Park History: Biscayne National Park

Coral reef is a hallmark feature of Biscayne National Park. NPS photo.

Biscayne National Park celebrates its 40th birthday on June 28. Situated just a few miles south of Miami, and encompassing most of Biscayne Bay, it is one of the largest marine parks in the National Park System and the only place in the world where a living coral reef lies adjacent to a large metro area. Biscayne is an ecological treasure and a marvelous playground.

That a national park of this kind could be established in the shadow of one of our great urban centers is a marvel in itself. There wasn’t always a metro center here, of course. In fact, viewed in historical perspective, Miami’s development was quite a recent thing. It wasn’t until 1886 that the area finally got a railroad connection, and in 1900 there were scarcely 5,000 people in all of Dade County. Biscayne Bay was a pretty quiet place at that time, and was destined to remain so for decades. It’s a darn good thing that growing Miami did not require destroying Biscayne Bay’s relatively pristine character.

It was certainly no wilderness, though. Biscayne Bay is rich in archaeological resources representing the 10,000-year aboriginal use of the area as well as artifacts left by pioneers, farmers, pirates, rumrunners, gunrunners, drug smugglers, the international maritime trade, and wreckers. (There are at least 44 shipwrecks in park waters.)

One of the most interesting economic activities the Bay supported was sponge fishing. Sponge fishing began in the early 1800s. This economic activity was grandfathered in when the park was created, primarily on grounds that the sponge fishermen had a unique subculture that was worthy of preservation. By the late 1980s about 40 fishermen, all Cuban immigrants, were still harvesting sponges in park waters. The Park Service finally banned the practice in 1999.

None of these economic activities and related developments left serious scars. Harbors and channels created by blasting and dredging can be seen in aerial views of the chain of 42 small islands (called keys) in Biscayne Bay. But these are not awful blemishes. Neither are the buildings, docks, and related improvements built in the 1930s when Biscayne Bay’s islands began serving as weekend hideaways for the rich. (Some of these structures, in fact, have been incorporated quite nicely into the park infrastructure.)

One of the strangest developments in the Bay is a collection of seven houses perched on stilts in the middle of Biscayne Bay not far from downtown Miami. Built in the 1960s, these buildings are all that’s left of a legendary colony of weekend retreats that originated in the 1930s and once included such interesting features as an illegal gambling barge and the racy Bikini Club. When the park was expanded in 1980, the submerged land occupied by Stiltsville was transferred from the state of Florida to the Federal government and included in the park’s boundaries. A legal battle ensued when the state-issued leases for the land expired in July 1999 and the park service wanted to have the buildings vacated and removed. The owners didn’t want to leave, and several elected officials took their side in the struggle and tried to have the park boundaries redrawn to transfer Stiltsville back to state ownership. In a compromise move, the park management decided to put the buildings to appropriate public uses rather than remove them. The buildings will not be replaced when they eventually succumb to decay, fire, or hurricanes.

The hurricanes which sweep over the Bay from time to time help to obliterate the various traces of human endeavors. Big hurricanes are important events for Biscayne Bay. In 1906, after a pineapple plantation had been operating on Elliott Key for 20 years, a hurricane destroyed the entire crop. Subsequent decades brought a number of other weather calamities, the worst of which occurred in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew ravaged Miami, wrecked Homestead Air Base beyond repair, and damaged Biscayne National Park so badly it was closed for four months. As recently as 2005, Hurricane Wilma substantially damaged park structures and compelled a temporary closing.

Biscayne Bay’s quiet period ended with the onset of the post war building boom. Rapid growth in the Miami metro area during the 1950s and 1960s put tremendous pressure on South Biscayne Bay (not to mention the Everglades). There were plans for a major industrial seaport on the shoreline of the Bay, a causeway to the upper Keys, and resort communities and other developments that would destroy the relative tranquility of the Bay’s barrier islands and surrounding waters.

