Florida Road Trip

Did you know that Orlando is America’s most-visited vacation destination? People, Florida has so much more going for it than amusement parks! More freshwater springs than anywhere in the world, the one and only Everglades, the oldest European city in the U.S., a melting pot of cultures from around the globe, and beach weather when the most of the States is shoveling snow…why wouldn’t we spend our winter here? We set aside one month to road trip the Sunshine State, from the southernmost point to the northwestern border, and discover the places even more magical than Disney.

Our Florida Road Trip Route

By the time we finish this road trip we’ll have traveled about 1,500 miles around Florida so we definitely have to break this blog into two parts! Florida is only 447 miles long but with so many friends here (snowbirds, residents, and vacationers) and fun happenings, we’ve been zigzagging all over the state! Here’s the streamlined version of our South Florida road trip: Key West -> Middle Keys -> Miami -> Everglades National Park -> Sanibel Island -> Arcadia/Peace River -> Highlands Hammock State Park -> Cape Canaveral. Let’s hit the road!

Key West, Our Kind of Town

Danger Charters Key West

We have big dreams for Buddy the Camper. Reaching Alaska was one of them and touching the southernmost point of the mainland U.S. (Key West) was another! More than a bucket list item, visiting Key West is like reaching a state of mind. They consider themselves a micronation, The Conch Republic, with the decree: “Come as you are.” They’ve always moved to the beat of a different drummer. Even when they were under a mix of Spanish and British rule from the 1520s-1822, pirates and salvagers were still largely running the show. When Florida went Confederate in the Civil War, Key West went Union. Today, that alternative way of life continues with a chilled-out and fun-loving mélange of people. We got in there with the best of them—from celebrating sunset with Mallory Square street performers to drinking margaritas with Jimmy Buffet fans. Love this town!

Cruising the Overseas Highway

Driving the Overseas Highway, the engineering feat that connects the chain of islands for 120 miles, could be done in a day but it is definitely worth a few. After checking out of the fabulous new Perry Hotel Key West, we had a great beach day at Bahia Honda State Park, took an eye-opening tour at the Turtle Hospital, geeked out at the History of Diving Museum (Mike votes it his Top 3 museums in the world!), then we went on a our own dive in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (the only barrier coral reef in the States). In driving the Middle Keys, we’ll admit we did see some damage from Hurricane Irma; some hotels are still the process of remodeling and some people are sadly without their homes. That said, the Florida Keys remain absolutely gorgeous, a ton of fun, and in need of tourism more than ever. Go support this awesome part of the world!

Hot Times in Miami Beach

South Beach Miami

We pulled into Miami on a Saturday night, which left us only one choice…bar hop in South Beach! Wanting to get a taste of the nightlife, but not wanting to don high heels and a white blazer, we kicked it off at Mac’s Club Deuce, Miami’s longest running bar. Judging by the hand-painted signs, wavy mirrors, and chrome bar stools, Mac’s has barely been touched since opening day in 1926 (though they might have mopped when Miami Vice held its cast party there). This place is unapologetically awesome. We parked a block away, went to three bars in walking distance, and slept in South Beach for $12 in the meter. (Thanks, Buddy The Camper!)

Super Model Volleyball

Model Volleyball Miami tournament

Cities are usually quieter on President’s Weekend, but when the average temp is 80 degrees and your local beach looks like the Caribbean, why leave? Diners packed the Art Deco cafes along Ocean Drive, bikers and rollerbladers cruised the boardwalk, and volleyball players crushed the courts. And not just any players, teams of super models competing in an annual tournament to the sounds of live Latin music and Flo Rida! We soaked up this scene for few hours, then went to Little Havana for the lively Gay8 street festival. No matter how many times you’ve been to Miami, there is always something fun going on. Tip: When you get there, check out our friend Matt Meltzer’s Thrillist column, he rounds up the best happenings each weekend.

Everglades: The River of Grass

Wildlife of Floridas parks

Miami is the only metropolitan area in the United States that borders two national parks: Biscayne & The Everglades. Biscayne is best experienced by boat, so we opted for the one-and-only Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve wetland. When you look at Florida on a map, the bottom eighth is a swath of green with two roads cutting across what is technically a very slow moving river. We took the Tamiami Trail to Shark Valley and were bowled over by the amount of wildlife we saw. Alligators were outside the ticket booth! We walked the trails and stopped every few minutes to see great blue heron dive for fish, osprey feeding their young, or a gator coast by. Shark Valley is honestly one of the most incredible places for wildlife watching, though as we were reading at the ranger station, the park admits its an “unnatural” concentration. The construction of the road in 1928 basically blocked the animals from freely moving downstream, but things are looking up! Governor Scott has green-lit a $90 million project to elevate miles of the road to aid migration patterns and water flow. Props.

