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Florida Keys Bike Ride

February 8, 2014

L1210035Florida Keys Bike Ride  – Brother Al and I rode our bikes down the Overseas Heritage Trail from just south of Key Largo (MM 103.5) to Zero Duval Street (MM 0) in January. We decided to try this in two rides.

The first day (January 15th) was from a Marriott in Key Largo just north of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to Duck Key (north of Marathon) where we stayed at the Hawk’s Cay Resort. We ended the ride at Ocean Key Resort at Zero Duval Street in Key West on the 18th.

The Overseas Heritage Trail is still a work in progress. The state of Florida conceptualized the trail in 1997 as a means for bicyclists to avoid (or at least reduce) exposure to the heavy traffic on Highway 1; the only highway from mainland Florida to Key West.

The original connection between all of the “Keys” or Cays (Spanish for island) was first made by the Florida East Coast Railway headed by industrial magnate Henry Flagler. Once the railroad route was connected all the way in 1912, it was dubbed by some as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and by others as “Flagler’s Folly”. In fact, Flagler died soon after the last connection was made to Key West and the railroad was bankrupt by 1935 when a massive hurricane destroyed 40 miles of the track sinking it for good.

There are still 23 historic bridges left and a good deal of the fun we had on the rides was riding over some and marveling at others.  Our first day of riding was unseasonably cool and quite windy.   About 60 degrees to start, it seemed cooler than that due to the gusty NNW wind coming off the Gulf of Mexico. To some degree, we had a tailwind and sailed along pretty quickly after we started around 11AM. Unfortunately, the southern end of Key Largo fades into The Town of Tavernier and then to Islamorada. All three of these areas are pretty touristy with enough land on both sides of the road to prevent a water view for most of the way. The trail also jumps back and forth across the road so you have to be very vigilant.

We ended up riding on the shoulder of the highway which wasn’t too narrow in most places but the traffic is heavy with a good deal of truck traffic. Where the separate bike trail exists, it is narrow enough for two way traffic to be dicey. Also, it was constructed long enough ago that tree roots have pushed up the asphalt so it is difficult to carry any speed in those sections on a road bike. Most of the time it is on the northbound side but not always! The shoulder riding was a bit nerve racking in the more urban areas as multiple businesses connect directly to the road you are on. So you have to be extra careful to watch for vehicles turning off the road right in front of you.

The views get better after Islamorada. We happened upon a brand new section of the trail (about a month old) when we stopped to get drinks at a little bakery/café. This new section was not marked well (one small sign with no more than an arrow) and we missed quite a long section of it. Also, you do ride on a couple of fairly long bridges between miles marker 74 and about 70. One is 3 miles long and the other 5. This was really the riding we had been looking for.  The state has added a nice layer of concrete to the old railway bridges with new railings. There are lots of people fishing on these bridges but we found them to be very courteous. The wind was still gusting though and we got blown around pretty good on the open sections. We concluded our first day at a bit more than 43 miles. I later found out that I had picked up a nail on that last stretch but made it to Hawk’s Cay without having a flat. Whew!

Ride details:  http://connect.garmin.com/activity/432751152#.UvEblR9VMkM.email

The highlight of our townhome location was a big old iguana sunning on the beach. We knocked around the Duck’s Key area and had two excellent meals at the aptly named Hideaway Grill (above the office in a trailer park) and the equally eclectic Grassy Key Outpost. This latter place is quite new and is easy to find since it is right on the highway. The unusual part is that the tables are in a grocery store. They didn’t take reservations but we were able to get in OK. It features excellent food and service in a very casual setting. You can even buy beverages in the store with your dinner but they have better quality options on the menu as well.

We left a bit earlier the next day as the wind had moderated a bit. We also had further to go (it turned out to be 62 miles). The temps climbed into the mid 60’s. We had sunny days for the entire trip, by the way.

As we made our way through Marathon, one of the biggest towns along the way, we came across a big traffic jam. When you only have one road, any traffic problems become big traffic problems! Well, the night before we left, a bar/restaurant just before the Seven Mile Bridge at the southern end of Marathon had burned to the ground. We passed most of the traffic on the shoulder but had to maneuver around the police and fire vehicles parked along the shoulder.

