Say the word “park” and you immediately think of trees. But just like Miami, neighboring Biscayne National Park is full of surprises – the first being that it’s 95% under water. Stretching over 270 square miles southeast of Miami to the Florida Keys, the largest marine sanctuary in the National Park Service is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species including manatees, crocodiles and sea turtles. It comprises several islands and is bordered by thriving mangrove forests. It also includes the Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the United States and one of the largest in the world.
Fittingly, the best way to explore this marine wonderland is by boat. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center (under an hour’s drive from Downtown Miami at Convoy Point, in Homestead) is your land-based launchpad. From here, you can plan your journey by talking to park rangers and watching audio-visual presentations about the ecosystems that make Biscayne National Park so fascinating. After that, your toughest decision will be which adventure to choose.
Among the guided tours offered by the Biscayne National Park Institute is a half-day cruise to the park’s most-visited island, Boca Chita Key, where a wealthy Miami Beach-based family built their holiday home in the 1930s. Of the surviving structures, the 65-foot-tall ornamental lighthouse is the star attraction, offering sweeping sea and city views from its upper deck. Scuba diving or snorkeling through shipwrecks along the Maritime Heritage Trail is another popular pursuit. Or you can choose to paddleboard through the waters of Jones Lagoon, which teem with juvenile sharks, stingrays and turtles even though they’re only inches deep. The park’s largest island is Elliott Key, which was home to pineapple plantations in the late 19th century and a CIA training ground in the 1960s. Now it offers visitors fishing opportunities, a walking trail and a campground for overnights under the stars, embraced by the warm waters, coral islands and thriving reefs that define this unique national park.
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