Tourism and Tours

Overseas Highway | A place to create memories that will last a lifetime

On this world-famous 113-mile drive, you’ll traverse 42 bridges that connect the Florida Keys to the Florida mainland. You’ll feel like you’re floating across the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

History of the Overseas Highway

This Florida Keys Overseas Highway “bucket list” journey so popular with visitors to the islands follows a trail originally blazed in 1912 when millionaire Henry Flagler built what became known as the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from Miami to Key West.

Flagler envisioned a train route connecting all the Florida Keys and mainland Florida. Flagler inspired an army of men to spend seven years constructing the railroad’s bridges and land-based tracks, and in 1912 the first train pulled into Key West.

After only two-plus decades of carrying freight and wealthy vacationers, much of the railroad was badly damaged in a 1935 hurricane. The railroad ceased operations on the Miami-Key West link, following extensive damage to the roadbed by severe winds and erosion and the economic decline caused by the Depression era. Three years later the Overseas Highway debuted, built on a foundation that incorporated some of the original railway spans.

Construction of the Overseas Highway was an incredible engineering feat. In 1982, 37 original bridges were replaced with wider, heavier spans, including the well-known Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon.

What is the longest overseas highway?

A modern wonder, the 113 miles of roadway from Key Largo to Key West incorporates an astonishing 42 bridges leapfrogging from key to key in a series of giant arches of concrete and steel over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

When was the Overseas Highway built?

Construction of the Overseas Highway was completed in 1938.

The highway has been built, destroyed and repaired several times due to severe hurricane damage.

The most horrific hurricane event was in 1935, when hundreds of people were killed by a violent storm surge. The tragedy killed hundreds of military veterans and their families.

Before the Overseas Highway was built Key West was only accessible by ship or railroad, via the Overseas Railroad, which was part of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway system.

The road system has existed in multiple forms and iterations over the years.

A major strengthening and construction effort was made in World War II, to allow the U.S. Navy to transport heavier loads over the overseas highway, and to support military bases and operations in the Florida Keys.

Road Trips in Florida

The Overseas Highway is one of the best scenic road trips in Florida, along with several other scenic Florida highways, including Highway A1A and Highway 30A.

Most people agree that Florida’s best road trips are its coastal roads, although there are other scenic highways in the state.

Is the Overseas Highway Worth it?

Before you visit the Overseas Highway for a road trip, you should have proper expectations. Specifically, you should try to lower them.

Many people are disappointed to find that the Keys are not always very beautiful. If you come to the Florida Keys expecting beautiful, clear water and perfect beaches, you will be disappointed.

There are many trashy and run-down areas. The towns usually have trashy old strip malls from the 1970s, run-down, storm-damaged trailers, and the scenery is not actually very good for much of the drive.

Except when you are on a bridge, there are long stretches of the overseas highway that do not have an ocean view. Much of the landscape is mosquito and bug-infested brush, with inhospitable rocky beaches.

But, it’s all worth it, as long as you keep your expectations in check.

When you’re up on a bridge and can see miles of beautiful blue ocean, soak it in and enjoy the view. Those are the most beautiful stretches of the overseas highway.

Is the Overseas Highway Dangerous?

The Overseas Highway used to be a dangerous road because it was very narrow and often had severe maintenance issues.

Today the Overseas Highway is generally as safe as other roads, although there are still many areas with poor road maintenance.

Potholes, road debris, obstructions and dangerous driving behavior are all common on the Overseas Highway.

The biggest risk of the Overseas Highway today is related to traffic accidents, distracted driving and drivers who are intoxicated with drugs or alcohol.

Traffic and vehicle accidents are often the leading cause of death and injury in Monroe County.

Florida Keys roads are often filled with hazards, potholes and road debris. If you visit after a hurricane, be especially careful of storm debris in the road, especially roofing nails. Construction and demolition debris often fall off of debris trailers as trash is being driven north, towards the mainland.

Road hazards like these can cause flat tires, car damage, or dangerous auto accidents.

Key West roads are often filled with tourists, roosters, parked cars, mopeds and other obstructions.

Don’t allow yourself to become distracted as you drive over the beautiful water or bridges. If you have passengers in your car, it’s a good idea to ask them to keep their eyes open, too.

If you must stop for any reason, be sure to only stop in a safe, legal stopping area, and reenter the highway carefully.

Crime and Drug Smuggling

For decades, south Florida and the Florida Keys have struggled with drug smuggling and human trafficking. Since the Overseas Highway is the only route to the Florida Keys, the highway was host to criminal activity.

These issues were especially rampant in the 1980s. In 1982 the U.S. Border Patrol to impose a checkpoint at the north end of the highway. Border patrol agents searched vehicles for drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants, which was controversial.

The highway checkpoint angered many residents and deterred tourism, which inspired Key West to famously declare independence as the Conch Republic.

Is the Overseas Highway Scary?

Some people worry that the Overseas Highway will feel scary, especially the bridges.

Those who suffer from anxiety, fear of heights, open water or bridges may feel anxious or fearful on some stretches of the overseas highway.

The most common fear is that it’s scary to be from land while on long bridges, especially the famous Seven Mile Bridge.