The threats posed by relatively unconstrained development prompted the bay’s defenders to launch a vigorous grassroots campaign to “save Biscayne Bay.” By the early 1960s, conservationists were fighting the proliferation of resort communities and engaging in highly publicized debates on the issue of protecting South Biscayne Bay from rampant development. The modern environmental movement was just getting underway in America at this time, so the struggle to save Biscayne Bay attracted a great deal of media attention and was rife with implications for future attempts to protect scenic and ecological resources.

This realization motivated people on both sides of the issue to work extra hard to push their point of view. The save-the-bay crowd portrayed developers as soulless pillagers of nature. The pro-development crowd ridiculed the conservationists, claiming that, if they had their way, Miami’s growth would be stifled and the area would be robbed of thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenues.

After a long and bitter political battle, the conservationists prevailed. By this time they realized that bringing Biscayne Bay into the embrace of the National Park System would be the best way to insure the long term preservation of its scenic, ecologic, and historic resources. Biscayne National Monument was established in 1968. Support for additional protection of coastal resources led to an expansion of the monument in 1974, and in 1980 the monument was redesignated Biscayne National Park and again expanded.

Biscayne does not look most people’s image of a national park. Most conspicuously, it is a watery realm. Slightly more than 95 % of the nearly 300 square-mile park is open water. The remainder, just 4,400 acres, is dry land in the form of small coral islands (part of the Florida Keys) and a narrow strip of mainland. No bridges or causeways connect the islands to the shore or to each other. Large- and small scale maps of the park are available at this site:

The park protects four distinct but interrelated ecosystems. These include the longest stretch of mangrove shoreline on Florida’s east coast, a collection of more than 40 small coral rock islands, a bay community, and the northernmost living coral reef in the United States. The mangroves fringe the mainland shore. Biscayne Bay lies to the west of the north-south trending chain of keys. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the east of the keys, and it is on this side that the reef is located.

The coral reef is Biscayne’s star resource. It’s actually a transitional bank-barrier and patch reef system, meaning that there are numerous small reefs (around 100) instead of a single monolithic mass.

Biscayne’s reef system supports an astonishing variety of species – over 200 in all. This diversity is the hallmark feature of reefs. Among all of this planet’s major ecosystems, only the tropical rain forest is more biologically diversified. To drive this point home, conservationists often refer to reefs as the “rain forests of the sea.”

Although protecting natural and cultural resources is Biscayne National Park’s primary mission, it is easy to understand why the park attracts more than half a million visitors a year. Popular recreational activities include boating and sailing, water skiing, windsurfing, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and camping. Biscayne is not a beach fun sort of place, since it doesn’t have the wide, clean sandy beaches most people prefer.

There are over 830,000 registered boats in Florida, so it is no surprise that boating, sailing, and water skiing are traditionally popular activities on Biscayne Bay. The waters of the park are readily accessible from the Intracoastal Waterway and the many hundreds of private docks, boat ramps, and marinas throughout the Miami metro region. The Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key harbors are available for overnight use. A fee is charged for overnight stays, but there is no separate charge for a camping permit.

Fishing is permitted in park waters, subject to state and Federal regulations. Among the popular game fish are bonefish (in shallows) and mackerel. People may legally catch spiny lobsters and stone crabs in certain areas of the park, subject to seasonal limits, minimum size restrictions, and bag limits. Commercial and sport fishermen may harvest lobsters from early August through March. There is a two-day sport-only lobstering season each July. Lobstering is permitted only on the ocean side of the keys (none is permitted in Biscayne Bay).

Billfishing boats are a commonplace sight at Biscayne. The deep-vee hulls, flying bridges, outriggers, and other distinctive features of these expensive boats make them easy to recognize. They’re designed for the pursuit of marlin, spearfish, and swordfish in the blue water fishery of the Florida Current (Gulf Stream). However, in the Miami area they’re also extensively used for recreational cruising and entertaining business clients.

Biscayne’s natural attractions are highly appealing. Many boaters are particularly interested in sightseeing and wildlife viewing, and birders and photographers especially enjoy the park’s many water birds. More than 170 species of birds make their winter home in the Biscayne Bay vicinity.