From the Swamp to the Sea

The Everglades National Park fades into the Big Cypress National Preserve, home of the Turner River Paddle Trail. As we realized firsthand, this narrow break in the mangroves is just barely wide enough for a kayak and gator to pass. Watch this video for this very close encounter, plus our 10,000 Islands experience, paddling alongside dolphins, jumping stingrays, even a massive crocodile! The Everglades were full of surprises, white sand beaches included.

Sanibel Island: A Seashell Paradise

Shelling in Sanibel Island

Cruising north through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and Alligator Alley, we rejoined civilization with a stop at Sanibel Island. We featured this world-renowned shelling destination in the “Best-in-class Beaches” section of Ultimate Journeys for Two. The south-facing shores are a veritable net for coquinas, conch whelks, and treasures hailing from across the Caribbean…so we dug in. Dozens of shellers were out with their shovels and nets, while us rookies were just impressed with what we could gather barehanded. To further our shelling smarts, we stopped at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum—the U.S’s only natural history museum on the subject. If you didn’t think mollusks were cool, their two-million shell collection will change your mind.

Digging for Fossils in Peace River

Fossil Expeditions

When chatting with a Floridian friend, she told us one of her fondest memories was hunting for fossils in Peace River. Over millions of years, low-lying Florida has gone above and below the sea two dozen times…so finding a whale vertebrae or megaladon tooth in the middle of the state isn’t uncommon, especially in Arcadia. We read about Mark Renz’s Fossil Expeditions from a Travel Channel feature and signed up for an all-day dig. He armed us with a floating sieve, shovel, and his 23 years of paleontological knowledge as we waded up to our bellies. We couldn’t believe the ancient treasures we found…we’re talking two-million year old Snaggletooth shark teeth, the armor of a massive dasypus bellus armadillo, and easily 100 more fossils! Watch this video on how it all went down.

Camping in Highlands Hammock State Park

Primordial Forest of Florida

Working our way northeast, we drove under the lush canopy of Highlands Hammock State Park. It’s one of Florida’s oldest and most biodiverse parks with 1,000-year-old oak trees, cypress swamps, and wild orange groves. From looks alone there’s a lot to love…but this park also has such an endearing community spirit. We checked in at the campground and the ranger told us about the week’s activities (music on the green, ranger talks, nature walks, book exchanges, potluck dinners, and more!) then she let us borrow the shuffleboard equipment overnight. We hiked nearly the entire network of trails and biked on our second day to make sure we didn’t miss a thing.

From Cape Canaveral to Outer Space

Exploring the Kennedy Space Center

We were quite happy in the forest but got wind there was a rocket launch happening at Kennedy Space Center later that week. Countdown started at 5pm so we made a full day of it, with the Explore Tour to the Vehicle Assembly Building, The Apollo/Saturn V Center, and the launch pads for NASA and SpaceX. Our favorite stop was the Atlantis exhibit, where you go eye to eye with the legendary space shuttle and the Hubble telescope, and even get to play pilot in a rocket cockpit. The day flew by and before we knew it, they were calling for liftoff. Thousands gathered to watch the GOES-S weather satellite go into fixed orbit over the western hemisphere. 3, 2, 1…we saw the latest NOAA innovation blaze across the sky, then 30 seconds later heard and felt the boom. Going to the Kennedy Space Center, where rockets are born & astronauts begin their journey into space, reminded us how small we are in this universe and how big dreams are never far out of reach.

With 700 miles of awesomeness to go, don’t miss part two of our Florida Road Trip!

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  1. Totally agree that Florida has so much more going for it than amusement parks! We lived in Fort Myers for a year, and really loved Florida – we did so many fun weekend road trips, it’s a fabulous state with a lot of natural wonders to offer. This is a fabulous itinerary, and I love that you’ve taken in Key West – my favorite part of the State! Digging for fossils in Peace river was one of our favorite things to do during our time in Florida – managed to pick up some really cool stuff there,this is something that usually goes off the radar for most people so it was fab to see it made your itinerary!

