I had intended to do a Florida “Coast 2 Coast” three day ride from Titusville to St Pete, but given the massive cold front that blasted all the way through Florida the week of January 24th with predicted overnight temps in the 30s, we called an audible and surfed the cold front to Miami, our eventual destination for the Snipe Commodore Rasco Regatta. Since it was even cold there, we decided to keep going to the keys. I have always wanted to do the full distance of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail and so decided to ride to Key West instead.
The short version is a video montage of my “ridebacks” – you set the camera down, start it recording video and get footage coming towards and away from the camera and cut it together – of interesting spots on the ride. I make these videos primarily for myself so I can go back and “feel” the ride all over again later. For me, it captures the Zeitgeist for those three days.
For the longer version, read on…
Day 1 was from Coconut Grove to Key Largo on the path less traveled. The typical route adventure cyclists take is the East Coast Greenway down US 1 through Homestead on the South Dade Trail. I’ve been following some Florida gravel bike riders recently and have found some gravel routes in southeast Miami-Dade County (east and south of Homestead) so looked for a way to get south on less traveled trails. South out of Coconut Gove is the Old Cutler Trail that rambles through Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and Palmetto Bay going from “old Florida” type traditional neighborhoods to “new Florida” type gated communities, then eventually onto the gravel Biscayne Trail/L-31E that goes through the water management area canals south of the Black Point Marina.
The full length of the Biscaye Trail was hard to find discrete information about but it appears that the local riders know all the routes and what is shown on Google Maps seems pretty accurate. However, I did find on the Miami Bike Scene website they are doing construction on the canals and would have to route around that. The information I had was a little dated and I had to detour more and earlier onto farm roads, but it really didn’t matter since I was prepared to be able to get around it. Turns out I’ve actually ridden on these roads a few years ago when I did a great group ride with the Everglades Bicycle Club. Once south of the construction, the L-31E was a straight shot. I sat by one of the culverts and had a nice quiet lunch keeping my eye out for gators and snakes!
Once that comes to an end at Card Sound Rd, I continued on the East Coast Greenway route. Card Sound Rd is wide, flat and straight; no shoulders or bike lanes but very little traffic and lots of room to pass. The only elevation is the steep Card Sound bridge that appeared amusingly high at a distance. At the end of that, it runs into county road 905 that takes you to Key Largo and the beginning of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (it’s a mouthful so I’ll refer to it as the “trail”), essentially a separated path of varying type mostly over the old Florida Overseas Railroad right of way. The weather was cool and crisp with a great northerly tail wind which made the 62 miles quite easy, especially since I was traveling light with only what I needed for the day unsupported. And since van boondocking is quite difficult in the Keys, we settled on a fairly inexpensive (well, expensive compared to the state parks that fill up months in advance!) Key Largo Kampgorund [sic]. It was a typical RV kind of park, but had amenities (ahhh, a shower and a real toilet) and was generally very nice. Of course I always sleep well in the van. And there was a great Cuban lunch place with excellent post ride coffee!
Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/6576032043
The second day from Key Largo to Big Pine Key was the longest day and about as nice a day as can be. It was a cool 55-60 degrees in the morning and warmed up to the upper 70s. The tailwind continued and made the 75 miles again very easy. This section in the mid Keys really illustrated all of the various kinds of trail/road conditions as they were all over the map from really nice to really crappy. Once solidly on the trail, the character varied greatly from what I call “concrete single track” (a sidewalk) to a paved shared use path, either directly adjacent to US 1 or often set back varying amounts which made it more pleasant as it got further from the road. Generally on the more populated keys it’s basically riding on a path along side the typical suburban arterial with lots of curb cuts where you have to be very vigilant looking for turning vehicles. The trail often switches sides of the road and crossing can be awkward if there is no signal. Sometimes the trail just dumps out onto the road into a 4′ bike lane for short periods where you have to salmon against traffic (or make two crossings of US 1), but fortunately they are just a few of these sections in the mid keys. For 95% it’s pretty safe for most riders, albeit less than comfortable in some places.