The park headquarters is located at Convoy Point on the mainland. This site, the only one served by a public road, features the main visitor center (the Dante Fascell Visitor Center), concession operations, and a picnic area with tables and grills. At the Dante Fascell Visitor Center there are exhibits, a Discovery Room for children, and a variety of special events and services such as porch talks, ranger walks, educational field trips, and a camping program for grade school youngsters.

The park’s concessionaire, Biscayne Aqua Center, Inc., operates two 53-foot glass bottom boats out of the Convoy Point complex for three-hour reef tours. Also available are dive tours, boat shuttle services for island visitors, and canoe and kayak rentals.

Many people enjoy canoing or kayaking in the sheltered waters along the mangrove shoreline. This is not the only paddling option available, though. Biscayne Aqua Center provides transportation from the mainland to Elliott Key Harbor from November to May. Venturesome kayakers can paddle the seven miles across Biscayne Bay to Elliot Key Harbor themselves, and from there take a five-or six mile paddle to Jones Lagoon. Kayakers using the lagoon will find it sheltered from ocean waves, but may also find tricky paddling due to tidal variations.

The park’s beautiful, fish-bejeweled coral reefs are a magnet for snorkelers and divers. Branching elkhorn and staghorn coral, massive brain and star coral, sea fans, sponges, plumes, reef fish, and other creatures create a kaleidoscope of life that is a delight to behold. The snorkeling sites, like the dive sites, are accessible only by boat. Biscayne Aqua Center offers four-hour snorkel trips as well as scuba diving trips. The snorkeling and dive trips to the living coral reefs are very popular. (Divers must be scuba certified.) Reef trips for snorkeling are available only during good weather from May to October. At other times, snorkelers are taken to the mangroves inside Biscayne Bay.

Biscayne’s only overnight facilities are the designated campgrounds on Boca Chica Key and Elliott Key. Visitors generally avoid camping in summer when there are dense swarms of mosquitoes on the islands. Camping can be quite pleasant in the cooler months, though. Backcountry camping is strictly limited. People desiring to camp on the islands can use their own boats or pay the park concessionaire for shuttle services from Convoy Point. No camping is permitted on Adams Key, which is strictly a day use area. Rangers are housed on Elliott Key and Adams Key.

The park has a limited trail system. A boardwalk at Convoy Point extends to the end of the jetty, a quarter-mile round trip. There are quarter-mile loop nature trails on Boca Chica Key and Adams Key. Elliott Key has a three-quarter mile loop nature trail that extends through the island’s hardwood hammock. An additional seven-mile long trail, which offers access to the north and south ends of the island, winds through a hardwood hammock with many species of tropical trees, vines, and flowers. A proposed 42-mile trail, the Biscayne-Everglades Greenway, may one day link Biscayne to Everglades National Park.


Which has better snorkeling, Key Largo or Biscayne Bay? How inexpensive each is also matters. I'm not interested in paying $$$$ to go out on a boat. Thanks!

Biscayne Bay has snorkeling, but I'm assuming you want to see reefs, and the reefs are not in Biscayne Bay. Perhaps your real question is "Which has better snorkeling, Key Largo or Biscayne National Park?"

The reefs off Key Largo are about 3-5 miles off the Florida Keys. So are the ones in Biscayne National Park, but the park also protects the Keys and the Bay, so the distance from Parking lot to reef is more like 12-15 miles. The reefs at Biscayne get far less visitation, and are regularly included in lists of the best "unknown" dive and snorkel spots.

While the prices in Key Largo may be less expensive, consider entrance fees (Biscayne doesn't have one) and equipment rental costs (all additional at Pennekamp, but all included at Biscayne). The Biscayne trip is longer, but the reef is farther away...both trips offer the same amount of water time.

All that said, if it is windy, snorkeling on a reef is going to suck. Biscayne has bay snorkeling alternatives that the lower keys (Key Largo to Key West) don't have. You won't see reefs, but there are cool things living in the seagrasses and mangroves.

By the way, to correct some errors in the story above: the park has not had 2 glass-bottom boats since Hurricane Andrew 16 years ago, and the island's correct name is Boca Chita, not Boca Chica (that one is down near Key West).

i love this information! i have to write a page in my history and english class for this national park! i love this website. Got any others?