Thanks all our readers who voted and helped the Florida Keys Overseas Highway earn top honors in GayCities.com’s Best of 2020 awards for “Iconic Road Trips.”

Florida Keys Overseas Highway aerial

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway connects the entire island chain. While experiencing the “bucket list” drive, motorists can enjoy ever-changing land- and seascapes. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway connects our entire island chain. While experiencing the “bucket list” drive, travelers can enjoy the ever-changing land- and seascapes to be viewed from the road called the Highway That Goes to Sea.

Driving down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, the southernmost leg of U.S. Highway 1, it’s easy to understand why this is a drive that everyone should experience at least once.

The iconic highway offers travelers more than 100 miles of scenic thoroughfare from mainland Florida through the entire Florida Keys island chain. On your left side, the Atlantic Ocean unrolls to a far horizon; on your right lies Florida Bay and, farther south, the Gulf of Mexico.

Traveling south to Key West, you’ll cross an astonishing 42 bridges from key to key, a series of giant arches of concrete and steel surrounded by gorgeous turquoise water.

So what are some of my FAVORITE stops during the drive called 2020’s best road trip by GayCities.com? Here just a few.

Stop One: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo. The Keys’ underwater wonders are particularly spectacular along the coral reef tract near Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — America’s first undersea preserve and one of six Upper Keys parks where visitors can enjoy the island chain’s wide-open land and water spaces.

Kayaking Pennekamp Park

Kayakers paddle along mangroves at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, the nation’s first underwater preserve. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Whether you decide to explore the park from on or in its pristine waters, it will envelop you in remarkable beauty. Options for exploration include kayaking, world-class snorkeling, scuba and glass-bottom boat tours.

 Stop Two: Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key. Dolphin Research Center, located on Grassy Key near Marathon, specializes in presenting marine mammal education and research programs to the public. Founded in 1984 as a nonprofit facility, DRC is home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions — most of whom were born there.

You can enjoy daily narrated dolphin and sea lion behavior sessions and educational presentations to learn about marine mammals and the environment — plus interactive programs like Dolphin Encounter, Ultimate Trainer for the Day, Researcher Experience and Family Dolphin Splash sessions.

Stop Three: The Turtle Hospital, Marathon. Check out Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, widely known as the world’s first state-licensed veterinary hospital for sea turtles. Since 1986, the hospital’s dedicated team has treated over 2,500 sick or injured sea turtles and, whenever possible, returned them to their saltwater home.

Turtles whose conditions are too severe to allow release become permanent residents of the caring facility. Tours are offered daily (reservations are recommended) so you can learn about the hospital and meet its fascinating “patients.”

Key deer Lower Keys

A Key deer eyes her surroundings on Big Pine Key. About the size of a large dog, the deer are indigenous to the lower Florida Keys. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Stop Four: The National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key. The refuge measures about 9,200 acres, with lands on Big Pine Key and other islands of the Lower Keys plus backcountry land and water areas. The amazingly diverse environment includes mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks.

However, the area is best known as the home of the small, shy creature called the Key deer. Males weigh approximately 90 to 100 pounds full-grown and stand about the size of a large dog. Females are a little smaller, averaging 60 to 70 pounds full-grown.

Male or female, they’re big-eyed, graceful, and I think they’re one of the cutest creatures in the Keys. Stroll along the refuge’s nature trails and try to spot one for yourself.

BTW, the Key deer is the smallest of 30 subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer — and the engaging animals can’t be found anywhere in the world except the Lower Florida Keys.

Travel tip for the iconic road trip: Try renting a car one way from a  South Florida city or airport location and dropping it off in Key West. You can then enjoy a car-free Key West getaway and, when it’s time to go home, jump on one of our many daily nonstop flights from the island back to the mainland and beyond.

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