turtle Hospital, a place that offers care and rehabilitation to endangered sea turtles. Housed in a 1950s seaside motel, the hospital has numerous bathtub-shaped saltwater tanks where the turtles live. The motel’s former saltwater swimming pool, with an oceanfront view, has been converted to a forever home for turtles that cannot be returned to the sea.

From the Turtle Hospital, I drove to Big Pine Key by passing over Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world. I stopped at the National Key Deer Refuge, a forest that serves as home to the endangered Key deer, a subspecies of the white-tailed deer. The refuge has no fences, just a wide-open space that offers a safe zone for the deer and access to a few hiking trails. Only found in the Florida Keys, I’d read that the Key deer are small in stature, but I wasn’t prepared for just how tiny they are. When one walked by me, I saw that it was no more than 2 or 3 feet tall! Apparently, I was lucky. A gentleman at the visitor center told me it is rare to see a deer at the refuge, especially in the middle of the day.

Key West Attractions

 

From Big Pine Key, I continued south for about 30 miles to Key West where I checked into my hotel. Almost everyone I spoke with had the same list of must-see attractions: the official marker for the southernmost point in the continental United States, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and sunset views at the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Everything in Key West is nearby, so I could easily visit the sights, all located in the historic Old Town area. I noticed the main form of getting around the island was by bicycle, so I rented one and explored. The Hemingway house featured the famed writer’s study and the small, unassuming table where it is rumored he wrote great literary works, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Green Hills of Africa.”

I also made a quick visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, where hundreds of butterflies of all shapes, colors and sizes fluttered around. About 50-60 species live in the conservatory and make their home among indoor streams and a lush collection of trees and flowering plants.

I rode around town and soaked up the sun and the relaxed vibe of Key West, careful to steer clear of the free-ranging roosters and iguanas. Duval Street — named after William Pope Duval, the first civil governor of the territory of Florida — is the main artery through Old Town. On Duval, it is easy to find great restaurants, like DJ’s Clam Shack, or simply people watch as tourists and residents alike travel the Old Town corridor.

Day Trip to a National Park

 

With one more day planned in Key West before driving back to Miami, I decided to jump on the boat Yankee Freedom III for a side trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. The park, located 70 miles offshore, can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Once we arrived within the park, we docked on Garden Key, home to Fort Jefferson, sandy beaches and excellent kayaking. Nearly 99% of the park is underwater where snorkelers can see the coral reefs filled with aquatic life.

After my final night in Key West, I drove north to Miami and flew back home. With fresh memories of beautiful beaches and ocean sunsets, I didn’t mind seeing the snow on the ground when I landed in Denver.
 

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