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The Tamiami Trail
Explore U.S. 41 From Tampa to Miami
Completed in 1928, the Tamiami Trail stands as one of Florida’s – and America’s – great highways. Built across wide waterways, through punishing swampland no vehicle could previously cross, and connecting two of Florida’s most major cities with plenty of points in between, this road shows you an incredible range of what Florida has to offer.
We’re going north to south on this Tour, starting in Tampa. Across the area, you have your choice of the Best Western Tampa close to downtown Tampa, the Best Western PLUS Yacht Harbor Inn in nearby Dunedin along the Gulf coast, or the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel along the waters of Tampa Bay. Before you go, make sure you take in everything the Tampa Bay area has to offer: from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay to the Florida Aquarium; from Rays baseball games at Tropicana Field or even New York Yankees spring training games at Steinbrenner Field to Tampa Bay Buccaneers football at Raymond James Stadium; from the sandy beaches along Clearwater and Dundein to the vibrant districts in Tampa, including Ybor City. And plenty to explore lies ahead!
Officially, the Tamiami Trail begins in eastern Tampa at a rather nondescript place just east of the lively Ybor City district, which is very much worth a visit before you venture out.
The technical designation begins at the intersection of U.S. 41, which arrives from the north as 50th Street, and Florida Highway 60, which comes in from the west via downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and Clearwater. Where these two roads meet on the east side of Tampa is where we begin the journey south on U.S. 41.
Crossing under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway (Florida 618, also known as the “Crosstown”), we head south out of Tampa proper. The first town is Gibsonton, which features two colorful roadside businesses. Giant’s Camp restaurant is named after original owners Al Tomaini (at 8’5”, he was the “Giant”) and his wife Jeanie (2’6”, also known as “Half Girl”); the Showtown Bar & Grill, another institution, has had some colorful activities through the years. It’s known for its atmosphere filled with paintings and murals of “carnival culture.” Sadly there’s no tilt-a-whirl in it, but they are known for excellent burgers, shakes, and fries. Drive-through liquor stores are not uncommon in Florida, and Gibsonton has one along the Tamiami Trail.
In a state famous for oranges, Ruskin is famous for tomatoes. The “U-Pick” signs are a true indication of some of the country’s finest tomatoes being made available for you to pick right off the vines. Ruskin is also home to the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre, which has been around since 1952 and still shows movies, outdoors, year ‘round.
South of Ruskin, the Tamiami Trail meets I-275, with connects east to I-75 and west back towards St. Petersburg via the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Just ahead lies Palmetto, a town of 12,000 with a nice marina where you can charter fishing boats or take tours along the river and out on the bay. To experience natural Florida wilderness, check out Emerson Point Reserve on Snead Island, which offers boardwalks, trails, and a three-story Indian mound. Nearby, Felts Aubudon Preserve offers 27 acres that are ideal for birding and finding out more about Florida’s complex ecosystems.
A quick shot east on U.S. 301 to nearby Ellenton offers you a taste of the old Florida South at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, which offers guided tours of the mansion and grounds and plenty of Civil War-era history.
The Tamiami Trail has two branches in Palmetto, one that goes straight through downtown (Business US 41 and the original Trail) and one that bypasses it. The two branches stay separate for a few miles and cross the Manatee River on separate bridges. Following the Tamiami/Business US 41 will bring you across the Manatee River on the Green Bridge into Bradenton, where you land right downtown.
Bradenton is a city of just over 50,000 but with its near twin city (Sarasota) to the south it anchors a metropolitan area of over 680,000. Downtown Bradenton features the South Florida Museum, which includes the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium. If you stop at the aquarium, say hi to “Snooty”, the oldest manatee in captivity – born in 1948 (though over age 65, Snooty hasn’t retired yet. But hey, he’s already in Florida). Or enjoy a stroll down the Riverwalk along the Manatee River, with great views of the city’s marina, bridges, and buildings.
Given the climate, outdoor sports are everywhere here: championship caliber golf courses abound, water recreation on the river can be enjoyed all year, and over 12,000 athletes every year from youth to professional levels come to the IMG Academy for training and programs. If you’re in Bradenton during Spring Training season for baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates play their spring games at McKechnie Field downtown. Their Class A-Advanced minor league affiliate, the Bradenton Marauders, then play during regular season. McKechnie Field is built in the Spanish Mission style and originally dates back to 1923 – making it one of the oldest stadiums still in use in the country.
