I jetted off for a weekend in Florida and had such a great time! The Minnesota winters can sometimes be such a drag, especially in February. So it really does a lot for your sanity if you’re able to escape even for just a weekend.
Florida is perfect for a winter weekend road trip because
- There are beaches
- The weather is warm, but not hot and muggy
- You can wear shorts and sandals vs jackets and snow boots
Even though it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, if you’re not afraid of a little driving you can explore: Crystal River (MANATEES!), Little Havana, The Everglades, and the Florida Keys- including Key West!
Florida road trip itinerary
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read the disclosure policy for more information
Written by: Stephanie
The best road trip in Florida
I had never been to Florida before so I wasn’t exactly sure how to plan logistics and know exactly (with traffic) how far apart things were. Ultimately, I ended up spending a fair amount of time in the car, but there are tons of stop off points so it kept the drive interesting. If you have more time it would certainly be wise to spread this out. Unless driving/riding in a car is fine, then, by all means, do what I did!
A few things that were on my Florida bucket list:
- Snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River – I didn’t know this was a thing! As soon as I saw a blog post about it I knew I had to go. My whole trip was solely based on this activity #worthit
- Visit the Everglades National Park
- A Florida Keys road trip
- Touch the Southernmost point in the US
- Visit Disney
I knew going into this that visiting Disney would have to be on another trip. I never went as a child so I’d like to go, but I’ll keep that for when I have kids because, how fun!?
Day Zero: Arrival Day
Tampa to Miami
Since swimming with manatees was the most important to me, I based my flights off of proximity to Crystal River. Which means that Tampa was the closest at just over an hour and a half away. Orlando is also very close, but it’s more East than South. I knew I wanted to drive the Florida Keys, so the further South I could get, the better.
Once landing in Tampa I grabbed the rental car and headed straight for Miami. It’s a long drive, close to 5 hours or a little bit over. So I don’t recommend doing that if you had a late flight or if you’re really tired from traveling.
I checked into a cute English inspired boutique hotel for the first night. The plan was initially to stay one night in Miami and one night somewhere in the Keys, but holy cow, talk about expensive. I couldn’t find a place that was cheaper than 3-400 dollars a night. Ummm, no.
Day One: Miami to Keywest
I was up and at ’em bright and early for the day-long trip down to the keys. Miami to Key West is just shy of 4 hours if you drive straight through with no stops or traffic. Yeahhhhhh right. There are loads of places to see on the way to Key West so it wouldn’t hurt to do some research prior. If you’re limited for time pick out a couple must-dos.
The first key you’ll come across is Key Largo which is home to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. I obviously didn’t have time to get out on the water, but you can kayak, snorkel, take a glass-bottom boat tour, and even fish in some areas. There is a nice visitors center with some aquariums. Don’t spend a ton of time here, but do have a look around.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located at 102601 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo or you can look for mile marker 102.5 and the park will be on your left. Their phone number is 305-451-6300. The park is open from 8 am to sunset, but the visitor’s center and park buildings close at 5 pm. Entrance fees are $8 per vehicle.
After you leave the state park you’ll start seeing lots of kitsch beach stores selling souvenirs and stuff. It’s fun to walk around one, and once you’ve done one you’ve done them all.
I had no idea the water in Florida was so pretty. It was really difficult to focus on driving and not pulling over every half mile to ogle at the ocean. After a quick stop, I was back on the road and headed towards Islamorada and Marathon.
I mean, seriously? That is like Tulum quality water there.
A fun thing I wanted to do in Islamorada but didn’t have time was to feed the tarpon at Robbie’s! If you are taking this at a more leisurely pace, I highly highly recommend doing that.
Right past Marathon is the famous Seven Mile Bridge. And yes, it is really seven miles – I measured. This bridge connects the middle keys with the lower keys. You can drive it as well as walk some of it, I think the pedestrian part is a couple miles long at the South end of the bridge. I do think they’re doing construction in various areas of the bridge so if you’re interested in walking it I would look into that first.
After crossing the bridge you’re fairly close to Key West and ready to take a break from driving for a few hours! Find somewhere to park and then wander around and explore the area. There are lots of places to eat, a big square with various activities, an aquarium, among other things.
Key West is full of chickens, just like Kauai is – chickens love islands.
What did I want to do most in Key West? Touch the Southernmost place in the US! This, shockingly, is not at the end of highway 1 like some would think. Cause that would be logical. It was a bit of a cluster to find this, but I eventually did. The buoy is located at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street.
Maybe one day I’ll visit Cuba, too!
After a while, I was little bored of walking around so I got back in the car and headed back up the Keys. Major eye roll. I did not want to drive that again, but there I was. If I ever go back I will definitely stay the night somewhere because I missed out on a lot of cool things because I was in such a hurry. I think you could easily spend a long weekend, probably more, just exploring the Keys.
I did stop at the Seven Mile Bridge to watch the sunset and it was gorgeous.
