Traveler's Checklist: Biscayne National Park

Th coral reefs are a signature attraction of Biscayne National Park. Photo by QT Luong, terragalleria. Used with permission.

Biscayne National Park is one of the largest marine parks in the National Park System. Located just south of Miami and about nine miles east of Homestead, the park protects four distinct but interrelated ecosystems, including a series of more than 40 small coral rock islands (keys), a bay community, a mangrove shoreline, and the northernmost coral reef in the United States. This is the only place in the world where a living coral reef lies immediately adjacent to a major urban region (conurbation) with millions of people.

The largest feature of the park is Biscayne Bay, which lies to the west of the north-south trending chain of coral islands. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the east, and it is on this side that the living coral reef is located. The reef belongs to the world’s third-largest barrier reef system, a 2,600-square mile complex that begins at Biscayne Bay, extends southward and westward along the Atlantic edge of the Keys, includes the Dry Tortugas, and wraps up the Gulf Coast of the Keys to Florida Bay at the edge of Everglades National Park.

Biscayne is principally a watery realm. The authorized boundary of the park encompasses nearly 300 square miles, but less than five percent of it (about 4,400 acres) is actually dry land on the keys and mainland. The other 95 percent of the park is open water interspersed with about 100 patch reefs.

Biscayne National Park is busiest on calm, sunny weekends in the spring, summer and fall. Access to the keys is only by boat, since there are no bridges, causeways, or roads connecting the keys with the mainland or with each other. (The park has only one mile of paved roadway.) Although the park concessionaire offers boat trips, there is no regularly scheduled boat service to the islands.

** Don’t forget your camera and binoculars. The park’s natural attractions are highly appealing, and many visitors take boating or paddling trips primarily for sightseeing and wildlife viewing. The park’s attractions include more than 170 species of birds that make their winter home in the Biscayne Bay vicinity. Water birds like brown pelicans, white ibis, and snowy egrets are especially abundant. There is a good assortment of other watchable wildlife too, including dolphins, rays, sea turtles, manatees, and the occasional crocodile.

** Spend some time at Convoy Point. Unlike the other attractions in the park, this one is on the mainland and is accessible by auto from the Florida Turnpike. In addition to the park headquarters, Convoy Point has the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, the concession operations of Biscayne Underwater Park, Inc., and a picnic area with tables and grills. The visitor center (busiest from Christmas through April) offers films, a museum, educational displays and exhibits, an art gallery with rotating contemporary art exhibits, a Discovery Room and Touch Table for children, a bookstore, a gift shop 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.

** Attend the Family Fun Fest, a free public program held on the second Sunday of every month from December through April. This award-winning program, now in its tenth season, highlights a different aspect of the park's diverse resources each month at five hands-on activity stations near the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. The Family Fun Fest is renowned for its signature zany themes, creative activities, colorful buttons, and (of course) wholesome fun for visitors of all ages. Get your Fun Fest “passport” stamped at all five activity sites and receive a specially-designed souvenir button.

** Take a glass bottom boat tour. Weather permitting, the park’s concessionaire, Biscayne National Underwater Park, Inc., operates glass bottom boats out of the Convoy Point complex for three-hour reef tours. A park ranger goes along if eight or more passengers sign up. This is the easiest and cheapest way to see the living coral reefs.

** Climb a lighthouse. A Biscayne National Underwater Park boat will run you out to Boca Chica Key where you can climb the beautiful little 1930s-era lighthouse. Like all the other boat-dependent tours, this one is unavailable when weather conditions aren't right.

** Snorkel or dive the reefs or the bay. 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. Biscayne National Underwater Park offers snorkel trips with one-hour water time as well as two-tank scuba diving trips. (Wreck-diving trips can also be arranged for qualified divers.) Reef trips for snorkeling are available only during good weather from May to October. At other times, snorkelers are taken to sites in Biscayne Bay.

** Maybe you just want to go swimming? You can do that too, but don’t look for sandy beaches. The few beaches in the park tend to be small and rocky. If you simply must have beach amenities, use the man-made swimming lagoon at nearby Homestead Bayfront Park. It's real popular with the locals.

** Go paddling. Many people enjoy canoeing or kayaking in the sheltered waters along the mangrove-fringed shorelines. If you don’t have your own craft, Biscayne Underwater Park, Inc., offers canoe and kayak rentals (9 to 5, seven days a week) at their Convoy Point concession site, and sometimes provides transportation from the mainland to Elliott Key Harbor in the cooler months. (In good weather, venturesome kayakers can paddle the sometimes-daunting seven miles across Biscayne Bay to Elliot Key Harbor or Boca Chita Key themselves.) From Elliot Key, paddlers can make the five- or six mile trip to Jones Lagoon, which offers excellent wildlife viewing (wading birds, rays, sharks, upside-down jellies, huge schools of fish). Kayakers using the lagoon will find it sheltered from ocean waves, but may also encounter tricky paddling conditions due to tidal variations.

** Go boating, waterskiing, or sailing on Biscayne Bay. The clean, clear 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. While there aren’t any boat launching facilities at Convoy Point, you can launch small craft at Homestead Bayfront Park, Black Point Marina, or other nearby marinas. The harbors at Elliott Key (66 slips) and Boca Chita Key are available for overnight use. (There’s a modest charge for overnight stays, which includes a campsite fee.) Be a responsible boater. Stay at least 300 feet from a boat flying a diver's flag, and always take precautions to avoid hitting manatees and sea turtles.

