The Miami area is one of the most densely populated parts of Florida, so it’s easy to forget it’s also next door to some of the most interesting natural environments in the US. If you’ve been on the lookout for outdoor activities, you’ve probably noticed ads for tours that will take you west of Miami into the Everglades to see alligators and other swamp life. But for a wider selection of outdoor adventures that includes swimming, boating, camping, fishing, snorkeling, and chances to see animals you won't see anywhere else in the US, head south to Biscayne National Park.
Though it’s just outside the city, the park is an impressive 270 square miles, most of which is water—the picturesque Biscayne Bay. The mainland portion includes Homestead Bayfront Park, an easy-to-access swimming beach, as well as a Mangrove forest further south. The rest of the park’s land is made up of Elliott Key and several other small islands. To really explore it you’ll need a boat, but no need to bring your own—the Biscayne Island Institute offers an evening cruise as well as a variety of tours via sailboat, kayak, or canoe, depending on what you want to do or see here.
The park is home to an incredible diversity of animals and plants including over 600 native fish, neo-tropical water birds, and migratory habitat, and 20 threatened and endangered species including sea turtles, the Schaus' swallowtail butterfly, and Florida semaphore cactus. Some creatures here, like manatees and the American crocodile, are in the northern limits of their ranges, meaning Florida is the only place in the US you can see them. The park preserves unique marine habitat and nursery environments that sustain diverse native fishery resources and support world-class fishing for spiny lobster, snapper, grouper, tarpon, and bonefish.
While snorkeling is allowed in the seagrasses near the mainland, to see the best of Biscayne underwater life, join a tour that will take you about ten miles out to its coral reefs. Like a bustling city, the reef is active day and night. Polyps on the soft corals withdraw as hard coral polyps emerge for a night of feeding. Parrotfish and wrasses wrap up in mucous sleeping bags, as octopi and squirrelfish become active. This "shift change" ensures that the reef's plentiful food supply is utilized around the clock.
The mangrove forests of Biscayne National Park are mysterious places that remind one of the jungles seen in old movies. From the water, unbroken lines of trees are visible with their beautiful, emerald leaves reaching over the water. The forest provides a seemingly impenetrable tangle of roots, arching from tree trunks in many directions. The park contains one of the longest continuous stretches of mangroves left on Florida's East coast.
Homefront Bay Park is a county-run beach next door to the national park with a swimming lagoon and a small beach that is ideal for children. Nearby beaches reachable by boat include Bahia Honda and Long Key.
There are two campgrounds in the park. Both are located on islands, Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key, so they're only accessible by boat, and there's no running water or electricity, so come prepared.
Boca Chita is the park's most popular island. It features beautiful waterfront views, a grassy camping area, picnic tables, and grills. The iconic and historic lighthouse, built by Mark Honeywell in the 1930s, guides boats to the beauty and wonders of the park.
The largest island in the park was once a thriving community of pioneers engaged in pineapple farming, sponging, wrecking or other pursuits. Today the island offers camping, picnicking, swimming, wildlife watching, and a hiking trail.
Canoeing and kayaking are great ways to explore the mangrove fringed shorelines and shallow bay waters of the park. More experienced kayakers may enjoy crossing the seven-mile expanse of Biscayne Bay to Elliott or Boca Chita Keys. Adams Key is a popular launching spot for those exploring these areas from the south. Using the islands as a base camp will allow exploration of the lagoons, creeks, and channels south of Caesar Creek. Many of these places are too shallow for motorized vessels, so canoeists and kayakers are likely to have these places to themselves.
Canoe, paddleboard, and kayak rentals are available at the park visitor center. Visitors with paddle craft of their own can launch for free. Leaving a vehicle in the parking lot overnight is permitted when camping on one of the park islands, but stop in the visitor center to fill out a free parking permit.
Shallow Jones Lagoon is a great place to see rays, upside-down jellyfish, schools of fish and wading birds. Be careful not to disturb the bird rookery!
Text and cover image courtesy of Bicayne National Park / NPS.