With miles and miles of new improvements, the Overseas Heritage Trail is proving that getting there is more than half the fun for locals and tourists.
The millions of dollars in improvements to the trail over the past several years is turning the Florida Keys into an international bike tour destination.
Montana-based Adventure Cycling brings small groups of cyclists to the Keys. The group offers a 10-day biking adventure that starts in Hollywood, winds through the Keys and ends in Fort Myers, said Jack Pettry, an Adventure Cycling tour guide. The riders carry their own gear and mostly camp while in the Florida Keys, Pettry said.
The trip is offered twice a year, once in the winter and once in late fall.
"The Keys have really become a destination for cyclists," said Jennifer Milyko, who maps routes for Adventure Cycling. "The conditions have really improved. Ten years ago, it wasn't as pleasant ... . The tours in the winter and fall really fill up fast. It's a great way to see the sights."
National tour companies are not the only businesses reaping the benefits of the improvements to the trail.
Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours has seen its business increase as the trail expands, owner Mark Terrill said. The company rents bikes and other equipment and offers tours throughout the Keys.
"People are pleasantly surprised by the trail," he said.
Terrill would like to see bike trail emblems painted on the Seven Mile and Channel 5 bridges, he said.
"It would give riders more comfort knowing it's an actual trail," Terrill said.
Once a month, the Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours offers a "Century Ride," in which riders trek 100 miles a day through the Keys, Terrill said.
Tour guides and operators did complain about sections of the trail that force riders to cross U.S. 1, but overall they are happy with the improvements and await the entire project being completed.
Local cyclists are also enjoying the improvements, but like the tour groups clamor for the day when all sections of the trail will be connected.
One group of Key West cyclists uses the trail as part of its regular Sunday ride between Key West and Sugarloaf Key. Group member Maureen Kempa would like to see more of a shoulder and a bike lane on top of the bridge in front of the Navy base on Boca Chica Key, an area she referred to as more dangerous for cycling. The speed limit there is 55 mph.
"We can't wait til they are finished," Kempa said. "It will be more enjoyable when you're not worried about being hit by a car."
The Heritage Trail parallels the Overseas Highway, a designated National Scenic Highway and All-American Road. The recreational pathway incorporates 23 of the historic Flagler Railroad bridges. The longest, continuous section of paved trail is between Mile Marker 106 in Key Largo and Mile Marker 72 in Islamorada.
The trail now encompasses more than 72 miles, which will extend to 106 miles when complete.
Much of the remaining trail is being designed or under construction by DEP's Office of Greenways Trails. It's funded by the Florida Department of Transportation through a federal grant program for alternative transportation. DEP has spent upwards of $13 million on the trail so far.