** Take a gander at Stiltsville. There are seven quirky, privately owned 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. The structures, which may eventually be rehabilitated for public use, can currently be accessed only by special permission. They will not be replaced when they eventually succumb to decay, storms, fire, or other causes.

** Go fishing. There’s a proposal to make the bay a no-take marine reserve, but it remains to be seen whether that will ever come to pass. Meanwhile, harvest fishing is permitted in park waters, subject to state and Federal regulations. There are around 250 species of fish in the park, and many can be legally taken. Snapper, grouper, and sea trout are among the most sought-after species in the bay, although many sport fishermen prefer to go after gamefish like tarpon, bonefish, snook, and mackerel. (Tarpon in the 20 to 40 pound range are fairly common in the northern reaches of the bay.) Tuna, hogfish, and other blue water species can be caught on the ocean side of the keys.

** Catch some lobsters and crabs for the pot. Park visitors 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. Harvesting lobsters in the Biscayne Bay-Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary (whose boundaries overlap the Park’s boundaries) is prohibited year-round.

** Camp on the keys. Visitors generally avoid camping in the summer at this park because of the dense swarms of mosquitoes on the islands. However, camping can be quite pleasant in the cooler months. The only overnight facilities for visitors are the designated campgrounds on Boca Chita Key and Elliott Key. (Backcountry camping is strictly limited.) People who want to camp on the islands can use their own boats or pay the park concessionaire for shuttle services from Convoy Point. Adams Key is a day use area only (no camping is permitted).

** Take a hike. Although Biscayne is a “water park,” it does have 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 Chita 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 in the form of an unpaved road runs from one end of the island to the other, winding through a hardwood hammock with many species of tropical trees, vines, and flowers.

RESOURCES

Visit the park website for detailed information. To see maps of the park and the park vicinity, visit this site.


SOUTH FLORIDA NATIONAL PARKS TRUST

South Florida National Parks Trust works on behalf of several Florida NPS units, including Biscayne, Everglades, and Dry Tortugas National Parks as well as Big Cypress National Preserve. The Trust is working to ensure that more people, especially children, have an opportunity to experience these remarkable places and learn about the resources they protect.

Comments

I'm disappointed that I missed out on a snorkeling and glass bottom boat tour when I visited the area. There was a tropical storm coming through the area and my reserved snorkel boat tour was canceled because of storm preparations. My glass bottom tour was reserved for later in the week, but they canceled because there were only 3 people with a required 6 (supposedly just enough to pay for the fuel). People were scared off by the storm and tourists didn't return although the weather did turn out to be perfect.

As for living coral reefs in large metro areas - I would think the coral reefs in Oahu are pretty close to metro areas.

I hate that you missed out on those aquatic adventures, ypw. My own sad story is that I visited Biscayne en route to Key West and had no time at all for boat rides or snorkeling. In fact, I didn't get beyond Convoy Point, which is to say that I never got off the mainland. (Sigh.......). You were right to take me to task on the metro statement. I changed that to read "major urban region (conurbation) with millions of residents." Miami-Dade County alone has roughly 2.5 million people (nearly three times the population of the entire island of Oahu), and Miami-Dade is just the core county of the South Florida conurbation. These big numbers make a big difference because they translate into more pollution, more recreational pressure, and more stress on the living reefs.

Well - I wasn't sure and I was thinking Oahu was overlooked somehow. I think they also have some serious issues regarding recreational pressure in Hawaii. They get lots and lots of visitors who probably spend more time in the water. When I visited Hanuama Bay (which I think has qualities that would make it a good addition to the NPS system) there was a huge slick which was probably from the sunscreen used by several visitors (I'm guilt too). That oily residue supposedly isn't good for the health of the coral reefs although it wasn't banned.

My Florida trip wasn't all bad. I finally got on the water on a boat tour of the Everglades Gulf Coast and the Ten Thousand Islands. Maybe not glass bottom with clear water and reefs, but we got to see dolphins hunting for food. Apparently they were thrashing around to kill their prey via blunt force trauma before consuming them. I did miss out on my (reserved) trip to Fort Jefferson too. Hurricanes (even ones that turn out to be relative duds) have that habit of ruining vacation plans.

We camped on Elliott Key some years ago, and I was glad we went in early April. The weather was perfect, and we enjoyed ourselves so much more since we were not plagued by bugs. The road trail was awesome, I will never forget the tropical flowers (or the birds!) in that paradise. There's never enough time to do it all, though - I would love to go back one day and take that glass-bottomed boat tour you spoke of. Thanks for bringing back a wonderful memory.

Both times we have tried to go snorkeling at Biscayne, the boats were canceled because there were not enough people. We were able to get on boats from John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo. The boat ride takes about an hour and then you have an hour of snorkel time on the water. Each time I went to a different reef. I've also taken the glass bottom boat tour from John Pennekamp State Park, which was a very cool thing, even got to see a shark! At the time, prices at John Pennekamp were a little bit cheaper than going from Biscayne.

Wow. This is one beautiful place. I have heard so much about Biscayne. It sounds expensive too. Am I right?

Thanks for the heads up.

Adventurer

I believe there's only a fee for Biscayne NP if you go on a boat ride from a licensed concessionaire. It's not particularly expensive although it costs to take tours. I don't recall the price to be out of line. I think the glass bottomed boat tour was maybe $12?