Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park.

Biscayne National Park, established on 28 June 1980, basically begins where Miami ends—in the shallow, aquamarine waters and lush sea-grass beds of Biscayne Bay. Protected within the park’s mostly submerged 173,000 acres are the longest stretch of mangrove forest on Florida’s east coast, the northernmost Florida Keys, and part of the world’s third longest coral reef tract. Many visitors never venture beyond the park’s northern waters, a popular playground for boaters, anglers, and windsurfers, as well as Miami-based charter boat trips and sunset cruises. Travel farther south and below the surface on a snorkelling or diving trip to discover Biscayne’s dizzying array of undersea treasures. Highlights include six shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail and spectacularly diverse and colourful aquatic life, including sharks, rays, sea turtles, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, and more than 500 species of fish. Above the surface, join a ranger-led canoe trip through the mangroves to see wading birds, crabs, and maybe even a manatee.

To visit the park’s longest stretch of terra firma, book a boat tour to Elliott Key, home to the “Spite Highway” nature trail. The approximately six-mile-long path leads through a subtropical forest. Hike the trail to see butterflies, including the federally protected Schaus swallowtail, a large, colourful butterfly native to South Florida but, in recent years, found mostly on Elliott Key and northern Key Largo. For boat tours, kayak rentals, and other water activities, make advance reservations with an authorised park tour operator. Weekends from late November through late April, take the City of Homestead’s free, guided trolley tour from downtown Homestead to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center.

December to April is dry season and has increased ranger-led programmes. For example, winter is windy, which is ideal for visiting Elliott Key and the other islands but not for the reefs. Though summer can be buggy on the islands, it’s typically good for snorkelling due to calmer waters and clear visibility. Visit the Dante Fascell Visitor Center to learn about the park, picnic along Biscayne Bay. Reservations are required for ranger-guided tours that have limited availability, such as the daylong paddling excursions to secluded Jones Lagoon, where you could spot an upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea). Take a scenic boat tour to Boca Chita Key to picnic, camp, and see Biscayne National Park’s unofficial symbol, a 65-foot ornamental lighthouse built in the 1930s by one of the island’s former owners. The nearest hotels to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center are in Homestead and Florida City. If you’re taking a boat trip with a Miami-based tour operator, it may be more convenient to stay in Miami. Credit: National Geographic Society.

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