Fear of heights is another common concern. Some are afraid of accidentally driving over the bridge guard rails, and falling into the ocean waters below.

If you feel these fears, you should not feel embarrassed. These fears are common, and are understandable. Many people feel their palms sweat, or their hearts race, when driving over a tall bridge, or even while thinking about heights.

In general, the Overseas Highway does not feel very different than other bridges. The main difference is that, especially for the Seven Mile Bridge, the bridge is from land in certain spots. But, the bridges are very solid; they don’t feel flimsy. Most people do not feel any feeling of fear or insecurity while on the bridges.

One important thing to remember is that the Overseas Highway is not a tall bridge. The maximum height is 65 feet, which is much lower than other bridges in Florida. As a comparison, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay is 180 feet tall.

Driving the Overseas Highway

Driving the overseas highway, also known as U.S. Highway 1 through the Florida Keys can be an exciting experience.

The road trip is filled with famous roadside attractions and the landscape changes constantly from island to island.

Is the drive worth it?

If you have enough time, the drive is definitely worth it!

But, if you are short on time, doing the entire length of the Overseas Highway may not be the best use of your time.

If you have limited time, it’s usually best to spend time in one place, so you don’t spend all of your time driving. Most visitors spend time at either the north end of the Overseas Highway, or the south, in Key West.

Although the scenery is beautiful, driving the highway a second time is less exciting than the first time, since you’ve already seen the scenery. If you have limited time, a second drive may not be worth it.

On the other hand, every drive over the Overseas Highway is different. If you have enough time, it’s certainly possible to enjoy driving the roadway many times without becoming bored!

Constantly changing light conditions, ocean conditions, sunsets, sunrises, animal encounters, and other factors all make each trip unique.

And, driving the road multiple times gives you the chance to stop and explore new places and activities along the road.

Ferry to Key West

The Key West Express is a popular ferry to Key West, which runs from Fort Myers to Key West.

The ferries are large, high-speed catamarans. These ferries only transport passengers, and do not carry vehicles.

How long does it take?

According to Google Maps, the drive from Miami to Key West takes approximately four hours.

The National Highway Administration also estimates the driving time for the Overseas Highway to be 4 hours.

Visitors should know that four hours is not enough time to enjoy the drive, or allow for time to stopping. Tourists and visitors should allocate substantially more time for the drive to be a pleasant experience.

Some visitors suggest budgeting an entire day, or multiple days for the drive, to avoid feeling rushed, and to allow enough time for stopping.

For trip planning purposes, visitors should know that traffic tends to move below the speed limit on the Overseas Highway, mostly because of traffic and bad driving conditions.

Traffic is usually worse on weekends, holidays, and during peak tourist season.

The highway is often filled with visitors who are distracted by the scenery, and often do not know where they are, or where they are going.

The highway is generally narrow, and only has two lanes of traffic. Traffic is often blocked by cars who are turning, or who are entering or exiting the highway.

If there is a serious accident on the Overseas Highway, the highway can be shut down and traffic may back up for miles.

Sadly, traffic accidents are often fatal. If a fatality occurs, traffic delays can be especially bad because intensive investigations may need to be conducted.

If you drive on the Overseas Highway, you should be prepared for long, unexpected delays. It’s a good idea to keep supplies, including food, water, and other essentials in your car in case traffic is stopped for any reason.

Drivers must pay close attention to their fuel supply or gas gauge.

There are long stretches without gas stations on the Overseas Highway. Although running out of gas is not very common, it can cause anxiety when on a long bridge, without any nearby gas stations.

Drivers on the Overseas Highway should remain alert and aware of their surroundings at all times.

Good stops on the overseas highway

There are many places to stop along the way, from restaurants and cafes to seaside shopping centers.

  • Biscayne National Park
  • Everglades National Park: This park is the largest in America. The Everglades ecosystem includes sawgrass marshes, tropical hardwood hammocks, wetlands and cypress forests. Alligators are often spotted when visiting this national park.
  • Florida Bay is a shallow bay at the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula. It stretches from Cape Sable to the Florida Keys. Florida Bay has some of the best “backcountry” fishing in North America. Common fish species include snook, red snapper and tarpon.
  • Florida Keys History Museum: This museum is located in the heart of Key West. The exhibits provide a history of how this area came to be called “the Conch Republic” and interesting information on its residents.
  • One of the best stops on the drive from Miami to Key West is the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. The museum features more than 50 species of butterflies and over 300 birds. It’s the perfect stop for anyone interested in animals or nature.

Hazards on the Overseas Highway

  • The Overseas Highway can be a dangerous stretch of road.
  • It used to be even worse, before massive road expansions were made in the 1980s.
  • The road has been improved further in recent years, but maintenance is a constant problem on the overseas highway.
  • If you drive your own car, or rent a car, be careful!
  • The road is usually narrow with two lanes, due to all of the bridges. There is often unsafe passing behavior as impatient drivers zoom around slower tourist vehicles.
  • If you’re a visitor, be sure to remain aware of the traffic conditions at all times.
  • There are many hazards on the overseas highway, especially tourists who are not paying attention, or who are driving unpredictably.