Near the stadium just south of downtown is the Village of the Arts, a district bounded in part by the Tamiami Trail loaded with art galleries, studios, and restaurants in a restored neighborhood featuring many artists-in-residence and crafters, including goldsmithing and woodcarving. Or move from art to history at Manatee Village Historical Park, which showcases the buildings, vehicles, and day-to-day life from the days before air conditioning and commercially available insect repellent.
The area was explored by Hernando De Soto in 1539; the DeSoto National Memorial, commemorates his visit, offers examples of their dwellings and daily life in the era, including live demonstrations. The location right along the water shows approximately where his crew landed.
SIDE TRIP – DE SOTO & ANNA MARIA ISLAND
After crossing the Green Bridge into downtown Bradenton, turn right onto FL-64 where you can access the DeSoto National Memorial and then access FL-789 to ride the Bradenton Beach Scenic Highway (T1). The 2.8-mile byway delivers extraordinary views and a chance to explore the stunning Anna Maria Island, one of three small cities on this thin peninsula overlooking the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Six stunning beaches await; Anna Maria Beach, Holmes Beach, Manatee Beach, Bradenton Beach, Cortex and Coquina Public Beach each with its own vibe. The island itself is only 7-miles long, therefore dining, shops and attractions can easily be accessed by walking and taking the free trolley. Turn left on FL-684/Cortez Road W and right on 75th SW/El Conquistador Parkway to get back to US-41.
On the city’s fast-growing eastern edge, enjoy some racing action at Bradenton Motorsports Park or right nearby some fishing, kayaking, hiking, or boating at Lake Manatee State Park, located along a body of water whose name you can hopefully guess.
Bradenton is served by two Best Western hotels: the Best Western PLUS Bradenton Hotel & Suites is located along I-75 and FL-64 on the city’s east side, and the Best Western PLUS Manatee Hotel is on the city’s south side, not far from the Tamiami Trail.
From Bradenton, you head right into Sarasota. The interesting stuff to see shows up right after you pass the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, which is just to the east of the Tamiami Trail as you enter the city. Sarasota became the winter home John Ringling in 1927, along with his brother Charles. And why did you just think of the circus? Perhaps because they were part of the Ringling Brothers circus empire, and riches from the “Greatest Show on Earth” enabled John and his wife Mable to build a beautiful mansion called Ca' d'Zan. A tour of this place reveals what riches in the roaring ‘20s could buy in terms of both a home and architectural splendor – there are 56 rooms. When he died in 1936, he willed his mansion and art collection to the State of Florida. Today, that collection, along with some additions since, can be viewed at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. It’s THE state art museum of Florida, officially.
If you enjoy the art of vintage cars, the Sarasota Classic Car Museum is right across the Trail, with over 75 vintage cars to see amidst a series of collections, from the antiques of John Ringling to cars owned by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Like Bradenton, Sarasota hosts major league baseball Spring Training: the Baltimore Orioles have played their Grapefruit League games at Ed Smith Stadium (aka “Birdland South”) since 2010. Built in 1989 and originally Spring Training home to the Chicago White Sox, Ed Smith Stadium is highly-rated and particularly notable for its beer selection and ballpark food that includes seafood items like crabcake sandwiches – which pleases fans from Maryland and beyond as they bask in the warmth of March and April here.
For more whimsical art than Ringling, right along the Tamiami Trail a few miles further south you’ll notice some sculptures that just look like Florida – flamingos and such. That’s when you know you’re at the Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy. The museum combines unique material combinations and styles in an indoor museum (bright pink, you can’t miss it!) and outdoor sculpture garden. Want to see real flamingos running around, and perhaps let the kids feed them? Just northwest along the waterway you’ll find Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which features flamingos and plenty of other native and exotic animals – many of which were rescued or donated from around Florida and beyond. Take in one of the daily bird and reptile shows or just stroll the 10 acres of gardens and check out plenty of animals you probably don’t see every day.
Further south in the downtown area of Sarasota, you’ll find another outdoor garden in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens which showcases a diverse collection of plants and flowers across several distinctive gardens, including one with over 6,000 orchids.
Remember the iconic photo of a soldier kissing a random girl on V-J Day back in 1945? You’ve seen it in Life magazine and plenty of other places. Now, right along the Tamiami Trail, feast your eyes on a large statue resembling that pose, called Unconditional Surrender, in downtown Sarasota at FL-789.