    1. That’s awesome you lived in Fort Myers and soaked up some of these road trip opps, Megan! In addition to gorgeous beaches, there are so many unexpected things to do in Florida like fossiling in Peace River and joining a kissing flash mob Key West…stuff that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Glad you dug our itinerary…and hope you hit the road in Florida again someday!

  2. This looks like quite a fun trip. It’s always nice meeting with friends when you travel. I’ve only been in Miami and Fort Lauderdale so far and wasn’t very impressed, to be honest with you. However, I’ve heard the Keys are beautiful, so I’d love to visit them. Key West may be my kind of town too.

    1. Before this road trip, I too had been briefly to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Vero Beach, and thought Florida was not for me. We are SO glad we came back for a deeper dive. This state has so many incredibly unique places! We’ve been all over the world and never seen a landscape like Highlands Hammock or dug for fossils and come up with a hundred of shark teeth in a single day, or see where rocket launch into outer space. Start with Key West, you’ll undoubtedly love it and stay for a while, you’ll be surprised.

  3. This sounds like an incredible trip! The Highlands Hammock State Park looks gorgeous and so do the Everglades! Super model volleyball also sounds hilarious!

    1. Supermodel volleyball was hilarious and perfect for Miami. The Everglades are truly a bucket-list kind of place. I have never seen so many exotic birds and alligators in my life! And I secretly want to be a ranger at Highlands Hammock 🙂 Hope you check some of these places out, Kate!

  4. I had no idea Orlando was America’s most-visited vacation destination or that Florida has the oldest European city in the U.S.! A road trip around it would be so fun, with so many highlights! I would love to visit Miami Beach and enjoy the Latin vibes at Little Havana. Sanibel Island and the collection of shells would be a fun visit too, but camping in the Highlands Hammock State Park would be so unique!

    1. We’ve been road tripping a month and there is still so much to explore! Hope you make it down here for some sunshine!

  5. You had me at beaches and saltwater. Then you mention shoveling snow and I got depressed as that’s what the weather is right now. My brother went to Miami and he couldn’t stop talking about it. I’ve personally been to Key West and I was first introduced to key lime pie. Mmmm key lime pie…I would love to. Then I’d head to the Everglades and play supermodel volleyball with rest of my peeps

    1. LOL. Don’t be depressed, you can snag crazy flight deals down here. Even a long weekend could be a pick-me-up. Glad you got to go to Key West, it’s awesome!

  6. So glad I read this I would love to make a similar trip someday. I would love to see all the different sea shells at Sanibel Island. Also camping Highlands Hammock State Park would be at the top of our list. We love camping and that looks like a unique place to camp among the old oak trees.

  7. Being from Florida, I always try and tell people how much more there is to the state than just theme parks. And even now, I’m still learning about new and fun things to do. I had no idea that you could dig for fossils in Peace River, so I’ll definitely be checking that out soon. 🙂

    1. Yes! So proud we could impress a Floridian! Definitely get down to Peace River, what a unique experience!

  8. I am a huge fan of road trips and I so envy you for being able to take such fantastic road trip. That model beach volleyball looks so much fun. I always thought Florida is all about beaches and amusement parks. But seems like there is a lot to explore.

    1. We’ve road tripped 38 states and Florida is in our tops! Plus, it’s a really affordable place to road trip. Camping in Highlands Hammock was $23 a night (with water and power), plus national forests and many water management areas you can sleep free! Make it happen!

  9. You missed my favorite South Florida attraction. The Coral Castle. It is such a strange attraction build by one lonely crazy man. It is really cool how he used physics to move several tons of stones into place to build the castle.

    1. There is so much to see in Florida, we were racing around for 35 days and still couldn’t do it all. Coral Castle sounds super cool…thanks for the tip! We’ll it hit up next time for sure!

  10. Awesome photos, guys! Make me wanna ignite my wanderlust too. I am from Mumbai and I often do road trips but it is high time I do it with my partner. She’s sort of a private person but I think I can share this article with her and coax her. Let’s see. Love you guys! Xox

    1. Thanks, John! Florida is an incredible state for road trips. Hope you and your partner can make it out for some adventures!

    1. Laura, we absolutely loved Key West…but I do have to say if you are doing it via campervan, I would recommend booking most things in advance, as the space is quite limited.

  11. Next month I am planning a trip to Florida, so thank you for this jam packed post, very helpful.

    1. Of course Marc. Thanks for checking it out and taking the time to drop a comment!

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