Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park

South Florida’s natural beauty is legendary, dotted with ecosystems not found anywhere else in the United States. One of the area’s ecological highlights is the aquatic wonderland of Biscayne National Park.

Spanning nearly 173,000 acres, 95% of which is in Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Biscayne National Park is the largest marine sanctuary in the U.S. National Parks system. The area is home to aquamarine waters, a wide variety of wildlife and unparalleled aquatic adventure possibilities.

Turtle by Mat Ratner

Biscayne's Vibrant Wildlife

Renowned for its biodiversity, Biscayne National Park is made up of four ecosystems: coastal mangrove hammocks, Biscayne Bay’s shallow lagoon waters, coral limestone keys and the third-largest offshore reef in the world. These ecosystems sustain thousands of species, including 20 that are threatened or endangered, such as the manatee, hawksbill sea turtle and American crocodile. Part of the Biscayne Birding Trail, the park also boasts more than 110 species of birds, including the roseate spoonbill, wood stork and the ultra-rare mangrove cuckoo. The area is also home to 600 native fish species.

Boca Chita Lighthouse

Boating the Florida Keys

The northernmost islands of the Florida Keys archipelago are located within Biscayne National Park. Among those islands, Boca Chita and Elliott Key are the most visited, with guided tours offered daily.

A powerboat tour is a good way to see scenic Boca Chita Key, an islet that’s home to coconut palms and a smattering of other native flora as well as historic limestone structures. While you’re there, stroll along the short path through a mangrove hammock or climb the island’s landmark lighthouse to take in cinematic vistas of the Atlantic. For the full land and water experience, opt for the sailboat tour to Boca Chita followed by a visit to Elliott Key or Adams Key, where you can kayak, paddle or snorkel the translucent bayside waters and explore the diverse soft coral habitats.

Book a boat trip to Elliott Key, the largest of the park’s islands, for more terrain to explore. Once you’ve wandered along the 1-mile loop trail, hit the 7-mile road (also called Spite Highway) down the center of the island to see a maritime forest where mangroves, buttonwood, gumbo-limbo and torchwood, the host tree of the endangered Schaus Swallowtail butterfly, abound.

Kayaking

Explore Biscayne by Water

Whether you choose a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard, the best way to experience the coastal wilderness of Biscayne National Park is on the water. A favorite guided excursion is the paddle-based tour of Jones Lagoon, a secluded mangrove-fringed lagoon located at the southern end of the park. The full-day tour involves a boat ride to the clear waters of Jones Lagoon, where you’ll be outfitted with a paddleboard to explore the lagoon’s unique habitat. Yellow stingrays, loggerhead turtles, juvenile bonnethead sharks, and an otherworldly meadow of Cassiopeia (upside-down jellyfish) are just a few examples of the wildlife you may encounter. If you’re a birder, keep your eyes peeled for sightings of white-crowned pigeons, and make sure you bring binoculars to observe roseate spoonbills and frigate birds in their rookeries.

Planning to explore on your own? Keep in mind that the 7-mile expanse from the mainland to Elliott Key is traversable but best undertaken by experienced kayakers.

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park

Snorkeling the Florida Reef

From colorful living reefs to coastal mangrove habitat and coral-covered ships that met their fate on the Florida reef, some of the park’s greatest sights lie beneath the water. And with half-day snorkeling trips departing twice daily, there’s no shortage of snorkeling opportunities.

First time out on the reef? Anemones, green moray eels, and schools of technicolor fish, such as rainbow parrotfish and angelfish, are just a sampling of reef dwellers you might uncover. Be aware that ocean conditions change, and you may end up snorkeling in the calmer mangrove-fringed waters of the bay, where a plethora of aquatic wildlife also abounds.

Curious to explore the watery tombs of historic wrecks? During the summer months of May through August, the park’s outfitter offers guided snorkeling tours of the Mandalay or the Aratoon Apcar, the shallowest of the six mapped shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail. If you’re a certified scuba diver, there are dive charter tours located outside the park that offer diving excursions and private charters to the deeper shipwrecks on the trail as well as the reef.

Planning a Biscayne National Park Trip

On your way to the park, stop by the Tropical Everglades Visitor Association and get more information about everything you can see and do in the area.

Since the majority of the park is accessible only by boat, a reasonable amount of planning is needed to make the most of your visit. First-timers should stop at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, a resource for information about the park as well as a museum, art gallery, and site of the scenic Jetty Trail through the surrounding bayside hardwood hammock. The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

All guided boat, paddle, and snorkel tours within the park depart from the visitors center and are handled by the Biscayne National Park Institute, the park’s only authorized onsite outfitter. To ensure your spot, it’s advisable to book your half-day or full-day tour ahead of time on the institute’s website.

Camping in Biscayne National Park

Camping at Biscayne National Park

Pitch a tent and get lulled to sleep by warm ocean breezes at either Boca Chita Key or Elliott Key. Both islands offer campgrounds that are available for a reasonable tent site and a boat-docking fee of $25. The campsites are charmingly primitive. Aside from toilet facilities on both islands, you won’t find any amenities. There are no stores or concession stands, so be sure to pack water, food, and supplies. Water and showers are available only at the Elliott Key campsite.

The new Sails and Trails: Camp, Paddle, Sail, and Hike Island Trails experience is a two-day, overnight guided excursion. You can explore and learn about Biscayne National Park’s history and ecology as you set sail across the bay, kayak through mangrove forests and spend the night on Adams Key.

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