JUST OFF THE TRAIL
From the intersection with FL-789 in downtown Sarasota, where Unconditional Surrender stands, you can access Lido Key (note: this is not where Boz Scaggs got his idea for “Lido Shuffle”). Lido Key is one of the barrier islands protecting Sarasota from the Gulf’s open waters while offering up the white sandy beaches for which the area is famous. Lido Key offers a mix of nature (hiking and nature trails, dolphin watching, deep-sea fishing charters and more) and vibrant shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Between Lido Key and Sarasota you’ll cross St. Armond’s Key, which offers St. Armands Circle – a complex filled with Florida eclectic-ness, including 130 shops exclusive to the island.
To re-connect with nature, head up FL-789 just a few miles to City Island, where you’ll find the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. As its name implies, it’s a research lab but for public display and education they also offer over 100 marine species native to the area. They include sharks, manatees (which were referenced plenty back in Bradenton), sea turtles, dolphins, including the only dolphin in captivity in the U.S., named Moonshine – he’s being rehabbed after he was found beached so he’s only temporarily there. Just across the street, you can catch a free Ski-A-Rees Water Ski Show complete with stunts, jumps, and pyramids – all with the bay and the city as a backdrop.
Downtown Sarasota is a mix of high-rise buildings and cultural attractions. Catch a show at the Florida Studio Theatre, which actually houses several styled theatres with a wide variety of shows all year ‘round. You can even catch world-class opera at the Sarasota Opera; even if you can’t make performance, check out the beautiful Mediterranean style building, both inside and out. The Sarasota Orchestra has been around for over 60 years and plays over 100 classical, pops, and family concerts each year; they also host the annual Sarasota Music Festival.
Convenient to downtown, you’ll find the Best Western Midtown right along the Tamiami Trail. On the south side of Sarasota (how’s that for alliteration?), Siesta Key can be accessed via Siesta Drive on the north or on the south via FL-72 (Stickney Point Road). The Best Western PLUS Siesta Key Getaway is right along the Tamiami at FL-72 to serve as your “getaway” place to hit the white sand beaches on Siesta Key or get some high-end shopping in at Siesta Key Village & Shops, which stretch along the oceanfront for several blocks. The hotel even offers a free shuttle for you to reach and enjoy it all!
South from Sarasota along U.S. 41 and the Tamiami Trail it stays pretty “built up” through a series of developments as we leapfrog over a few smaller bays and head into the next city, Venice.
As its name implies, Venice takes an Italian influence and Northern Italian Renaissance architecture is common across the city. Long a draw for artists, Venice hosted the 2014 International Community Theatre Festival at the Venice Theatre, often touted as the “best little theatre in America.”
Venice was the hallmark city design of famed architect and city planner John Nolen. He said it was in Venice where he was able to effectively balance civic virtue with nature. The city blends green space and recreational trails throughout the commercial and residential districts; while the Tamiami Trail cuts straight through the city and its downtown, it’s worth the time to head off our main path and check out these neighborhoods and the rest of the downtown district just to see how well these designs have worked here.
The Venice Arboretum in Blalock Park (401 Pensacola Road), offers a variety of Florida’s famous palm trees along with information you can learn about them, as well as statues of native wildlife such as the manatee and the Florida panther. Of course, you’ll see real wildlife too – and not just in the Arboretum. Blalock Park is three blocks west of the Tamiami Trail via Milan Avenue. For more nature, you can hunt for shark teeth at Venice Beach with the Venice Area Audubon Society Rookery, which can also provide bird watchers an idyllic setting for viewing a wide variety of birds, especially during the nesting season of December through May.
Trivia: Venice often bills itself as the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World,” hosting the Shark's Tooth Festival every year.
Of course the waterfront is popular, with the 700-foot long Venice Fishing Pier offering beautiful sunset views and license-free fishing for individuals. The downtown area is filled with boutique shops; note that parking downtown and at the beaches is often free, which you don’t find in every Florida city!
After Venice, the Tamiami Trail heads inland a bit to get around Charlotte Harbor and leap over the Peace River through Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. Primarily retirement communities today (and quite highly-rated ones), the area has a colorful history. The Blanchard House Museum of African-American History & Culture of Charlotte County – yes it’s a long name – occupies the former 1925 bungalow of Joseph Blanchard, an early African-American sea captain and city resident. The area has a long history of African-Americans playing prominent roles in the community, and this museum explores that along with the larger topics related to African-American history across the nation. Traveling exhibits are frequently part of the museum as well.
