A national park within sight of one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S.A.? That’s what you’ll see from downtown Miami – Biscayne National Park. About 30 miles south of Miami lies the 270-square-mile (172,971 acres) park, 95% of which is water with the remaining 5% land that can be found on 42 keys dotted throughout the area. Established in October 1968 as a National Memorial, Biscayne National Park was enlarged and established in 1980 in an effort to protect its natural and cultural resources.
Of those natural resources, the coral reefs found within the park are part of the Florida Reef Tract, one of the largest coral reefs in the world, not to mention important habitats for fish and marine life. On the cultural and land side of things, Native American, Spanish and English exploration history is preserved as well in three National Historic Districts.
Biscayne National Park welcomes a half-million visitors annually, 90% of whom visit by boat; it’s important to note that the keys within the park are not connected by roads. It’s also important to note the time of year you visit – summers are hot and can be quite buggy, while winters are mild and the bugs are easier to deal with.
The navigable waters of Biscayne National Park are accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but there are set operating hours for the visitor center, as well as some of the park’s keys. Be sure to check the park’s website for detailed operating hours.
We checked in with park staff to discover a few of these 10 tips to make the most of your visit to Biscayne National Park, in no particular order.
One way to get to the park from Miami is via public transportation. On weekends from late-November through late-April, the Homestead National Parks Trolley connects to bus routes from Miami and provides rides from Losner Park in Homestead right to the park’s visitor center.
Take a Tour
Those with boats can motor and sail from one key to the next, or pretty much wherever they want within Biscayne National Park. But what do you do if you don’t have a boat of your own? Easy – take a guided tour! The Biscayne National Park Institute provides myriad tours to make the most of your time around the park, from relaxing sailing outings to interpretive tours to snorkeling tours. You can even arrange transportation if you want to camp overnight.
Take a Hike
While the park’s land mass is small (just five per cent of 270 square miles), there are in fact 9 miles of hiking trails on which to traverse. Elliott Key, the largest island in the park and accessible only by boat, was once a thriving community of pioneers who farmed pineapples, and went sponging and wrecking. It’s here you’ll find your best bet for hiking – a one-mile loop trail provides a good lay of the land, while the six-mile Spite Highway runs right down the middle of the island.
Boca Chita Key
Though Elliott Key is the largest island within the park, Boca Chita Key is the most-visited. Accessible by boat or on a tour only, it’s on the island you’ll find the historic lighthouse built by Mark Honeywell in the late-1930s not to guide ships to safe passageways but to draw visitors to the park. Boca Chica is terrific for picnicking, and features a short, half-mile hiking trail.
At the southern end of the park, accessible only by boat, is Jones Lagoon, part of the Jones Family Historic District; the the former home and farm of Israel Lafayette Jones and his family is found here on Porgy Key. “Jones Lagoon is in a remote area of the park and miles from any roads, so it is not well-known or well-traveled. It is a completely natural area, the shallow, mangrove-fringed lagoon is a great place to paddle a canoe or kayak. The serenity is stunning, it is so peaceful” says our park insider. “There are constant surprises and I can always find something beautiful and wonderful. There are many amazing wild creatures like the Cassiopeia jellyfish – upside-down, as these jellyfish often appear, their tentacles look like plants waving in the water.”
In the 1930s, “Crawfish Eddie Walker” built the first shack on stilts above the water, and Stiltsville began. At its peak in 1960, 27 stilt-buildings were found – this was the place to see and be seen when visiting Miami in the wintertime. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew left just seven stilt-buildings in its wake Submerged lands in the northern part of the park containing historic houses built on stilts beginning in the 1930s. In 1985, the land was deeded to the park by the State of Florida. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 left only seven buildings standing, none of which stood during Stiltsville’s heyday. In 2003, the Stiltsville Trust was established to work with the park to preserve the buildings. Today, the remaining buildings can be seen from the water.
Its expansive coral reef system and the fish and marine life that live within and among it are enough of an attraction for snorkelers and SCUBA divers visiting the park. Add to that the six shipwrecks found along the Maritime Heritage Trail and you have even more to explore! “The Maritime Heritage Trail offers exciting opportunities to snorkel and explore the remains of some of the park’s shipwrecks,” says our park insider. “The Mandalay in particular offers an unparalleled opportunity for snorkelers to experience a shipwreck in a beautiful natural setting.” Bronze interpretive plaques are available at each of the six historic shipwrecks along the trail, which is accessible only by boat.
In a park that’s 95 per cent water, it’s no surprise that kayaking and canoeing are popular activities atop the water. If you don’t have your own with you, rentals are available from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Once on the water, the choices are yours: the park has six mapped paddling trail guides, or go it alone and make your own discoveries.
The water that makes up 95 per cent of the park provides more than paddling and boating opportunities – there’s fishing, too! The unique marine habitats and nurseries found within the park’s boundaries sustain diverse native fisheries and support world-class recreational fishing for spiny lobster, snapper, grouper, tarpon and bonefish, according to our park insider. If you are going to cast a line, be sure to become very familiar with the State of Florida fishing regulations which are enforced within the park. The park also offers a free Fisheries Awareness Class; check with park staff regarding dates and times.
Watch for Wildlife
With four ecosystems on land and in the water, Biscayne National Park is a very diverse park with very diverse wildlife throughout. Grab your binoculars and keep an eye out. Birdwatchers will want to focus on the Biscayne Birding Trail, while marine enthusiasts will want to watch for dolphin, manatees and even whales. And, of course, under the water’s surface is where sea turtles and hundreds of species of fish may be spotted.
Have you been to Biscayne National Park? If so, what’s your favorite thing to do in the park?
Stay up to date on changing travel conditions; please check with local and statewide authorities for the latest guidelines.
Main image: An aerial view of Caesar Creek in Biscayne National Park. (photo credit: NPS image by Christy Thibodeau)