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AARP’s Guide to Biscayne National Park

Find stunning coral reefs, long-snouted seahorses and other unique marine life in this wild Florida sanctuary

Mangroves
Alamy Stock Photo

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).

Visitors Center
Biscayne National Park Visitor's Center
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Map
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Fact Box

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.

BNP is open year-round, but if you want to explore the coral reefs, waters tend to be calmer during the summer months (outside of any hurricanes stirring in the Atlantic Ocean, of course), while winter can bring wind and rough seas. That said, Florida’s temperatures are far cooler from December to April (with highs in the upper 70s and 80s and lows dipping into the 60s) than during the summer months, when the heat regularly reaches the mid-90s and humidity can make strolling the park’s mostly unshaded boardwalk unpleasant. The park is busiest between Christmas and New Year’s, when most boat tours sell out. 

Boca Chita Key
Boca Chita Key
Alamy Stock Photo

Where to stay and eat

BNP has no hotels but two campgrounds — one on Boca Chita Key and one on Elliott Key — can be reached via private boat and are available on a first come, first served basis. You camp in either a grassy interior area or a grassy stretch fronting the bay, but it’s primitive camping. Both campgrounds have picnic tables and barbecue grills, but only Elliot Key has cold showers and drinking water. Neither has designated sites or hookups for water and electricity. The docking and camping fee is $35 per night (for a maximum of six people and two tents); $25 per night per group if you just camp (and don’t dock a boat). You pay at a campground kiosk and by scanning a QR code using the recreation.gov mobile app on your phone.

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The park has no restaurants, but you can buy snack foods (chips, cookies, sodas) from vending machines at the visitor center. Or bring your own.

Snorkeling
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Things to do

Take a stroll. A new ADA-accessible boardwalk extends out over the bay from the visitor center and leads to a raised jetty topped with crushed gravel (easy to navigate in a wheelchair) and lined with mangroves. This attraction makes for a lovely stroll and gives you an idea of Biscayne Bay’s sheer size, with views of downtown Miami visible to the north across the glittering expanse of water. 

Book a boat tour. Get out into Biscayne Bay to experience the sea breezes and the park’s rich ecosystems. “When possible, literally immerse yourself in the park. There’s a whole world underneath the surface here too,” advises Elizabeth Strom, a BNP park ranger. Here are some favorites:

Explore the park’s history. Heritage of Biscayne Cruise ($79): The accessible pontoon boat (ADA ramps available upon request) motors across Biscayne Bay to the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys, where you’ll stop at Adams Key, Boca Chita Key or Elliott Key to stroll with a naturalist and perhaps visit a small beach or a lighthouse (both on Boca Chita Key), explore a hardwood hammock (Adams Key) or learn about the pineapple farming that once took place on Elliott Key.

Snorkel. Morning and afternoon small-group snorkeling trips ($109) also depart from the visitor center marina, with weather dictating the destination for the 3½-hour outings. You’ll cruise out to a reef or snorkel in the bay’s more protected mangrove and hard-bottom habitats. Bremen calls mangrove snorkeling an “extraordinary world of tiny barracudas and waving arms of barnacles” that you can see while floating in warm waters just a few feet deep. Daily snorkeling trips also leave from Dinner Key Marina but are more expensive since it’s a longer ride from there to reach the reef.

See how escapists lived: An institute naturalist leads the two-hour, accessible Stiltsville Guided Tour ($66) from Dinner Key Marina. Riding aboard a comfortable pontoon boat (ADA ramps upon request), you’ll pass the southern tip of Key Biscayne before arriving in Stiltsville. Here, in the bay’s open water in the northernmost part of the park, an interesting local character named “Crawfish” Eddie Walker built the first wooden outpost in the 1930s to escape the laws of the mainland. During Stiltsville’s heyday in the 1960s, some 27 structures hovered over the waters, although hurricanes and fires have since destroyed all but six houses. The remaining ones have been passed down through generations but can only be occupied during daylight hours by their “caretakers” (descendants of the original owners) and invited friends. You’ll come within a few yards of the houses and might see their caretakers out grilling or snorkeling, or scores of cormorants standing sentinel on the rooftops.

