You don’t have to leave the States to find a little slice of paradise. Located off the southern coast of Florida, the Florida Keys are a string of islands brimming with indigenous flora and colorful marine life, serving as a tropical vacation destination not too far from home. Explore the Upper Keys to minimize drive time and maximize the amount of time you spend soaking up the sun.


  • Kayak/SUP through mangrove swamps
  • Snorkel the Spiegel Grove shipwreck
  • Take a glass-bottom boat over a living coral reef
  • Sample a slice of true Key lime pie 

Before starting the short drive south (approx. 60 minutes), ensure you have plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent for the day’s activities. You’ll head south out of Miami on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike to US Highway 1 (also known as the Overseas Highway), one of the most scenic roadways in the country. Another option is to take the quieter route along Card Sound Road, which connects the mainland with the top half of Key Largo. More off-the-beaten-path than the main highway, Card Sound Road is lined with mangroves and locals selling blue crabs and won't add any additional drive time to your trip.

This morning, you’ll be exploring Key Largo, home to John Pennekamp State Park ($8 entry per vehicle). Located at Mile Marker 102.5 on the ocean side of the highway, here you’ll find the oldest underwater preserve in the continental US, home to one of the world's living coral reefs. There are a number of ways to take in the beauty here - walk the trails through tropical hardwood forests, kayak or SUP through the mangrove swamps, snorkel over the Spiegel Grove shipwreck, or board a glass-bottom boat over the reef. If you have the necessary certification, you can even scuba dive. If you’d prefer to stay on land, you can walk the trails (Wild Tamarind Trail is a short and easy loop, while the Mangrove Trail takes you on a boardwalk to an observation tower) or hang out on one of the park’s beaches. Cannon Beach is better for snorkeling close to shore, while Far Beach is great for swimming and offers more shade for relaxing under the palms. 

Kayak through the mangroves
Kayak through the mangroves

Stop for lunch at the Fish House (try the fish of the day matecumbe-style) before heading 20 minutes further south. Often compared to Key West, Islamorada has all of the charm without the crowds or extra hours of drive time. Take a stroll through the 6-block corridor of the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District. Here you'll find galleries, shops, restaurants, and art studios along the only "Main Street" between Miami and Key West. For those not driving (and of age), visit the beer garden at the Florida Keys Brewing Company for a tasting flight of local beers.  At the southern end of the MWACD, you’ll find the Green Turtle Inn, featured on the Food Network and famous for the Key lime pie. Be sure to grab a slice as an afternoon snack! 

Feed the Tarpon on Islamorada
Feed the Tarpon on Islamorada

There are plenty of options for how to spend the rest of your afternoon. One way to explore the aquatic surroundings is by renting a Waverunner; you can zip around the high seas, cruise the mangrove tunnels, and motor out to smaller islands and the ‘secret’ sandbar off Whale Harbor, a local favorite (try to avoid the sandbar if you visit on the weekend, as this is when it is busiest). If you'd prefer to spend the afternoon on dry land, head to Anne's Beach (parking at MM 73.4), voted as one of the Best Hidden Beaches of South Florida by Lonely Planet. The waters here are too shallow for swimming but are perfect for wading or strolling along the sands.

For dinner, a meal at Marker 88 is a must. An evening visit provides you with live music and a front-row seat to a spectacular sunset. From here, it’s only a 90-minute drive back up to the city along US 1.

End your day with a sunset
End your day with a sunset dinner

Have more time?
You can easily extend this trip into a weekend or overnight trip, and spend some more time exploring all that the Keys have to offer.