The old 7 Mile Bridge is a great walk or short bike ride.
MARATHON — This is a bike trail with a story to tell.
The Old Seven Mile Bridge is not only spectacularly scenic, it also brings you as close as you can to experiencing Henry Flagler’s historic “railroad that went to sea.” The bridge, an engineering marvel of its day, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, it makes a memorable bike ride or walk when you’re visiting the Florida Keys. Peering over the rusting guardrails – the actual rails that carried trains during its run from 1912 to 1935 — you gaze into the translucent waters and may spot sharks or sea turtles or other marine life. Magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans soar overhead.
You’ll travel far before you find another bike trip with this combination of history and postcard moments.
It is 2.2 miles to Pigeon Key (a great visit and subject of another post here.) If you want more biking after your roundtrip on the bridge, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail extends north for 11 miles to Mile Marker 58.
The bridge’s history is closely tied with Florida’s history — Henry Flagler’s railroad down the east coast of Florida is what opened the state to the world. For better or worse, Florida is what it is because of Henry Flagler.
His overseas railroad, the first land route ever from Miami to Key West, never was a financial success and then it became a downright disaster. A devastating 1935 hurricane brought 200 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge, washing away miles of railroad. Flagler’s bankrupt Florida East Coast railway sold the whole right-of-way to the state for one-seventh what it cost Flagler to build the railroad.
The Seven Mile Bridge was easily converted by the state of Florida to an automotive bridge — that’s the surface you bike or walk today. Until 1982, when the adjoining new bridge opened, it was the only road cars could take to Key West. (I vividly remember it as a white-knuckle ride, and when you experience how narrow it is first-hand, you will know what I mean.)
Folks in the Keys treasure the bridge and use it daily. In season, it fills up each night with people savoring the famous Florida Keys sunset.
If you’re interested in the old bridge, you might want to come ride or walk it while you can.
It is deteriorating and Monroe County and the State of Florida can’t find the money to maintain it.
Renovations would cost $20 million, and the Department of Transportation would fund half of it, but Monroe County would have to pay the other half and then take over ownership.
Maintenance was in the budget for 2015 and then was pushed back, according to Kelly McKinnon, the executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation.
To help preserve the bridge, no vehicles are now allowed on it except the Pigeon Key golf cart. Pigeon Key used to run a tram out to the island, but now visitors come by boat. Recently, fishing, once a most popular pastime, was banned on the bridge to reduce stress.
The main issue with the bridge, McKinnon says, is that the unsupported sections that were added in 1935 to widen the structure for vehicle traffic are starting to sag.
The other 5.8 mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge south of Pigeon Key cannot be accessed– a section was removed south of the island to prevent that — and today the remaining expanse rusts in the sun and solitude, with an occasional tree finding enough dirt in a crack to sprout from it.
With no maintenance, will the old bridge just blow down in the next big hurricane?
McKinnon laughs at the thought. “The new bridge will go down before the old one does. It’s been there for 100 years; it was made to last. The new one was just built by the lowest bidder.”
Some momentum toward saving the bridge has been achieved: Fans of the bridge have organized into Friends of Old Seven and a recent study has indicated that turning the Old Seven Mile Bridge into a park with “increased visibility of the structure through creative lighting, historical displays/platforms, shaded areas, benches and structural aesthetics” would be an economic boon for the Keys.
When you visit the Old Seven Mile Bridge, it may look familiar. It has appeared in several films, most famously the 1994 True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, when the old bridge is shown being destroyed by missile strikes. (The explosion was done on an 80-foot model.)
If you plan to bike or walk the Old Seven Mile Bridge:
- There is parking just north of the bridge gulfside at Mile Marker 47 in Marathon. To visit Pigeon Key by boat, go to the visitor center on the ocean side. Even if you ride your bike to the island, you still need to pay the $11 admission, so you might as well enjoy the bike ride as a separate activity and then take the boat over for a guided tour.
- Pigeon Key Foundation site, with good historic information and tour information
- Jerry Wilkinson’s detailed history of the Overseas Railroad.
- Friends of Old Seven, a non-profit committed to preserving the bridge. Here folks shared their memories of the historic bridge
- Here’s information on the effort to fund bridge renovations. And here’s information about the economic study.
Other nearby things to do in the Florida Keys and Marathon:
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your next road trip to the Florida Keys.
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Seeing Keys deer
- Off-the-beaten-track Keys cabins make a good kayaking base
Many readers have written to ask: Can you bicycle across the Seven Mile Bridge?
You could only do this on the new bridge, I wouldn’t do it — but, then, I’m a recreational bicyclist who is looking for stress-free, safe trails. It is not recommended for that kind of ride!
Some people do it. There’s about a five-foot lane for bikes and the bridge is mostly flat, with about one-mile at the center elevated, according to to bicyclist who has written about it. Here’s a section of her account on pedaling the length of the Keys.