The Seven Mile Bridge is both an intriguing and a frustrating part of the trail. As you get to either end of the old railroad bridge there are parking areas and lots of folks going for a stroll, bike ride or just taking pictures. All the attention is on the old bridge with its rusty steel railings. The new bridge is right next to it, higher and carrying all the car and truck traffic.  Of course, it is not all that scenic, although the water on both sides is a gorgeous color of mixed blues and greens (depending on the depth). Fortunately, Al had done some research on the trail the night before and we discovered that the old bridge had gaps in it. We were very disappointed when we realized that we had to ride seven miles over the new bridge with the traffic whizzing by a 65 mph…. No choice, though.

So we stopped and enjoyed the old bridge for awhile, back tracked and hit the new shoulder on the new bridge. While not too steep, it does get your heart pumping a bit, partially from exertion, partly because of the fear of trucks and motor homes zinging past your left shoulder at high speed. The shoulder is about three feet wide but there is the typical amount of debris so take care! It was interesting to look over and see the old bridge with the bikers and joggers. There’s even a small island with its only access provided by the old bridge. It had some commercial establishments on it so it might be fun to ride to it. However, you’d have to back track several miles and then do what we did; ride all seven miles on the new bridge.

After the small island, you see two gaps in the old bridge. This left one small section inaccessible to all but the pelicans and other sea birds. Pretty soon you will see the southern section of the old bridge with its own set of fishermen, joggers and bikers. If they could possibly improve the entire seven miles like the other upgraded old bridges, it would be the highlight of the trail. Unfortunately, a sign on the northern end reports that the supports are deteriorating. They might even have to close it to foot and bike traffic eventually.

We took another break at the south end and chatted with a group of guys who were doing the ride in smaller pieces than we were but it fun to compare notes.

We didn’t have time to stop but Bahia Honda State Park (MM 35) looks like it would be fun. There’s a section of old railway bridge left that apparently connected the island to the main railway route for construction and supply purposes.

We hit another traffic jam further down. Expecting to see another accident or other casualty, we passed dozens of vehicles on the right shoulder. Surprise; it was a flea market! This was Pine Key where you bend a bit northwest. It is a larger island so you lose your water views for awhile but not for long. This southern section of the ride was, far and away, my favorite part. You see less commercial/tourist attraction stuff and much more of the natural settings. Lots of awesome water views.

There are many bridges in this section. You have to be vigilant once again because the trail is much more of a work in progress here. The trail goes over some of the bridges but not all.  They’ve also used more asphalt on these newer sections of trail so the tree roots and two-way traffic won’t be as much of a problem as it is on the northern end.keys map

As you might expect, traffic picks up both on the road and on the trail as you approach Key West. Our hotel was at the very southern end of Duval Street so our plan was to skirt the center of Key West by following the perimeter road around on the Gulf side. The Atlantic side has the airport but also a nice beach park (Higgs) if you go that way. Our route was really just a broad section of city sidewalk and unfortunately it was also under construction most of the way. We literally had to climb over barriers and lift the bikes over behind us a one point. In the completed sections, we had to dodge all sorts of walkers (some with open beverages), bikers, skaters, etc. Very busy place!

As we got into the older section, the street became very narrow and car traffic became very sparse. Bikers, scooters and walkers pretty much rule the roads in these areas. We easily passed several vehicles due to that advantage. So our finale was much more fun than day one’s ride.

Ride Details: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/432751069#.UvEh_jBIAK8.email

Key West is quite the experience. We had the best weather of the trip; t-shirt and shorts weather with sunny skies and pleasant breezes. Duval Street is a great place to stroll and “people watch”; you will see all kinds of folks. We had dinner at Hog’s Breath followed by a visit to Sloppy Joe’s; reportedly Hemingway’s favorite watering hole. On our full day, there, we took a glass bottom boat out the coral reef a few miles south. That was fun as was the marine life and plants on the reef. The sheer variety of watercraft you see ranges from giant cruise ships to jet skies and kayaks. Sailboats are all over; we also saw a few races. The USS Cole was docked there; this is the destroyer attacked by terrorists in Yemen 13 years ago. The sailors on board looked eager to get shore liberty.

Our hotel was right on Mallory Square where folks gather to see the sunset. The first night was a bit disappointing as we had a cloud bank on the distant southern horizon. The second one matched our expectations; with clear skies, vibrant colors and dozens of watercraft moving about. Key West also has quite few colorful wild roosters. Fun to see but they like to crow at all times of the day and night…

Key West seems like another world when you realize that the polar vortex is freezing Chicago in between snowstorms. So my question is “Why did we leave?”

By Daniel Wiessner

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