Last Updated on November 20, 2020 by Dani
With 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of coastline, Florida is a great destination for coastal road trips, with lots of beach stops along the way of course! But beaches aren’t the only draw of the Sunshine State – there’s more to Florida than that, including fascinating nature that ranges from swamplands and crystal clear springs to the tropical islands of the Florida Keys. Add to that the dozens of pristine beaches, historic lighthouses, quaint rural towns, canopy roads and national parks, and you’ll get to experience a completely different state than the Florida that is famous for the glitz and glamour of South Beach, or its many exciting theme parks.
To showcase the most scenic parts of Florida, I put together the three most epic road trips in the Sunshine State for you – covering beaches, unspoiled nature and wildlife, tropical islands, art and theme parks, and some of the most iconic Florida sights. In addition, you can find more Florida road trip ideas here.
1 The Real Florida: Wildlife and Nature
As much as Florida is about beaches and waterways, there’s another completely different side of the Sunshine State to uncover – a more untouched, rural, and authentic side. With wetlands and lush green forests, and several springs and stops along the rural coast, this trip is a nature lover’s dream.
It starts in Tallahassee, the state capital, with its canopy tree streets formed by moss-draped pines and live oaks, continuing on to Wakulla Springs, and then following the lonely Highway 98 to Crystal River, with plenty of wildlife stops along the way. The final stop would be in either Tampa or Orlando – depending on if you’d like to conclude the trip with a visit to Florida’s theme parks or if you would prefer exploring the cultural heritage of Tampa Bay.
Altogether, this Florida road trip spans just over 400 miles if you’re ending in Orlando, and around 375 miles if you finish in Tampa.
Life in this part of Florida is much simpler, and you couldn’t get any further away from the party scene of Miami. Many older people see the towns you get to experience on this trip as the ‘Real Florida’.
Plan a couple of days to explore Tallahassee (check out its most beautiful canopy roads here) before heading to Wakulla Springs, which is part of the longest underwater cave in the United States and has an abundance of wildlife.
If you are a true wildlife and bird lover, you should stop at St Marks National Wildlife Refuge next, which is a 68,000 acre nature reserve just half an hour south of Wakulla Springs. Bird watchers in particular will love this wildlife haven. Manatee Springs Park, where you can swim with manatees in the crystal clear waters of the spring, is a highlight for many, and from there you’ll drive through marshland and wetlands to Cedar Key, a cluster of islands off the mainland, which is an old-fashioned laid-back Florida vacation spot.
From there, head back inland through sleepy rural Florida to Silver Springs, which was one of the first touristy places in Florida. Tourists have been flocking here since 1878, mainly for the crystal clear waters and the exotic nature around the system of springs, which consists of a total of 150 springs! Then head back towards the coast and stop in Crystal River, the largest wintering grounds for manatees in all of Florida. The kitschy-est stop would be Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where, in addition to wildlife (mainly reptiles & birds), you can watch the popular mermaid show.
Essential stops: Don’t miss the view over Tallahassee from the Florida State Capitol, the glass bottom boat tour and the river boat tour in Wakulla Springs (or enjoy the 9 miles of trails there, if you enjoy hiking) for wildlife (alligators, birds, turtles…) and the seven mile road to an 1829 lighthouse in St Marks Wildlife Refuge.
Definitely visit the Manatee Springs State Park where you can swim with manatees, and take a glass bottom boat tour in Silver Springs. If you’re an art lover, don’t miss the Appleton Museum Of Art near Silver Springs. Between January and March you can snorkel with up to 500 manatees in Crystal River. More manatees and other wildlife can be seen in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park just south of Crystal River.
Detour: Drive about two hours west of Wakulla Springs to St George Island with nine miles of unspoiled sandy beaches. A big part of the island is a designated state park with miles of hiking trails. You can also cycle the entire length of the island. You can also take a detour between St Marks and Manatee Springs Park through the coastal area of Big Bend through small, sleepy coastal villages.
