Florida is the only state in the USA where you can see the sun come up over the Atlantic and go down over the Gulf Mexico all in the same day. There is something so romantic about both times of day, and what a treat to experience each of them in about a 12 hour period, give or take. Be sure to check local times for when the sun will rise and when it will set, and then, claim the adventure—easy as it is, it is something very few people have actually done.
Ponte Vedra Beach to Cedar Key
Let the romance begin at Ponte Vedra Beach, specifically at Mickler’s Landing on A1A, where there is a paved visitor-friendly parking lot. Spread out your blanket and welcome the new day. And now your drive awaits. The route is 140 miles long, and could be accomplished in under three hours if you drove straight through without stopping. But of course you will want to stop here and there to enjoy the journey. So once the sun is up, take 202 west, with its marvelous views over the marshes, you may be tempted to stop a few minutes and savor them. Please do.
Then follow Interstate 295, the ring route south of Jacksonville which is usually busy, so drive with extra care. 295’s Henry H. Buckman Bridge affords sweeping vistas of the St John’s River, one of the few rivers in the nation that flows north at its mouth. Exit onto route 21, and drive through Orange Park, Lakeside, and Middleburg. On route 16, you skirt Kingsley Lake, the oldest and highest lake in Florida, which forms an almost perfect circle; this is also the home of Camp Blanding, a huge WWII training center. Join up with 215 and at Starke, the Bradford County seat, home of the Call Street Historic District. Take 301, at Waldo take 24 to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida.
Brunch at Paramount Grill
Gainesville is a great place for a lunch stop – try the Paramount Grill, or Cymply Fresh. Visit the Butterfly Rainforest with free-roaming exotic butterflies, at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida has a current exhibit called “Monet and American Impressionism” (ending May 24, admission is free). See birds, alligators, wild horses and bison at Payne’s Prairie.
Continue through Archer, Bronson, Otter Creek, and Rosewood to the bridge to Cedar Key. Visit Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, the cedar key national wildlife refuge, Cedar Key Museum State Park with its restored St. Clair Whitman house and several nesting pairs of bald eagles. Dinner might be at Kona Joe’s island cafe, Tony’s Seafood Restaurant, the Island hotel and restaurant, or Steamers. Or stop at the quirky Hideaway Tiki Bar, built out of beer bottle walls where you can watch the magnificent sunset from your table.
New Smyrna Beach to Fort Island Gulf Beach, Crystal River
Catch a sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean from 27th Avenue Beachfront Park. The drive is 162 miles and would take a bit over 3 hours to drive if you drove straight through. Your drive begins on route 44 which takes you all the way from New Smyrna Beach through Deland—which has an explore-able downtown if you wish. At the intersection of 44 and 441 you may wish to detour to the charming lakeside city of Mount Dora which is filled with boutiques and antique shops, and if you linger here it may also serve as your lunch place.
Or, for lunch a bit farther along, continue along 441 until Tavares where you will follow 19 through the Harris Chain of Lakes region to the intersection with 48 at Howey-in-the-Hills. We recommend for your lunch stop the Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills. Then go on 48 west about six miles to the Yalaha Bakery, a charming old world bakery with wonderful breads and pastries, where you will have them create a picnic supper for your sunset.
After a short hop on the Florida Turnpike, exit at Florida west 44, and travel on through Inverness until you arrive at Crystal River. Take 44, which for a short while is also 19 south, till you see the signs for 44 continuing west. This is the most intriguing part of the drive, as you: Just keep on going west until the road ends. A great surprise awaits, a charming small beach that was built in the fifties for an Elvis Presley movie. You will need to take everything you want with you.
There are restrooms but no food stands or shops. The swimming is great and there are picnic spots. The sunset is awesome. The mood is remote and serene. You will probably see a few dolphins. You may need the bug spray. This is a gem of a beach and it is free.
Miami to Naples
Begin at South Pointe Park, Miami Beach, where you have the entire Atlantic, plus the pulse of South Beach all around you as the day begins. Then off you go, across the wildest part of the state of Florida, along the Tamiami Trail. The drive is 116 miles or about 2 1/2 hours if you don’t stop on your drive. Don’t make the mistake of taking I-75 which is dubbed “Alligator Alley”. That route is congested, typical interstate driving, the scenery is monotonous, the road is well-fenced, so the likelihood of spotting any wild animals is quite slim—and it is a toll road.
The same things cannot be said for Route 41 the Tamiami Trail. This road crosses Everglades National Park’s northern border, the road is free. Along the Tamiami Trail you can stop if you wish at several places, where it is virtually certain you will see alligators. You can visit the Miccosukee Indian Village to see the gators in an interpretive program, or take an airboat tour of the back country. Whatever you do, make it a pleasant unhurried drive.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Skillet Strand North Trail at Big Cypress National Preserve
When you get to Big Cypress National Preserve, there are two popular scenic drives to consider: Loop Road—a 27-mile drive through dwarf cypress forest, pine forests and deep strands. Or the Turner River / Wagonwheel / Birdon Roads Loop, a 17-mile drive that takes you by open prairies and popular wading bird feeding areas. If you are feeling less adventurous, select the H P Williams roadside Park; it has a short boardwalk overlooking a canal where a variety of wildlife, including alligators, turtles, and a variety of birds are often seen. At Everglades City, just west of Big Cypress, stores and restaurants may be found. Point your hood toward the Naples pier, or the nearby beach, to soak in the sunset.
Want to create your own Florida Sunrise & Sunset Adventure? Check out our Best Beaches in Florida article for great starting and ending points!