The Overseas Highway is a world-famous scenic highway in Florida. It consists of 42 bridges which connect the Florida Keys to the Florida mainland.
It’s currently the only way to reach Key West via land. The only other ways to reach Key West are by high-speed ferry, or by flying into the Key West Airport (EYW).
The Overseas Highway is an amazingly popular road trip because of its beautiful ocean views, and because it links the tourist hotspots of Miami and Key West.
The Overseas Highway is designated as an All-American Road.
The Overseas Highway is measured by a series of mile markers; a system which began in the early 1900s, when the route was established as a railway.
The Overseas Highway mile marker numbers count down in descending order. They begin with Mile Marker 127 in Florida City, and end at Mile Marker 0 in Key West.
Route U.S. 1
The Overseas Highway is a part of the U.S. highway 1, also known as US 1.
The U.S. 1 highway is 2,370 miles long and spans the entire east coast of the United States from north to south.
U.S. 1 runs from Key West, Florida to Fort Kent, Maine and the Canadian border.
Highway U.S. 1 is the longest north-south facing road in the United States, and one of the longest roads in the world.
23% of U.S. Route 1, or 545 miles of the 2,370 mile total length, is located in Florida.
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.
Note: If you struggle with anxiety, panic attacks or other conditions, it may be wise to consult with a mental health professional before subjecting yourself to a stressful situation.
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.
You may also choose to drive the highway in one direction, and fly back in the other direction.
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.
Buses from Miami to Key West
Several bus lines travel from Miami to Key West.
Buses and shuttles can be a good option for people who want to experience the Overseas Highway, but who cannot drive themselves, or would prefer to have someone else drive while they enjoy the scenery.
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 extreme 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.
What is the speed limit?
The speed limit on the Overseas Highway is generally between 30 and 55 miles per hour.
The speed limit is lower when in towns and population centers, and tends to be faster on bridges without obstructions or hazards.
Inexperienced drivers should be aware of speed limit changes, especially when entering islands and towns. It’s easy to drive too fast while exiting a bridge, or if you miss a hidden speed limit sign.
Law Enforcement, including the Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies, routinely patrol Highway 1 in search of speeding vehicles and reckless driving. Speed limits are often strictly enforced.
Drivers on the Overseas Highway should avoid speeding, and also avoid driving too slow, which infuriates other drivers and can prompt unpredictable behavior and unsafe passing.
Drivers should drive carefully, and pay close attention at all times. There are unique hazards on the Overseas Highway, and medical assistance can be far away while in remote sections of the Overseas Highway.
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. It’s composed of an ecosystem that 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.
Overseas Highway Facts and History
The Seven Mile Bridge is the most famous bridge in Florida’s Overseas Highway.
Despite its name, the Seven Mile bridge is actually 6.79 miles long. The bridge carries water and fiber optic telecommunication cables which supply Key West and the Lower Keys.
It sits in a section of the Keys called “The Middle Keys”, and connects Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key.
There is another bridge which runs parallel to the Seven Mile Bridge. This bridge is older, and was part of the historic Overseas Railroad, commissioned by Henry Flagler in the early 1900s.
The older bridge is open for fishing, hiking, pedestrian and bicycle use, but does not allow vehicle access.
The Seven Mile Bridge span was engineered by Figg & Muller Engineers, who also engineered Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
The Seven Mile Bridge was one of the world’s longest bridges when it was built.
The 7 Mile Bridge span has been built, damaged, repaired and rebuilt several times over its history, due to frequent and severe hurricane damage. The current bridge was built in 1982.
Begins in Key Largo at the crossing of Jewfish Creek Bridge
There are more than 800 keys, stretched out over 180 miles.
There are 42 bridges that connect the islands.
The Seven Mile Bridge is the most famous bridge, and is very fun to drive over.
Many people visit the Florida Keys just for the stretch of road trip from Miami to Key West.
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.