Insider’s Guide to Biscayne National Park

Bruce Tuten
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Many people just cruise through Biscayne National Park on their boats or drop anchor to watch the sunset against the Miami skyline—and these people have no idea what they are missing out on. Ninety-five percent of the park’s 172,000+ acres is found underneath the blue-green water, hiding diverse aquatic life, shipwrecks, and the world’s third largest coral reef system. The largest island in Biscayne National Park is the 7-mile long Elliot Key, the first true “key”, formed from ancient coral reefs. Due to rising sea levels, it is estimated that even the small part of the park that is above water will be submerged within the next 200 years.

There is evidence of human inhabitants in the area as long as 10,000 years ago. Likely members of the Glade culture, they lived in the Biscayne Bay area before the bay was filled with water, then the Tequesta people called the area home until the Spaniards came in the 1500s. From the 1500-1800s there were 40 documented shipwrecks in the bay as ships started coming to Florida. Elliot Key in particular has an interesting history, becoming a secluded spot for Miami’s elite to build social clubs, a place for gambling and alcohol consumption during Prohibition, and was also used by the CIA for training after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In 1968, the area was designated Biscayne National Monument and then gained national park status in 1980.

There are four ecosystems within the park: the mangrove swamp near the shore, the shallow Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys, and the offshore Florida reef. Within the ecosystems live a variety of animals, from a few threatened American crocodiles and endangered sea turtles to manatees and more than 200 species of fish. There are a total of sixteen endangered species at the park.

Classic Adventures

With so much of Biscayne National Park underwater, it’s no surprise that the main activities are kayaking and snorkeling. Along the shoreline and in the shallow bay, kayaking or canoeing is a great way to explore the park. The water in the bay ranges from just 4-10 feet deep, so look for shrimp, spiny lobster, crabs, and sponges in the clear water.

For those who might be feeling a bit more adventurous, paddle the 7 miles across Biscayne Bay to Elliot, Boca Chita, or Adams Key. From there, visitors can get to the lagoons and creeks south of Caesar Creek. Motorized boats can’t get in to most of those places, so it should be peaceful. There are several paddling trails at the park to choose from, depending on skill and experience level.

A nurse shark swimming through the reef.
A nurse shark swimming through the reef. NPCA Photos

Sharks, the uncommon upside-down jellyfish, large schools of fish, and a variety of birds are frequently spotted in and around  Jones Lagoon , near Old Rhodes Key. There is also a rookery out there—be sure to stay at least 300 feet away from it so the birds aren’t disturbed. Launch a kayak or canoe for free from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center.

You can try to snorkel along the shore, but the mangrove is very shallow and filled with sea grass, so it’s not ideal. The best way to snorkel is take a tour or get a kayak and head out 10 miles to the coral reef. There are tours that go out to the reef, offered by both the park and private companies. A ranger-led tour of the Maritime Heritage Trail is the best way to see one of the many shipwrecks. The Mandalay shipwreck typically has shallower, clear waters and an abundance of tropical fish, while the other shipwrecks are in deeper water and better explored with scuba gear. Snorkelers may also see Christmas tree worms, and tropical fish such as parrotfish, angelfish, and butterfly fish in their natural habitat.

With the mangrove shorelines, seagrass meadows, sand flats, and deeper reefs and wrecks, the park has some unique fishing and spearfishing opportunities. A Florida Saltwater Fishing license is required, and some areas are closed for part or the entire year. There are also some species that are prohibited from being collected. Visit the NPS website for a complete list of rules and regulations.

Secrets of the Park

Many people don’t take the time to explore Elliot Key, but there is a 6-mile trail running the length of the island, through the sub-tropical forest filled with birds, butterflies, and unique plants. Though swimming near the keys is few and far between, there is a swimming area.  There is also camping allowed both in the forests and on the beach in designated areas.

Exploring one of the small keys that sits above the water.
Exploring one of the small keys that sits above the water. Bruce Tuten

In Sands Key, there is a secret lagoon that was almost a marina in the 1960s, but few people know where to find it. Look for a hole in the middle of the key, and if you can find a way to get in, it’s likely that you will have the whole place to yourself.

Immerse Yourself

At Biscayne National Park, it’s all about what’s going on under the sparkling blue water. Spend a night or two on Elliot Key while exploring the other keys and waterways during the day. Even if you never go below the waves, a kayak or canoe is a good way to see some marine life. But don’t forget to look around at the unique plants and birds that make their home in the park.

If you only have a day, start at the visitor center to learn about the park, then take a ranger-led tour or a glass bottom boat tour.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Because of the tropical climate, winter is actually a great time to visit Biscayne. Also because November–April is dry season and May–October is wet season (aka hurricane season). During or directly following a storm, the park may be closed. November through April is also your best chance of seeing a manatee.

  • The navigable water, Elliott Key, and Boca Chita Key are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Adams Key is a day use area only. The visitor center is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and is closed on holidays.

  • The reef is one of the most accessible in the world, therefore also more vulnerable. Be sure to take precautions when near the reefs.

  • Besides the camping at Elliott Key, there are also primitive campsites on Boca Chita Key, where you will find a grassy camping area.

  • The ranger-led tours are limited and require reservations, so plan in advance.

Don't forget to look for birds, like this ruddy turnstone.
Don't forget to look for birds, like this ruddy turnstone. Brandon Trentler

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