Our Tamiami Trail Tour continues towards Fort Myers, which literally started with a fort called Fort Harvie in the 1840s – it was one of the first forts built along the Caloosahatchee River. The Civil War caused abandonment of the fort, but by 1866 resettlement had begun; by 1869, Fort Myers had incorporated as a city and by 1898 the construction of a major hotel established the city as a winter resort getaway for northerners who wanted to stop their teeth from chattering. Its reputation as a winter getaway has only grown with time.
Heading towards North Fort Myers, you’ll find The Shell Factory & Nature Park, described once by the St. Petersburg Times as “a relic of tacky, pre-Disney Florida” but they note themselves as “Southwest Florida’s #1 Destination.” It is pre-Disney Florida, as the Shell Factory opened in the late 1930s. Is it kitschy and touristy? Yes. Is it part of what touring Florida is all about? Yes. Along with an amazing shell collection, there’s a wildlife area, rides, and an extensive gift shop.
You’ll find the Best Western Fort Myers Waterfront along the Tamiami Trail on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River. Over the river, check out Downtown Fort Myers, which offers plenty of restaurants, shops, galleries, and more. This area is also known as the River District, which extends in both directions along the Caloosahatchee from downtown. Check out Celebration Park and sculptures like “Fire Dance” if you want to take a stroll of simply explore the downtown area, which underwent a lot of renovations recently but has retained the charm of many older buildings and streetscapes. Also along the river, you can get a sense of how opulent some early 20th century parties were among the industrial and business elite by exploring the Burroughs Home & Gardens right by the Tamiami Trail bridge. This Georgian Revival Mansion was built in 1901 and hosted many a party with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and plenty of other last names you’ll recognize. Many of the original furnishings and artifacts from the day can be viewed on a tour, and the landscaped backyard and garden facing the river on a beautiful day makes for a spectacular setting.
Cultural attractions are down here too, like the nationally recognized Florida Repertory Theatre. If you want to give the kids some scientific education and fun, the Imaginarium Science Center is on the south side of downtown just a few blocks east of the Tamiami Trail. From downtown, follow the beautiful McGregor Boulevard southwest; it leads you to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a major tourist attraction. Yes, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both wintered in Fort Myers. The two homes, which were built in 1886 and 1915, have been combined into one large museum and botanical gardens area. You can tour the homes and the landscaped grounds, which are truly gorgeous; expect to spend the better part of a day here if you choose to check it out. Further down McGregor, you can check out the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater, considered the premier theater of its type in southwest Florida.
Like many of the “west coast” Florida cities, Fort Myers is a Spring Training baseball town; it hosts not one, but two MLB teams for Spring Training. The Minnesota Twins train at Hammond Stadium and their class A-Advanced affiliate the Fort Myers Miracle play there once the Twins have headed back to the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, a little further east in town the Boston Red Sox train at jetBlue Park, which just opened in 2012 and is known as “Fenway South” due to its nearly identical field dimensions. Boston’s Rookie League affiliate, the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, take over when the Boston crew heads northeast. So yeah, baseball is big in Fort Myers. The Best Western Fort Myers Inn & Suites and the Best Western Airport Inn are is close proximity; both are also convenient to the Southwest Florida International Airport right nearby.
For some nature that doesn’t include a beach, try a hike through the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, which protects a wetland ecosystem. The Preserve covers several square miles and is ideal for bird-watching. There are observation decks, a 1.2 mile boardwalk, and an Interpretive Center. Further north just off I-75 by the Caloosahatchee and Orange Rivers, Manatee Park is 17 acres of wildlife viewing, fishing, and – in season from November through March – watching manatees in their natural setting.
Meanwhile, along the coast lies Fort Myers Beach, located on Estero Island and accessible from Fort Myers via FL-865 (the southern access point is down in Bonita Springs). Fort Myers Beach features the notoriously white beautiful sand beaches the coast is famous for, along with Pelican Pier, a shopping and entertainment district called Times Square, and even some history to explore. The Mound House is the oldest standing structure on the island, having been built nearly 100 years ago; the trick is, it’s sitting on an ancient Calusa Indian Mound that dates back closer to 2,000 years. You can actually walk inside the mound as well as the house.
