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The longest stretch of mangrove forest on Florida’s East Coast. The northernmost islands of the Florida Keys. Coral reefs that are part of the world’s third-largest coral barrier reef system. These incredible natural environments are all protected within Biscayne National Park (BNP), a wild sanctuary within eyeshot of downtown Miami.
BNP boasts the largest marine area within the National Park System and encompasses some 173,000 acres — 95 percent of that water — and attracts roughly 500,000 visitors per year. The park’s protected area stretches from just south of one of Miami’s toniest residential enclaves, the barrier island of Key Biscayne, south all the way to Key Largo.
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“Any guidebook tells you that Key Largo is the first of the Florida Keys, but there are over 50 islands to the north of it that can’t be reached by bridges or roads, and they’re the primary reason the park was established, to protect those islands from development and destruction,” says Gary Bremen, a ranger at the park for more than 22 years.
BNP was established as Biscayne National Monument in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill to protect the “rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty.” It was later expanded to cover the mostly undeveloped coral islands north of Key Largo and designated a national park in 1980.
Biscayne Bay’s shallow waters are home to more than 600 fish species including barracuda, sharks and jacks, bonefish, tarpon and long-snouted seahorses. Other park species include diverse birdlife (from pelicans and great blue herons to the common loon), sea turtles, manatees and the endangered Schaus swallowtail butterfly.
“The park’s biodiversity is greater than what you find in Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite combined,” Bremen says. “If you don’t get out on a boat, you don’t get to fully experience it.”
BNP’s human history traces back 10,000 years to the Paleo-Indians who lived and fished in the area, followed by 2,000 years of inhabitation by the Tequesta Native Americans. Juan Ponce de León discovered the bay in 1513, describing it as a “bright, nameless great bay.”
There’s even pirate, rumrunner and pineapple-farmer lore in the history mix here too. An African American family, the Joneses, lived on islands in the park’s southern reaches for nearly a century until selling their land to the National Park Service in 1970 for $1.2 million (Jones Lagoon, one of the prettiest places to visit on a boat tour, is named in their honor).
Location: Biscayne Bay, south of Miami and north of Key Largo
Acreage: 173,000 acres
Highest peaks, lowest valley: Highest elevation is 9 feet, since much of the park is ocean/bay and therefore at sea level
Trails: Five on land, totaling about nine miles
Main attraction: Boat tours out into Biscayne Bay
Entry fee: Free
Best way to see it: A stop in the visitor center to see informative exhibits followed by a boat tour
When to go: Avoid the crowds in shoulder seasons, April and May, and mid-September to early December
Plan your trip
Biscayne National Park’s main entrance is located about 35 miles south of Miami International Airport and about 20 miles east of the Everglades National Park’s Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center.
BNP’s only visitor center, the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, overlooks Biscayne Bay on Convoy Point, a stretch of land fringed by mangroves. Exhibits and informative films help orient visitors to the park. A scenic deck overlooks the bay and marina and the parking area has several shaded picnic tables and a free kayak launch (wear water shoes due to the mucky bottom and shell debris).
The Biscayne National Park Institute (BNPI) runs all of BNP’s boat tours, most departing from the visitor center marina. However, there are two other starting points closer to Miami. Some tours leave from about 15 miles south of downtown Miami at the Deering Estate in Palmetto Bay, the sprawling 1920s property built by Chicago industrialist Charles Deering and now a state park on the National Register of Historic Places. And others depart from Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, just five miles south of downtown Miami. It’s best to book any of the tours in advance on the institute’s website biscaynenationalparkinstitute.org; prices range from $66 per person for two-hour boat trips to $298 per person for full-day scuba and snorkeling adventures. Park entry is free.