Get an up-close look at an island. On the three-hour, accessible Deering Estate Boca Chita Key Cruise ($66), you’ll get up-close views of a historic lighthouse built by wealthy industrialist Mark Honeywell in the 1930s. You can explore the island and lighthouse on your own, climbing up to its observation deck to take in views of the surrounding isles and Miami’s impressive skyline. Or follow along with the naturalist guide to learn about the endemic wildlife, like fiddler crabs and white-crowned pigeons, a primarily Caribbean species regularly seen here. Back at your starting point, the Deering Estate, stroll along nature and birding trails through hardwood hammocks and see a centuries-old Tequesta burial mound.

Go paddling. Take a 1½-hour naturalist-guided kayak tour ($39) into the mangroves and surrounding seagrass beds. You might spot mangrove snakes and tree crabs as you’re paddling, and your guide will explain the importance of seagrass meadows and other habitats vital to the animals living here. Three tours are offered daily, departing from the visitor center kayak ramp. It’s best to book in advance by either calling the BNPI or visiting its website, though you can join a tour without a reservation if space is available. Kayaks on site are used only for the tours, but you can launch your own kayak (or canoe, paddleboard or other non-motorized watercraft) from the same ramp for free and explore the waters without a guide.

Look beneath the surface. If you’re scuba-certified, BNP is a fascinating underwater landscape of coral reefs, waving seagrass and shipwrecks. A two-tank, two-dive tour ($298) for up to six divers is led by a naturalist and guide who help you identify sponges, fans, soft corals and other marine life.

South Beach Miami
Miami Beach
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Gateway cities

Miami

From the shores of South Beach to the city-chic streets of downtown, Miami is a vibrant mix of art, culture and entertainment. 

In South Beach, stay in a boutique-style, art deco hotel that won’t break the bank at the 132-room Gabriel South Beach, just across the street from the beach. Cool off in the pool or chill in lounge chairs in the sand. For more spacious accommodations downtown, the 222-room, budget-friendly YOTEL Miami is just across the street from waterfront restaurants at Bayside Marketplace.

For a Latin feast, head to El Palacio de los Jugos, where buffet-style counters tempt with dishes such as yuca with mojo and shredded pork. The Miami chain has several locations in the city, but its original restaurant at the corner of West Flagler Street and 57th Avenue is still the best. 

Key Largo 

Key Largo is the gateway to the chain of developed islands that leads all the way to Key West. It’s easy to base here for day trips into BNP if you prefer a more island-style vibe to Miami’s hustle and bustle. For lodging, splurge at the 200-room Baker’s Cay Resort, which fronts a nice beach and even has its own Tiki Boat for sunset cruises. The 100-room Hampton Inn Key Largo is more affordable, with an outdoor pool and free breakfast.

Go for a sundowner at Breezer’s Tiki Bar bayside, then dive into a seafood dinner at the Conch House, and try the hogfish if it’s on the menu.

En route 

The joy is in the journey when you road-trip in Florida, with shimmering watery views to enjoy (often between hotels and condos, of course) when you take the roads closest to the coasts (A1A on the state’s east side) and make time for detours too.

En route to or from the park, the upscale neighborhood of Coconut Grove makes for a fun stop, with sidewalk cafes (French spot Le Bouchon du Grove is a favorite for mussels with fries) and the Cocowalk boutiques. And don’t miss Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, a Renaissance-style villa with incredible grounds and art that also belonged to industrialist Deering. Coming to the park from Key Largo, make a meal stop at Alabama Jack’s, a restaurant full of local color, overlooking mangroves and serving some of best conch fritters in the Sunshine State. 

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