Instead of driving all the way back to Miami, I cut about 45 minutes off and stayed the night in a little town called Homestead.
Day Two: Everglades National Park & Little Havana
Homestead is perfect to use as a gateway into the Everglades because it’s only an hour away. Homestead and Florida City are going to be the closest cities to the park. Exploring the Everglades was really something. Never have I ever been so close to alligators or crocodiles. I don’t know which they were and I didn’t really care to learn the difference, haha.
My mom’s family all live in southern Louisiana so I’m accustomed to the idea of alligators being in my general vicinity, but in Florida, these guys are a bit too close for comfort. However *it is*their land we are intruding on so where else are they supposed to be?
Also, story time because this was hilarious to me. I pull into the park and see at least 70-80% of the vehicles haphazardly covered with tarps. I’m thinking “uhhh…wtf?” Then as I get closer to the cars and actually park mine I see vultures are everywhere.
I’m still a little confused at this point. I’ve certainly seen birds on cars before, right?
I start talking to the guy next to me about all of this. The poor dad is wrapping his minivan while his kids are screaming bloody murder. Apparently, the vultures don’t just sit on the car, they peck the rubber off! And that’s not the worst…
THEY EAT IT, TOO.
Wait, what? Why would they do that? Now, remember, I graduated with a biology degree. I spent 4 years learning nothing but biology stuff, including a class in ornithology. Vultures eat carrion…dead animals…sometimes insects and smaller animals and even eggs. I had no clue these idiot birds would eat rubber.
What sort of havoc does that wreck on their digestive systems? My new dad friend was telling me that he and his family come to the park often and he’s seen vultures completely strip a car of all the weather stripping in a matter of minutes. Haha, oh, my god.
So, armed with my new found knowledge I trodded over to the plastic tub full of tarps. There were only a few tarps and no bungee cords left so that’s the best I could do. Word to the wise, if you’re driving your own car down here make absolutely certain you have tarps and cables.
The park itself is really cool, though.
I started with the Gumbo Limbo trial because it’s funny, obviously. Do you have to limbo while eating gumbo? I don’t know.
It was super peaceful out there. Even with a large number of cars, there weren’t too many people in the general area. Except for a teenage girl who was meowing like a cat. Uffda. I can’t even deal with that. I’m all about raising your children to be independent and have some of their own authority, but those parents should have shut her up.
Close enough to take some pictures, and then I was out of there.
Even though they looked nice and cozy, I wasn’t about to get comfortable there. Would you believe people were putting their kids on the ground right next to them? Absolutely bonkers. Adults are maybe safe from being eaten, but kids look like raccoons and I’m pretty sure an alligator would eat a raccoon.
After leaving the Everglades I drove north about 2 hours up to Little Havana in Miami. Miami could be skipped this trip if you’re crunched for time, in retrospect, I should have skipped Miami too. The only thing I really had time for was a quick walk through Little Havana. So probably better explored on its own trip. I don’t know, I really wanted to see Little Havana though.
Oh, and mojitos. Y’all know I had to try one…anything that says famous on it is definitely happenin’.
I stopped at this guy’s place for a little hit of cane juice. Super sweet, but a must do in Florida. So as I’m standing at the bar and surveying his shop I notice this little cardboard sign. Now I’m not proficient in Spanish, but I can sometimes get by. I managed to make out that he was selling invisible fish.
I asked what the deal was with this and he told me the whole story about how it started as a joke but has turned into a ‘thing’ now. He even said people have tried to buy them! Hahaha, what??
A quick walk down Calle Ocho, a shot of cane juice, and a mojito it’s time to hit the road again! I definitely wanted to see too much in Florida. Oops. The drive up to Crystal River is about five hours give or take a little bit. So by the time I made it in it was latttttte. Like 11:00 or almost midnight.
Here’s another dumb travel/Stephanie moment because traveling isn’t always glamorous. I had looked at hotels a couple weeks prior and there were multiple rooms available so I thought, meh I’ll just stop in once I get there and find a nice one. Unless I’m going abroad, I typically don’t reserve hotels because I think that adds a lot of pressure. What if I want to stay somewhere else or change my mind in some form or fashion?
Why oh why do I torture myself like this?
Needless to say, every room in every hotel in Crystal River was booked. I about wanted to cry. I was hangry and had nowhere to sleep. After I composed myself I got online and looked around at nearby cities – everything was booked there, too.
Somehow, by the grace of anything holy, I found a single room in some dump of a hotel an hour away from Crystal River…in the direction I had just came. FML. Upon arriving, at nearly 2 AM, I am greeted by a decrepit 7 room mo-tel and about 47 cats. I almost drove back to the local Walmart and slept in my car.
But I sucked it up…I did this to myself and this lady was nice enough to hold the room for me. I have to tell y’all – it was disgusting. The floor was cement, as were the walls. And there was no heat. And the door barely locked. And there was hair in the shower. And the shampoo and conditioner were half used. And I’m pretty sure it was infested with insects of at least one variety. The back seat of my car was looking awfully cozy… haha.