For a feel of what things are like under all this water, check out Otsego Bay Marine Science Center on San Carlos Island, which is on the way to Fort Myers Beach. Exhibits, aquariums, displays, and a “touch tank” offer an interactive experience with marine animals including sharks, starfish, and sea turtles.
Right along the beach, the Best Western PLUS Beach Resort offers plenty of activities and a breathtakingly beautiful beachfront. You can walk to Times Square and all the “downtown” attractions, including the pier.
To continue south, you can use FL-865 as an alternate from Fort Myers Beach staying on the islands until it cuts back to the mainland and reunites with U.S. 41/Tamiami Trail in Bonita Springs. Otherwise, head back into Fort Myers and pick up the Tamiami Trail south out of the city. Just south of town past Florida Gulf Coast University, you can explore nature and history at the Koreshan State Historic Site. The site was settled in 1894 by Cyrus Reed Teed, founder of a religious faith called Koreshanity. He built a colony there and focused his followers on beliefs that included the universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere; followers performed experiments trying to prove things like how the horizon curves upward. By 1961, the last four members deeded the land back to the State of Florida, and today you can check out their old stomping grounds. The Koreshans imported trees and plants from all over the world for their settlement, so you’ll find things here you won’t find elsewhere in Florida. Located along the Estero River, the area is great for boating, canoeing, or doing a self- or guided tour of the old settlement.
Next is Bonita Springs, which lives somewhat in the shadows of its larger neighbors but still offers a nice variety of things to do. For the real town, veer off the main U.S. 41 road and follow “Old 41”, which is the original Tamiami Trail. Plenty of nature activities are here, with the Barefoot Beach Preserve offering a beautiful, shell-covered stretch of beach with children’s activities and lots of natural flora and fauna. Bonita Beach Park is the city’s main beach, while barrier islands nearby offer more nature and exploring including several dog parks. East of town the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects endangered trees and animals; a nearly two-mile boardwalk lets you view them, along with alligators… and cottonmouth snakes… so stay on the boardwalk if you go!
If you’re in the mood for a little wagering, the Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Racing Track offers both greyhound racing and poker; you can’t miss it along FL-865, right between the Tamiami Trail and I-75, where you’ll find the Best Western Bonita Springs Hotel & Suites. Back in downtown area along the Tamiami Trail, relax at Riverside Park, which has an old-school Florida town center feel, or check out the Everglades Wonder Gardens. It’s a tropical garden with plenty of activities and viewing of reptiles, birds, plants, and animals – obviously focused on the Everglades ecosystem. Recently renovated, the Everglades Wonder Gardens been a Florida roadside attraction for decades – it opened in 1936 – and offers a butterfly garden, alligators, and “old growth” tropical jungle, and actual real Florida pink flamingos (to counter the millions of fake ones you see all over the state).
Next is Naples, another city with an Italian name on the Gulf Coast. Naples has only 20,000 people, but it’s the main anchor city of an area with over 300,000 – expect heavy traffic when the snowbirds are in town. Naples brims with beautiful beaches, cultural amenities, over 80 championship golf courses, and high-end shopping; the city is one of the six wealthiest in the nation on a per-capita basis and some houses in the area sell for $40 million or more. You might see a car worth a lot more than yours on the Tamiami Trail as you approach the downtown area, which includes bustling restaurants and cafés and upscale shops along a tree-lined Fifth Avenue South and Third Street, all part of “Old Naples.” In the Fifth Avenue South area you’ll find Tin City, which offers 40 eclectic, local shops and dining along the city’s riverwalk. The Bayfront area features more shopping and dining with colorful European architecture everywhere you look. A prominent features in the city lies at the end of 12th Avenue: Naples Pier. Originally built in 1888 – and rebuilt several times due to age and/or hurricanes, Naples Pier stretches out into the Gulf and offers spectacular sunset views. Like fishing? You don’t even need a license to fish off Naples Pier; the city took care of it for you already. Charter fishing boats can be found in the Crayton Cove area around 12th Avenue South and 8th Street South; you’ll also be able to grab a carriage ride through town in this area and check out some great seafood restaurants.
Museums and performing arts are big in Naples. For a mix, check out Artis-Naples, which features the Naples Philharmonic and the Baker Museum, which focuses on a variety of arts across 15 galleries, glass dome conservatory, and more including a Chihuly-designed “Persian Ceiling” and entrance gates designed by metal artist Albert Paley. Broadway shows, opera, classical, and more all happen at Artis-Naples, so call for details.