2 The Florida Keys: Tropical Paradise
The Florida Keys, an archipelago of over 1,700 islands, is probably the most spectacular road trip in Florida. Highway 1, also known as the ‘Overseas Highway’ down here, runs 113 miles from mainland Florida all the way down to Key West, the southernmost point of the continental U.S., and only 90 miles north of Cuba! The views over the ocean (the Atlantic to the left, the Gulf Of Mexico to the right) are magnificent, with the color of the water constantly changing from one shade of blue to another. Driving the road itself is a memorable experience too, making you feel like you’re floating above the water, and the Seven Mile Bridge in the Lower Keys is an architectural masterpiece.
If you start in Miami, the entire drive is about 164 miles long, taking about 3.5 hours at a leisurely driving pace.
Essential stops: If you want an extravagant adventure along the way, splurge and stay at the underwater hotel in Key Largo, Jules Undersea Lodge, which is only accessible via scuba diving! It’s a little pricey ($800 per night for two people), but an absolutely unique experience.
The Bahia Honda State Park, about three quarters of the way along the Oversea Highway on the way to Key West, is one of the most pristine beaches in the Keys. Pack your bikini and your snorkeling equipment!
Don’t miss the Better Than Sex dessert restaurant in Key West (926 Simonton St) – the decadent sweet treats here are out of this world! And of course eat as much key lime pie as you can handle. Use this Miami New Times list of Ten Best Key Lime Pies In The Keys as a guide.
Detour: If you have a time for a detour, add the Everglades National Park to your itinerary. The turnoff to the National Park is just outside of Homestead (35 miles south of Miami / 127 miles north of Key West). The Everglades, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are one of the most magnificent places in Florida to spot wildlife – you are likely to see alligators, herons, cormorants, garfish, bass, turtles, deer, stilts, bitterns, limpkins, purple gallinules, roseate spoonbills, ibis, wood stork, Everglades kites, and if you are truly lucky, a Florida Panther.
3 Beach Hopping From Jacksonville To Miami
Going all the way from Jacksonville near the border with Georgia in the north to Miami in the south (or vice versa), Highway A1A is not only one of the most scenic road trips in Florida, but in the entire nation. The road follows the Atlantic, always as close to the water as possible. If you start in Jacksonville, your first stop will be St Augustine, the oldest town in the U.S., which is well worth a stop not only for its historic significance but also for its beautiful beach. From here, make sure to follow the A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway all the way down to Flagler Beach and be prepared to pull over frequently to take pictures. Your next stop will be Daytona Beach, where you can buy a beach day pass for only $5, and the boardwalk and arcades make for a fun day on the coast, especially fun if you’re traveling with kids. From there, head to Cape Canaveral to get closer to NASA than you can anywhere else on the planet, or take a detour to Orlando (see ‘Detour’ below). The island of Palm Beach is another gorgeous beach stop on the way south, as is the lesser known (and less crowded) Delray Beach. In Fort Lauderdale, you can choose between art and culture or beach life, and driving down Miami’s Ocean Drive couldn’t be a better way to end your trip. Make sure to add a couple of nights in Miami – this city has so much to see! (See ‘Don’t Miss’).
Don’t miss: The historic sites in St Augustine, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, and right next to the Kennedy Space Center you find one of the most scenic beaches along the entire Eastern seaboard: shell-strewn Playalinda in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Vero Beach, just a short drive south of Cape Canaveral, has been getting a lot of praise and makes for a lovely additional stop – the Vero Beach Museum of Art alone is worth a look.
Delray Beach is a small town which is experiencing a revival at the moment, with a booming art scene and growing restaurant & bar scene – in addition to miles and miles of beaches.
Art lovers will enjoy Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard which is lined with diverse restaurants, three museums, ten international art galleries, and shopaholics will appreciate the 65 retail options! Nearby Hollywood Beach is fantastic for a lazy beach town, if you want to enjoy the ocean and skip the city.
Don’t leave Miami without visiting Little Havana, the Wynwood Art District, the Art Deco District in South Beach and of course the iconic Miami Beach!
Detour: If you’re a theme park fan, take a detour to Orlando from Daytona Beach before heading back to the coast to Cape Canaveral. It’s only a short drive inland, and in Orlando you can unleash your inner child at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Legoland, Epcot Center, or the new water park, Volcano Bay.