Here’s How to Soak Up a 3-Hour Key West Sunset
Technically situated closer to Cuba than to mainland Florida, the colorful island of Key West is like a familiar slice of paradise, blissfully broken in and comfortable, even for first-timers. And yet, the petite island—just 7.2 square miles in size—also has an unmistakable mystique that manages to feel new and even a bit surprising, every single time you return to its rocky shores. With its streets awash in cheerful pastel-colored bars and restaurants, quirky shops and shanties, and live music, Key West has something special on shore for just about every kind of tropical traveler. But while this favorite vacation spot is filled with good vibes and even better vistas around every corner, it turns out that getting there is half the fun. Especially when you’re chasing the waning, tangerine and scarlet-hued sun all the way down. Savvy travelers know a little secret about this particular stretch of highway US-1 between Miami and Key West, known as the Overseas Highway. At the right time of year, at just the right time of departure, it’s possible to bask in a roughly 3-hour sunset for most of the duration of your drive. Here’s how to do it, plus tips for soaking up the nightly sunset revelry once you’re there.
Key West Road Trip
A road trip from Miami to Key West can take as little as 3 to 3.5 hours, or as long as you want, really. It all depends on how many other stops you’d like to make along the way. If you were to make it only as far as Islamorada or Key Largo and decide to plant some roots and stay a while, well…you wouldn’t be the first wanderer to do so. Far from it. That sort of meandering spontaneity is just what this sleepy stretch of two-lane highway is all about.
On this particular journey, there’s no wrong answer. But to catch the phenomenon of the 3-hour sunset, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is the basic science behind it.
Is It Really a 3-Hour Sunset?
Not technically. According to EarthSky, those who are located along the equator are continuously traveling toward the east at roughly 1,000 miles per hour, thanks to our Earth’s orbit. Key West is nearly 1,700 miles north of the equator, so when you’re there, you’re moving eastward at an even slower rate. Regardless, to truly “chase” the setting sun, you would need a supersonic aircraft to even attempt it.
However, on this particular drive, it’s possible to create the sensation of racing against the sunset, thanks to a few geographical factors: there’s the southwesterly direction of the route that follows the setting sun, the specific (short) duration of the drive, the relatively unobstructed views along the Overseas Highway, right near sea level, that allows for miles of open sky, and the key ingredient—just the right time of year, when the sun is in the right position in the sky.
Remember—the sky will remain relatively (but decreasingly) light for somewhere between 70 to 100 minutes after you watch the sun dip beyond the horizon. That radiant crimson and aubergine light that follows the sun is part of your overall sunset experience.
When Should You Try the Miami to Key West Road Trip?
With Key West occupying the southernmost point of the Continental U.S., and Miami sitting only 159 miles to its northwest, it’s possible to time this particular road trip to around 3 hours (give or take any slowdowns from other beach-goers and sun-chasers). And the best time of year to attempt the 3-hour sunset itself, according to in-the-know Floridians, is in the month of April.
This is because, heading toward the Summer Solstice on either June 20 or 21 of each year, April presents the ideal conditions when the sun is in just the right part of the sky to maximize the sensation of a slowly setting sun while you’re driving toward it at the modest speed limit. You can read more about the sun’s orbital patterns in our recent Summer Solstice blog.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
Floridians and other savvy travelers who have chased the 3-hour sunset from Miami to Key West have a few tips, so you can try it too.
- First and most importantly, figure out what time the sun will set on your day of travel. That’s key to picking the right departure time from Miami (or wherever you choose!), and allowing for the right amount of stops based on your usual road trip preferences. Time and Date can give you minute-by-minute sunrise and sunset times in advance, or you can always Google the information you need in a pinch.
- Determine your departure time—then plan your stops. If you’re up for making an entire day of it, build in experiences along the way down to Key West. Or if you just want to cruise straight Key West amid the dimming sun, plan to head out around 2 hours prior to the sunset time (remembering that the sky will continue to be a vibrant raspberry and mango sorbet of colors for at least another hour beyond that time).
- Local Tip: another way to enjoy the 3-hour sunset trip is to spend the first part of it on solid ground, enjoying the view from land. Stop at Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar for some light bites around 3 or 4 in the afternoon for a late lunch or some light bites between meals. Besides its gorgeous views and excellent fresh-catch fare, its Islamorada location means you’re just 80 miles, or around 1 hour 45 minutes away, from Key West. If you leave here an hour before sunset, you’ll enjoy it for the remainder of your entire drive.
Key West Sunsets
Racing against the setting sun on your way to Key West is an unforgettable experience, but there are still plenty more sunsets to soak up once you’re there. On this colorful island, thanks to its nightly sunset celebrations, even if you didn’t time your road trip exactly right, you can still observe the magic night after night.
Here are a few of our favorite spots to watch the sunset in Key West.
- Visit the historic seaport, a historic fishing port that’s always teeming with activity.
- Set out on a dramatic sunset sail or sunset cruise off the coast of Key West for spectacular views looking back toward shore.
- Make a stop at your choice of sunset tiki bars, including popular spots that crowd the beautiful waterfront, along with a number of hidden gems; and catch a few lively acts by street performers while you’re at it.
- Visit Fort Zachary Taylor State Park for a healthy dose of nature and history.
- Or just wander around Mallory Square at sunset, where the bustling hub of activity springs to new life in the evening hours.
Before you head out on your journey to chase the sun, remember to pack plenty of sun protection, including Broad Spectrum sunscreen to guard against UVA and UVB rays (powerful even when the sun is dipping beyond the horizon). And to protect your eyes, consider wearing polarized sunglasses. They can dramatically reduce the glare as you drive westward, while also increasing visual clarity and overall comfort as you gaze upon the sunset for hours on end.