Whether a Sunday drive or a weekend getaway, Florida has much to offer in the way of road-trip escapes that entertain.
Here are a few of our favorites:
The trail runs 264 miles from Tampa to Miami, but it’s the scenic stretch through the Everglades that is worth your weekend getaway. This old road was carved out of the swamp in the early 20thCentury with dredges, one of which has been preserved for your enjoyment at Collier-Seminole State Park near Marco Island.
One of your first stops should be the Shark Valley, where you can hike, ride a bicycle or a tram along a paved, 15-mile trail deep into Everglades National Park to view an abundance of wildlife that makes these wetlands their home. Bicycle rentals and tram tour tickets are available at the Shark Valley Visitor Center.
If you’ve got the time, take a side trip off the Tamiami Trail on the old Loop Road, a 26-mile backwater highway with a colorful history. This is a great detour if you’re into wildlife photography.
Your reward at the end of the Loop Road is a visit to wildlife photographer Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery in tiny Ochopee. Clyde’s large-format work is renowned for capturing the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp on film with truly artistic beauty.
While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to stop at the Ochopee Post Office, the nation’s smallest, and enjoy lunch at Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, where you can dine on frog legs, alligator and catfish.
Moving on down the road, you’ll pass through more of the Big Cypress Preserve and come to a fork in the road, actually an intersection, where you can go south into Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island, go north to the 2,000-foot boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, or go straight to Collier-Seminole State Park, where you can camp and see the dredge that built the Trail.
The Cracker Trail
So, what is a Florida Cracker? There is disputed history to consider, but the generally accepted usage refers to the early cowboys who worked the range in the central part of the state during the 1800s and early 1900s.
Florida cowboys did not use lassos, like their western counterparts, nor did they use the reata of the Mexican vaquero. Rather, the Florida cowboys used a cow whip and dogs to herd their cattle, and their ponies were small by comparison to the majestic steeds of the Wild West .
But you could hear them coming, their whips a-cracking, as these “cow hunters” moved their herds through the rich grasslands of Central Florida – and along the “Cracker Trail.”
You can relive some of that rich history with a 120-mile drive cross-state from Fort Pierce through Sebring to Bradenton (or the reverse). Just follow State Road 68 west until your reach U.S. 98 northwest of Okeechobee near Basinger, and follow 98 until you encounter County Road 64 in Avon Park, just a few miles north of Sebring.
Although you’ll see ranch after ranch along this route, with cows aplenty, a few side trips may be in order to capture the flavor of this historic route. For starters, keep your eyes peeled for signs that mark trailheads for hiking.
- At the crossing of the Kissimmee River, you can hike along the trail and view the 120-year-old Lockette Estate, which is closed to the public but whose buildings can be viewed from the river trail.
- Highland Hammock State Park in Sebring. If you’re looking for an overnight place to camp, choose this campground under a dense canopy of live oak. Great nature trails for hiking and biking.
- Lake Kissimmee State Park, west of Sebring. Another great camping destination, but the main attraction (other than fishing) is a re-creation of an 1876-era cow camp. And if you visit on weekends from Oct. 1 through May 1, you just might encounter a genuine Florida “cow hunter” telling tales around the campfire.
- Cracker Trail Museum in Zolpho Springs is a collection of old buildings and artifacts from the cow hunter era.
The Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys is one of the most scenic drives in America, and you’ll see why when you skirt from island to island for more than 100 miles through a subtropical paradise. The highlight of the drive is the stunning Seven Mile Bridge, which spans the ocean from Marathon to Big Pine Key.
Snorkelers gravitate to the amazing coral reefs at John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo or the Looe Reef off Big Pine Key. Paddlers, whether in a kayak, canoe or on a paddleboard, have a wealth of opportunities to slip into the sea almost anywhere from Blackwater Sound to the Saddlebunch Keys. And it seems as if there’s a seafood shack every few miles serving fresh, local fish.
Islamorada bills itself as the sportfishing capital of the world, but you can find fish – and fishing charters — anywhere in the Keys. For party boats, try the Whale Harbor Marina (MM 84), Bud and Mary’s Marina (MM79.8) or the Marathon Lady at Vaca Cut (MM 53).
For camping, choose one of three state parks for tent camping or from dozens of private RV parks, which can be found on almost every island from Key Largo to Key West.
It’s easy to figure out where you are – mile markers line the Overseas Highway showing the distance from the Key West. Count the miles down to Mile Marker “0.”
Along the way, you may want to take a break at the Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant and Tiki Bar on Islamorado (MM 81), then go next door to Worldwide Sportsman, where they can climb aboard a classic Keys wood fishing vessel and shop for outdoors gear.
For sunsets, choose the Lorelei in Islamorada (MM 82) or the Island Fish Company Tiki Bar in Marathon (53.5).