I stripped the sheets off the bed and did a very thorough search for bed bugs. I laid a couple towels across the mattress, put on as many clothes as I could, tucked my pants into my socks and wore socks as mittens. Minimal skin exposure. And slept sitting up for about 2.5 – 3 hours.
Please book a hotel if you’re doing the manatee swim in Crystal River.
Day Three: Snorkeling with manatees
If you came to Florida to swim with manatees, Crystal River is where it’s at!
I had an early manatee tour in the morning so after my rough night I was groggily getting up and putting on my bikini. I begrudgingly left all of my stuff in my room because I was south of Crystal River and would have to pass back through anyway on my way to Tampa.
Once you get accustomed to the freezing water and feel like you’re able to move your limbs in some sort of motion that resembles swimming, the guides will show you over to the manatees!
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. Look how sweet he looks. Manatees are so gentle and kind and I swear you can see right into their little souls. I think I screamed and laughed into my snorkel about 27 times before I got my sh** together.
They are covered in a fine coating of tactile hair called vibrissae. I learned that they have over 5,000 of these hairs, with almost half being on their face alone! So, that means the MANATEES WILL SWIM UP AGAINST YOU AND TOUCH YOU WITH THEIR FACE AND BODIES! I die…I can’t even handle that.
When researching where to swim with manatees in Florida, I decided to choose Crystal River and this particular company because I read that they are very respectful of the animals.
I’m a big believer in not getting too close to wildlife and certainly not touching them. That said, if the animal comes to me, touches me, and seems interested, I will stick my hand out for them to smell. Which the guides will tell you that this behavior is allowed.
It’s against the rules to reach out and touch one, but if they touch you first you can gently pet them. And pet I did.
There is also a “do not cross” zone in the water so if the manatees are overwhelmed or uninterested they can and certainly do swim away to their quiet space.
After a few minutes of time out, they will start to trickle back to the group of humans.
I may or may not have been squealing with joy as this one came right for me! He got all close and personal and snuggled his adorable little face against my body.
I was hanging out near the do not cross zone when this one showed some interest.
Depending on how many manatees are there and how cold the group is will determine how long you’re in the water. I wanna say our group lasted just over an hour.
Fun facts about manatees
How do manatees sleep:
Manatees are mammals and as such have lungs. Manatees, like whales, have to hold their breath while underwater and occasionally come up to the surface to take a breath. So when they’re sleeping they lay on the ocean floor and will rise to the surface, take a quick breath, and then return to the bottom.
Predators of manatees:
Manatees have very few natural predators. Their biggest threat is actually from humans, which is totally heart breaking. Manatees can be the victims of attacks from sharks, alligators, and crocodiles.
Are manatees friendly:
YES! Manatees are some of the sweetest animals I’ve ever encountered. They are, after all, known as the “gentle giant”. Gentle yes, giant, ehhh they’re not that big.
The habitat of manatees / where are manatees
During the winter the manatees can be found in Florida in slow-moving rivers or canals. Once the Gulf of Mexico warms up they can be found across several states.
Swimming with the manatees:
Manatees are found all over Florida, but there are only a few places that it’s legal to be in the water with them. Crystal River and Homosassa are two of those locations.
I just LOVED it. Snorkeling with manatees in Florida was
Next time I swim with animals it’ll be belugas in Churchill, Manitoba! After we changed into warm clothes and pounded down a liter of hot chocolate we took the boat back to shore. All in all, the tour lasts about 3 hours.
This is not really a year-round thing, though. Manatees are in this area because the Gulf of Mexico is too cold. So the best time to spot a large number of them is in the winter, obviously.
I think they said January is the best month. As the water starts to warm up in early spring the manatees disperse and swim out to the ocean. So, put on a wetsuit and suck it up. It’s totally worth being cold!
The River Venture center is located at 498 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River. Their phone number is 352-564-8687. They do run tours year-round with varying time slots, but like I said this isn’t really a year-round thing.
If you go in the summer you’ll need to be realistic about how many manatees you’ll see. You can always call the company and they will give you an honest opinion about manatee conditions. But I recommend doing your own research and checking out the site here for more information.
Once I made it back to my room, I showered…with sandals on, because ew. Reminded me of my first year in the college dorm. I made the drive back to Tampa and had brunch at a cute outdoor mall and flew back to Minnesota late-afternoon. Whirlwind trip for sure, but it was totally worth it.
Read Next: The best road trip: Minnesota’s North Shore
Founder of Packing for Plenty in July 2017. Along with her husband, Pete, she is on a mission to visit most countries. And wants to take y’all along as well! On PFP Steff provides travel itineraries ranging from a weekend trip nearby to 2 weeks living abroad like a local…detailed destination specific travel tips that aren’t readily available elsewhere…and unique and interesting bucket list worthy experiences.