Founded in the 1880s, Naples’ history doesn’t go back as far as some settlements along the Tamiami (De Soto landed near Bradenton over 350 years prior, after all), but there is still plenty to explore. The Historic Palm Cottage is Naples’ oldest house and the local historical society offers tours that showcase the city’s history. Check out the masonry of the cottage, which includes shells from the beaches. It’s close to the beach, as well as Naples Pier. The Naples Depot Museum is just off the Tamiami Trail in the restored Seaboard Air Line Railway station and offers exhibits on the railroad and transportation history of the area, focusing on the “Roaring Twenties” in particular. The Collier County Museum mixes inside exhibits with outdoor gardens to provide five acres of things to do and see, including a restored cottage and Native American camps. You’ll find it right along the Tamiami Trail.
The Naples Zoo in Caribbean Gardens is highly popular, and you could easily spend a whole day there. The zoo features a wide variety of exotic animals and plants, many linked with a mile-long path through tropical gardens. Areas include the Safari Canyon, a Primate Expedition Cruise, and play areas for children. Here’s a tip: hit the zoo on a cool day, or earlier in the day, when animals tend to be more active. Then, if it gets hot in the late afternoon, head for the beach!
Along this beautiful coast, you’ll find great beaches in Naples. Lowdermilk Beach off 9 Avenue and Barefoot Beach are good in-town options, or you can seek out the quieter beach inside Delnor-Wiggins State Park & Recreation Area, which Florida’s own state park website describes as “one of the most pristine stretches of beach in the world.” Bird lovers will enjoy the Bird Gardens of Naples, a sanctuary for birds – particularly parrots. A variety of horticultural splendor re-opens in October, 2014 at the Naples Botanical Garden; meanwhile, the Rookery Bay Natural Estuarine Research Reserve offers 110,000 acres of preserved mangrove forest, uplands, and protected waters where plenty of endangered species find refuge, including over 150 species of birds. Of course, plenty of the natural world awaits over the next 100 miles.
Heading out of Naples, the Tamiami Trail & U.S. 41 embarks on its most historically courageous trek – crossing the Florida Everglades. This highway through previously untouched (or very gingerly touched) land was an engineering feat back in the 1920s. The portion through the Everglades was stalled for years until a group of men calling themselves the “Tamiami Trailblazers” set out in their cars to cross the area before the road was built. Intending a four-day trip, in took 23 days instead and required construction of 17 bridges and cutting swaths through miles of dense forest, with supplies dropped to them via bomber aircraft. The work they did and the attention they got helped hasten completion of the Trail.
Trivia: On April 25, 1928, the ribbon was cut on the long-awaited Tamiami Trail through the Everglades, and motorists starting using it. Two hours later, a driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit a cypress tree.
Driving into the area, you can imagine how difficult and dangerous the work must have been. Dense forest and swampland dominate the landscape for nearly 80 miles (fuel up in Naples!). About 15 miles into the Everglades, you can access Collier-Seminole State Park where you can explore in detail the massive mangrove swamp you’re traveling through. You’ll also find the Bay City Walking Dredge, the last known remaining piece of equipment that helped to build the highway.
Further southeast, the Tamiami Trail heads through a large section of the Big Cypress National Preserve, which protects over 1,100 square miles of freshwater swampland. Oft-elusive Florida panthers reside in these lands, and signs will warn you that they do indeed cross the road in the area.
The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park allows you to walk about 6/10 of a mile into the forest, with plenty of fascinating flora and animals to see just under your feet; guide signs are frequent and informative. Royal palms, strangler figs, bald eagles, barred owls, and virgin swampland are all around you along the Boardwalk. Don’t be surprised if an alligator is “hanging out” in the pond where the Boardwalk begins, either. A sunbathing alligator might draw a crowd of curious picture-takers and they seem to be used to people, but leave plenty of space and don’t do anything sudden!
One of the few intersections along the Tamiami Trail in the Everglades is just east of the Boardwalk, where Florida Highway 29 crosses U.S. 41. It’s a rare opportunity to stop for gas, food, etc. Five miles south along Highway 29 you’ll find the Gulf Coast Visitors Center, which provides information and access to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge nearby.
About ten miles past the Boardwalk, watch for Ochopee (Miccosukee for “big field”), marked by nothing more than the smallest post office in the nation – just over 60 square feet. There’s room for you to pull up and mail a postcard, though.