I stoped to get a sandwich for lunch at a local roadside bodega/deli and had a nice chat with five women from Fairbanks AL riding to Key West at a casual pace.
One of the defining features of this ride are the historic rail bridges along the trail – 23 of which are still mostly intact – which have been or will be preserved as pedestrian/bike bridges. The bridge decks may be reduced in width from 22 feet (6.7 m) to 12 ft (3.7 m) – their original width, prior to being widened in the 1940s for two-way motor vehicle traffic after the railroad’s demise – or their full 22 ft (6.7 m) width may be retained, particularly in multi-use areas. Original bridgework will be repaired or rebuilt, and spans removed during the 1980s and 1990s fishing pier conversion will be restored. Where the original bridges no longer exist, the trail will be temporarily cantilevered on the side of the newer US 1 bridges until new 12 ft-wide (3.7 m) bridge sections can be constructed, but who knows when that will happen. The design of the new bridges will match the historical character of the original bridges. It’s still hit or miss which bridges are open, some have a lot of work to be done and some have been open, but further decayed in recent hurricanes and have been closed. If the historic bridge is not open, you have to ride on the shoulder of US 1 which is not too bad, especially when there is a full lane width. But they are very noisy and not particularly pleasant. There is a lot of fun information on Wikipedia about the old railroad and its demise.
The longest of all the bridges is the 7 mile bridge. I just read about the historic span being restored and opened and was looking forward to riding it, but only the 2 miles to Pigeon Key was done, so I had to double back (into the headwind) and go over the main bridge. Regardless, I still enjoyed checking it out and it will be awesome if the entire length is ever restored. Back to the auto bridge, I still had the great tailwind and averaged about 27 mph over the full length (on a gravel bike with 42mm mild knobbies no less). It was amusing to look at the Strava segment KOM for the 7 mile bridge: 41+ mph; as fast as I though I was going, I was only 375/4000+ trips…
That night we stayed at another nice campground/RV park called the Big Pine Key Resort. Again, not too expensive (relatively) and nice amenities. Our neighbor was a nice couple from Massachusetts so we struck up a conversation and I got a lot of good info about the place.
Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/6581690026
The last day was a shorter at about 40 miles to finish the trip into Key West. I did more site seeing than I usually do on the way, including a spin around Key West before meeting Lisa for lunch. In the lower keys, the trail often just disappears until you get about 15 miles out of Key West. Instead of crossing the busy US 1 (if you could even find a break in the traffic) when the trail dumped into the meager on road bike lane (especially on the wrong side), I continued on the side gravel and made my own trail. It was bumpy, but it spiced the ride up a bit.
I am sure there have been many cyclist deaths on US 1, but was surprised to have only seen one ghost bike along the entire route. Because I have some personal experience with ghost bikes that has left a lasting imprint on me, when I come across a ghost bike, I always stop to pay my respects and to learn something about the person behind the bike. The one I saw was for Chris Dyko a former college and pro football player who seems like a pretty excellent human being.
There was a good headwind the whole way and it was hot and humid (but no rain), so even though it was a shorter day I was tired at the end. I rode much of this stretch around Thanksgiving 2020 which we spent in Key West.
Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/6585898341
I enjoyed the remoteness of this adventure ride, especially down through the everglades area and I might even do this again – although it could never be as nice as it was the first two days with the tailwind – if someone else wanted to do it and wanted company. It might be even more fun to do it unsupported with camping. If doing it supported in as I did this time, it could easily be done in two days, but with camping and some headwinds, three is probably more reasonable. One thing I have heard is that Florida State parks have a “no turn away” policy for hikers and riders without support vehicles so you won’t get stuck. However, I wonder how much they jerk your chain on this. But it is a way to deal with not being able to make reservations with enough certainty. Of course getting back would be an issue unsupported unless you ride back. I’d have to look and see if there is some kind of bus service back to Miami. But, all things considered. it was great to have the experience of this route!
And I got in a “bonus ride” of 44 miles in a remote area of live oaks and pines on the way home from Miami (via St Pete) in the Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area northeast of Tampa. https://www.strava.com/activities/6616755911