Driving the Florida Keys in a car, I might not have seen them. But riding my bike, it was hard to miss the "V" of about a dozen brown pelicans that glided no more than 15 feet above my head at Little Torch Key, flying in the direction of Key Largo while I pedaled south toward Key West.
The Keys are unique. There's just one road in and out of the archipelago that arcs from south of Miami more than 100 miles to Key West. That's U.S. Highway 1. Back around the turn of the 20th century, there was another option as Florida developer Henry Flagler spent huge amounts of money (and lives were lost too) to extend his Florida East Coast Railway to Key West. All that remains of what some labeled Flagler's Folly is a collection of railroad bridges, some of which attract fishermen, walkers and bikers.
Since early in this century, work has been underway to piece together old railroad bridges and new and old paved paths to form the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. The idea is to have an off-road pathway for bikers and walkers that stretches from mile marker 106.5 in Key Largo to mile marker 0 in Key West. (Mile markers are to denizens of the Keys as street addresses are to more citified folk.)
For now, it's a work in progress, with roughly 70 miles complete in sections varying from miles to fractions of a mile. What that translates to, I found during a mid-April ride, is a route that's constantly in flux, requiring a bicyclist who is flexible and not afraid to ride a highway shoulder that varies from 3 to 9 feet wide, while sharing the road with traffic moving 45 to 55 mph.
Just a few weeks before my ride, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Recreation and Parks, which both have a hand in the project, closed four of the old Flagler bridges that had been ridable, citing safety reasons. Because of funding and other issues, it's impossible to say when the trail will be completed, according to trail officials.
Also, sewer pipe is being laid alongside U.S. 1, which sometimes (but not often) means the off-road portions of the path have been torn up, and you have to walk your bike through.
A hard-core biker possibly could knock off this 106-mile ride in a day, particularly if done north to south, where the prevailing winds favor the rider. Don't do that.
The attraction of riding the Keys is to enjoy the environment, taking a side trip here and there, like to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park or gorgeous Bahia Honda State Park.
Or it's terrific to just enjoy the ride. The famous Seven-Mile Bridge has to be ridden on a very wide shoulder, but there's nothing to compare with the half-hour or so you'll spend on it with aquamarine waters surrounding you.
The abundance of lodging throughout the Keys makes it simple to break the ride into short chunks that encourage exploring. In my case, including side trips, it was Key Largo to Islamorada, 25 miles; to Marathon, 35; to Little Torch Key, 23; to Key West, 28 (though my actual riding was cut short 10 miles on Day 4 when a broken chain destroyed my rear derailleur).
I came to this trip armed with maps, lists of bridges and their status and more. After Day 1, I scarcely looked at any of it because of the changing nature of the route.
You can't get lost. Sometimes you'll ride the path, which switches back and forth from ocean side to Gulf side. Sometimes you'll have to ride the shoulder. If you're not comfortable with that, this probably isn't the ride for you.
But, to me, the best bike rides aren't predictable. They're full of surprises.
Like that formation of pelicans.
If you go
Getting there: Key Largo is about 60 miles south of Miami. The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail starts at mile marker 106.5, but at present there is no signage to mark the trail beginning. It's right across the highway from the visitor center when you enter Key Largo from the north. Among Key Largo-area bike shops that can rent you a bike and pick it up in Key West are Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours, 305-395-1551, keylargobike.com; and All Keys Cycles, 305-453-6221, allkeyscycles.com.
When to go: Theoretically, year-round. If heat and humidity bother you, stick to the cooler months from about November through April, though those also are the months likely to have the most traffic on U.S. 1.
Advice: Outfit your bike with Kevlar-lined tires to minimize the likelihood of flats. You're going to end up riding the highway shoulder, and debris is a fact of life, though I didn't see a lot. Also carry spare tubes, a pump or inflater and plenty of water, though you're seldom far from a town. Also, riding the off-road path can be more risky than the shoulder. I had two near-misses involving vehicles, and both occurred in places where the path intersected side streets or driveways.
Staying there: You can find listings on the Florida Keys Tourism website under "Info." Places I stayed and that I'd recommend:
Cheeca Lodge & Spa, mile marker 82, Islamorada; 800-327-2888; cheeca.com. A beautiful beachfront location and facilities that include 214 rooms and suites. High season (December through April) sometimes as low as $299 midweek, with beachfront bungalows at $649. Low season as low as $199 midweek, with bungalows at $349.
Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort, MM 48.5, Marathon; 888-755-7486; tranquilitybay.com. Very nice resort on the beach on the Gulf side, with 102 one- to three-bedroom offerings. High season $199-$399; low season $149-$249.
Parmer's Resort, half mile off Highway 1 at MM 28.5, Little Torch Key; 305-872-2157; parmersresort .com. A taste of Old Florida, with rooms, efficiencies, cottages and suites. September-mid-December $99-334; mid-December-January and April-September $139-464; February and March $159-$504.
Parrot Key Resort, MM 2, Key West; 888-211-0348; parrotkeyresort.com. Nicely done resort set on an inlet on the Gulf side. Features 222 rooms, suites and villas. High season $199-399; low season $149-249.
If you prefer to camp, Florida Keys Tourism has links to specific regions at tinyurl.com/7jrflsr, and each region has lists of RV parks and campgrounds. Be aware some campgrounds may book up months in advance.
Info: Florida Keys Tourism, 800-352-5397, fla-keys.com Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, 305-853-3571, tinyurl.com/kdfefc9. Under the "Additional Info" link, are several useful PDF files, including the latest map. You also can pick up a trail brochure/map at visitor centers, including the one in Key Largo.Copyright © 2015, CT Now