Near Monroe Station, you can head “off the beaten path” and try the 24-mile Loop Road Scenic Drive, a mostly-gravel road that was part of the original intended path of the Tamiami Trail. The wildlife gets wilder on this drive, and there are not only alligators and Florida panthers in the area, but also over 30 varieties of snakes, including the massive Burmese python. Snakes are not to be disturbed in this area – which for most people just probably juuust fine.
Deep strands, such as the Sweetwater Strand at milepost five, offer dense forest and wildlife while areas around Mileposts 12 and 16 feature slash pines and more open land – some of which farmers attempted to plow and cultivate in the 1930s before realizing better land for farms were elsewhere. At Mile 15.6, the Tree Snail Hammock Trail lets you walk through hardwood hammocks and check out tree snails with brightly colored and patterned shells. Plenty of other opportunities to get the “insider” perspective abound on the 24 miles of this Loop Road until you meet up with U.S. 41/Tamiami Trail again.
Trivia: Everglades National Park holds a series of distinctions: a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a “Wetland of International Importance.”
Every once in a while, uninterrupted wilderness is slightly broken by something man-made to check out. Along with the nation’s smallest post office, state parks and boardwalks, you’ll find unique touristy things like the Skunk Ape Research Center. Dedicated to the study of the “skunk ape”, a legendary creature looking like an ape and somewhat skunky in scent, the Skunk Ape Research Center offers information on sightings of this animal, which is often referred to as the “Bigfoot of Florida.” While the U.S. Park Service says the skunk ape does not exist, many sightings have been reported, including in outer suburbs of Miami. You’ll also find a petting zoo where you can touch alligators, snakes, turtles, and more. Their gift and souvenir shop is a good place to get true Florida trinkets.
When you enter Dade County (technically now called “Miami-Dade”), U.S. 41 signs start saying “East”, rather than the “South” designation that U.S. 41 has had since it began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 1,900 miles back. The Everglades continue for a while, and stops like the Shark Valley Visitor Center offer exhibits, guided tram tours, an observation tower, walking trails and even bicycle rentals for exploration.
Just past Shark Valley is the Miccosukee Indian Village, the last surviving village of the Miccosukee tribe that inhabited this area for hundreds of years prior to new developments like the Tamiami Trail. The village features a small museum showcasing the tribe’s history and the difficulty of life in the Everglades. There are also alligator shows, crafts, a casino, and more. Airboat rides are a popular attraction here, as is diving into a local favorite, fried bread.
For about twenty miles, you’re on a beeline east into the outskirts of Miami, where you cross the Florida Turnpike, past Florida International University and into the city itself. Just south in Kendall you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Kendall Hotel & Suites and just to the north, the Best Western PLUS Miami Airport West Inn & Suites and the Best Western PLUS Miami Airport North Hotel & Suites.
Miami is, of course, one of the nation’s most dynamic cities and a center of commerce, finance, media, the arts, culture, trade, and a vibrant immigrant population with Latin flavors all around. The city has about 420,000 residents, but it’s the anchor city for the metro area that is bulging with 5.5 million residents, the largest in the Southeastern United States. The PortMiami is the number one cruise passenger port in the world, and shipping to and from other nations is among the largest worldwide. Near downtown, the Miami Marlins play major league baseball at Marlins Park while along the water the Miami Heat and plenty of other events take place at the AmericanAirlines Arena. Plenty of other attractions, from zoos to botanical gardens and more are all over the city.
Along the Tamiami Trail, we’re following SW 8th Street through Miami, hence the district name of “Calle Ocho” – literally “Eighth Street” (simple enough). With a large Cuban population, “Little Havana” lies along the Tamiami Trail and restaurants, cigar makers, and even the famous Domino Park are all within blocks. Miami is only American city with a Cuban-American plurality in population, after all.
Here, you’re in close proximity to Miami International Airport, near the Best Western PREMIER Miami International Airport Hotel & Suites.
The Tamiami Trail (and U.S. 41) continues through the city towards a towering skyline of buildings, crossing under I-95 before ending at Brickell Avenue (U.S. 1) in the heart of downtown Miami. U.S. 1, of course, is another major national highway with plenty to offer. Turn south for the Overseas Highway to Key West, cut north and east on the A1A/MacArthur Causeway and up Collins Street for Miami Beach (where you’ll find the funky Best Western Atlantic Beach Resort, or head north on U.S. 1 to check out Florida’s Atlantic coast cities, from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville and everything in between!