The highway that goes to sea
The Overseas Highway, sometimes called "the Highway that Goes to Sea," is a modern wonder. It is the "magic carpet" by which visitors from Florida's mainland can cross countless coral and limestone islets through that special world of the Florida Keys.
The highway — the southernmost leg of U.S. 1 — follows a trail originally blazed in 1912 when Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. The railroad ceased operations on the Miami-Key West link in 1935, following extensive damage to the roadbed by severe winds and erosion and the economic decline caused by the Depression era.
Construction of the Overseas Highway was an incredible engineering feat. A total of 113 miles of roadway and 42 overseas bridges, leapfrogging form key to key in a series of giant arches of concrete and steel, were constructed. In 1982, 37 bridges were replaced with wider, heavier spans, including the well-known Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon.
The highway was begun in the late 1930s. Its foundation utilizes some of the original spans as well as the coral bedrock of individual keys and specially constructed columns. First completed in 1938, it marked the beginning of an equally incredible adventure for the ubiquitous North American motorist. The Florida Keys — which now host more than three million visitors annually — became an easily accessible tourist destination by car and bus.
And what do these visitors see? Seascapes as colorful as any artist's palette, colors of shimmering sea from turquoise to blue to deep green, landscapes of rustling pine, swaying palms, silver buttonwood and water-rooted mangrove, all vying for life under a horizon-to-horizon blue sky dotted with fleecy white clouds.
Beneath the tropical, cloud-flecked skies of the Florida Keys, today's fishing and boating enthusiasts share the land and sea with the complex habitat of birds — great white herons, roseate spoonbills, ospreys and, at the water's edge, wheeling gulls and swooping pelicans and cormorants bobbing like corks to feed on fish. From the older bridges where fishing is permitted, the human population drop lines to compete for the bounty of the sea. Sometimes the catch is shared with the winged anglers.
The "new" highway may be traversed in fewer than four hours from Miami, but for the sake of enjoyment more time should be allotted. For here, tucked beneath Florida's mainland, lies an ever-changing, challenging world of seas and lost wilderness that should be savored in the recreational areas set aside along the fabulous roadway.
In 2009, the Overseas Highway was named an All-American Road by the National Scenic Byways program administered by the Federal Highway Administration. The Keys highway is the only All-American Road in Florida. It's the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the U.S. Congress in 1991. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious title.
Take time for the dramatic sunsets. When the giant red ball of the sun plummets into the blue of the sea, as it often does in the tropics, it sends radiant pink, orange and purple-blue fingers across the evening sky. The sunrises, too, are spectacular enough to arrest a camera's eye, as the ever-growing glow spreads beams of glistening light over the sea.