Weekend Backpacker: Miami
|Sunset at Mallory Square, Key West|
More than 80 years ago, railroad magnate Henry Flagler set about extending his fledgling Florida East Coast Railroad from the growing village of Miami to the distant, well-established town of Key West. It was a difficult effort, requiring hundreds of workers to cut a path through mangrove swamps and thick tropical forests. And it took some serious engineering to complete the task more than 36 bridges linked the island chain making up the Florida Keys.
The railroad ceased operations in the 1930s, and US 1 became the new route to Key West. By the 1980s, a new road replaced old US 1. The railroad right-of-way fell into disrepair. But an effort in the late 1990s resurrected the old road as a recreational corridor connecting the Keys.
Using Flagler's abandoned right-of-way, at least 120 miles of rail trail will eventually link Key Largo and Key West. More than 17 miles of trail scattered between Marathon and Key West presently have a limestone or asphalt surface, with the longest complete trail segment, Tom's Harbor Walkway (5 miles), stretching between Grass Key and Walker's Island. The big push for trail construction began in the summer of 2000.
Meanwhile, long-distance hikers use this route as the kickoff for hiking northbound along the East Coast, linking these miles with the Florida Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the International Appalachian Trail in Canada to create one whopper of an eastern-seaboard hike, dubbed the"Eastern Continental Trail." Feel like breaking in a pair of boots on this under-construction trail? Sure, you'll face a lot of road walks but it'll be an experience you won't forget. Think miles and miles of tropical sun, crystal-clear bays and inlets, and the chance to take breaks in some of the most laid-back towns in America.
From Miami: Follow I-96 south to US 1. Use the toll bypass SR 821 to skirt Homestead, then continue south on US 1 into the Keys. Driving time to Marathon, the present northern terminus of the developed trail: one hour and 45 minutes.
No permits are required to hike this route, although you'll need to check in at the ranger stations at Long Key and Bahia Honda if you wish to use the campgrounds.
Since the trail is under construction, there isn't an official map yet. But check with the Florida Office of Greenways & Trails (part of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection), which maintains a website with current information on the progress of the trail's development. As soon as a map is printed, they'll be the folks sending it out.
Where better to learn than from the experts? Nimblewill Nomad hiked the Eastern Continental Trail in 1999, and he's at it again this year, southbound. At his website you can check out his journal for tips on where best to sleep, eat, and camp while walking the Florida Keys. In addition, Monroe County can provide helpful information for planning your trip contact Trish Stratton, Monroe County's Bicycle/Pedestrian Planner, at (305) 289-2521.
Florida Overseas Heritage Trail
Office of Greenways & Trails, Florida Department of Environmental Protection
3900 Commonwealth Blvd MS 795
Tallahassee, FL 32399-3000
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication