Biscayne National Park is one of the most beautiful Florida destinations for nature-loving travelers. Biscayne offers extraordinary experiences, from snorkeling and diving to island boat tours with most of its residing wildlife underwater. We’ve got all you need to know about planning a trip to Biscayne, what to do on the islands, and the water activities available in our Biscayne National Park Guide and podcast episode.
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Visiting All the US National Parks
It’s a common goal amongst National Park Trippers to set out to see all the National Parks in the US. It’s a fun way to keep track of the process of where you’re on your National Park journey and how many more to go. And our guest, Sandra, is impressively on her way to have visited all of the 423 National Park sites throughout the US. As of this interview, she has visited 201 sites and has 222 to go.
If you’re wondering why new national parks are constantly being added – some are added for historical reasons to protect historical lands and stories, and it’s a matter of “how do we want our history and our lands protected and told.” The national park service does a fantastic job with that.
“We always want to be better about telling American history stories, which is why adding sites is a great idea.”
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne is such a unique National Park experience compared to most national park sites, considering 95% of it is underwater. It is located in Homestead, southern Florida, a 45-minute drive from Miami.
But before we dive into the underwater world, let’s start with places to see on land.
Land Activities at Biscayne National Park
Biscayne is one of the National Parks that you need to prepare for. There are some parks where you can just drive in and see, but Biscayne is not one of them. When you drive into the small parking lot, you’ll find Convoy Point and Visitor Center. Unless you bring your own boat or kayak, there’s not much else at the park without booking a tour.
Convoy Point and Visitor Center at Biscayne National Park
There is a great display of the history of the park and a 4-part video of the four parts of the park – the main shoreline, the waters of Biscayne Bay, the Keys, and the coral reefs. The Visitors Center is where you’ll learn all about these features of the park. It’s one of the parks where you should talk and engage with the park rangers – and the rangers at Biscayne are phenomenal!
You can walk around Convoy point, out to the deck, take a picnic, and just enjoy the scenic area. It will take you about two hours to get through Convoy point. So be prepared to do other activities. There’s a small trail that will take you out around the water. You can also rent kayaks and canoes as well.
Ranger Tip: Ask the park ranger, “What is your favorite part of the park?” Rangers are the stewards of the park. They spend almost every day in the park, and they have explored parts of the parks that we will never venture out to.
The Biscayne Keys
There are three main keys to visit at Biscayne National Park – Elliott, Boca Chita, and Adams Key. All three are great for day trips and hiking trails, as well as overnight camping.
Elliott Key – Elliott is the largest of the three islands and is known for its famous Spite Highway hike that covers about six miles in the island’s center. You can also camp on the island, but it’s highly advised to take lots of bug spray. There are bugs call Noseeum bugs, which are like gnats. They come out at sunrise and sunset, and bites are horribly painful, so cover yourself well. Picnic tables and restrooms are also available on the island.
Boca Chita Key – Boca Chita houses the famous lighthouse, which most people think of when they think of Biscayne. You can take a boat ride out to the island, either a day trip or a camping trip. Friday and Saturday nights are really fun nights – lots of loud music and parties. It also has a lot of history. You can walk up to the top of the lighthouse and see Miami over Biscayne Bay, and there’s also a nice hiking trail and campground. Again, bring bug spray!
Adams Key – Adams Key has an interesting history because it’s where Richard Nixon used to go for the summer holidays. There’s also a rich history with the famous Cocolobo club there and the history of the Jones family who lived in the Biscayne Keys.
Water Activities at Biscayne National Park
Now let’s get into the water activities that can be done at Biscayne, which are the main attractions at this national park.
Biscayne National Park Institute
The Biscayne National Park Institute is the partnering organization with Biscayne, and they have a variety of boat tours that will get you to other parts of the park via water. In order to get to the Keys, you need to arrive by boat, and the Institute will help you with that.
Tip: Boat tours fill up pretty quickly, so make sure to book a boat tour in advance.
Boat tours for families with younger children
If you’re visiting Biscayne with younger children, boat trips from Deering Estates to Boca Chita are geared more toward families with young children. There are also areas to run around at the estate and hike the island as well. And lighthouse tours are good options for families. Elliott Key is probably the least kid-family island to visit.
Paddleboarding at Jim’s Lagoon
Jim’s Lagoon stand-up paddleboarding is such a fun activity, and even if you’ve never done it before, it’s easy to learn. Jim’s Lagoon is really beautiful and is secluded into the Mangrove Forest area, where you can experience the three different types of mangroves that exist there. The water is super shallow in Biscayne Bay – it’s only about 8 ft deep – so, at any given time, you can see straight to the bottom. You’ll see shark nurses, which are not dangerous and are lots of fun to see. There are over 600 native fish, birds, and other wildlife species in the park, so there are lots to see. It’s such an incredible experience!
Boat to Stiltsville
Stiltsville is a very cool, unique part of Biscayne National Park. In the 1930s, there were “road gamblers” who built houses out in the water on stilts to party and do whatever they wanted out there without police interaction. And there is a handful still standing. They are incredible to photograph and experience.
Touring the various lighthouses in the Biscayne Bay is also a great way to see the iconic Cape Florida, Fowey Rocks, and Boca Chita lighthouses and learn about their history. Climbing to the top of the Boca Chita Lighthouse is great for a Bay’s panoramic view. You’ll also see many different types of wildlife on tour, such as dolphins, turtles, fish, and birds.
Maritime Heritage Trail
There are many sunken boats throughout the bay that have been there for a couple of hundred years, and you can snorkel them and see them up close and personal. Some of the boats have been archeologically excavated, and they have great stories behind them.
Other Water Activities
You can also swim in the bay. You can just sit on the shore and put your feet in the water if you want or you can kayak, canoe, or snorkel the coral reefs.
Planning Your Trip to Biscayne National Park
Because of the unique activities offered at Biscayne, planning for a visit definitely needs to be done in advance. But other than booking any boat tours that you want to take or camping, Biscayne is a pretty easy park to plan for.
Most of the hotels or lodging you will find are located in Homestead, a town halfway between Biscayne and the Everglades. There are some small, cute hotels there. But you can also stay in Miami, and you’ll still be fairly close to Biscayne. From Miami, it’s around a 45-minute drive from the city.
There are camping options on both Elliott Key and Boca Chita. Camping is a beautiful way to experience the park, but keep in mind that you have to bring everything with you on the boat ride over, so pack lightly. Most of the camping is just an overnight experience, compared to staying long term.
When camping, Noseeum spray is a MUST! Raccoons are really rambunctious while camping, so make sure you keep your food separate and not in a tent. And make sure your coolers are locked and unable to open because they’ll try to get into them at night. They are quite aggressive.
Tip: Hurricane season runs from June 1st – November, so just keep this in mind when you’re planning a trip to Biscayne. They are consistent, but it’s good to remember.
Family-Friendly Educational Opportunities
The Jr. Ranger program is the best way to learn about the park instead of just walking in and looking at the displays. And it helps you focus and learn about the park. There are many Jr. Ranger programs at Biscayne to choose from. The Jr. Ranger, Underwater Explorer, Night Explorer, and Archeological Jr. Ranger book all allow for a variety of learning opportunities.
There are also programs for “not so Jr. Rangers,” written by Sandra. And at Biscayne, there’s the Coral Reef Ranger for older kids/adults. It’s a wonderful way to learn about Biscayne, and you get a beautiful patch as well.
The books can be picked up at the Visitors Center. Ask for the Reef Ranger book for adults and the Jr ranger books for younger children. They both have a wealth of information inside them!
As a photographer, there are so many incredible places and things to photograph at Biscayne. It’s one of those beautiful landscape places where you can see lots of wildlife, so if you’re a landscape or wildlife photographer, this is a really great place for photography. Here are some of Sandra’s favorites:
- Convoy Point – Sunset is such a great place to photograph at Convoy Point. You can get some stunning photos of the reflections of the sunset and clouds on the water and the mangroves.
- Boca Chita – The Lighthouse at night is also an incredible place to take pictures.
- Elliot Key – It’s also another fantastic place to shoot at sunset.
- Underwater Wildlife – If you have a go-pro or waterproof camera, photographing the manatees underwater
- Coral reefs – The corals are simply spectacular to see and photograph.
“Take the shot anyway, even if you have hundreds of times before. You never know when you’ll get that one magical moment.”
Tip for aspiring national park photographers: Always bring your polarizer. When you’re photographing water, a polarizer will help you. You need to be between a 45-90° angle from the sun to use it, and you also need to spin it to get rid of reflections on water to see straight down to the bottom. It’s also great for photographing landscapes after rain because it eliminates that sheen from the water and brings out bright colors.
The wildlife at Biscayne is quite different from the typical National Park wildlife experience. There are so many types of fish, mammals, reptiles, and coral that can be found. Biscayne is home to over 600 native fish, many species of birds, manatees, dolphins, small sharks, and more.
Biscayne is also a turtle nesting site, and the park has conservation and monitoring programs. The sea turtles around Biscayne are one of the twenty endangered species that they protect, so they have areas on the beach that are blocked off for turtle nesting. The rangers and wildlife biologists on staff have a wealth of information, so if you want to know more about the turtles or any other wildlife, just ask. Conservation is a big part of their mission, so take advantage.
Located just near the park are other interesting sites and activities that can be combined with a Biscayne visit.
The Everglades is about 45-minutes west of Biscayne. And Big Cypress National Reserve is on the northern end of the Everglades. So both are great options while you’re in the area.
If you’re looking to visit the Everglades, make sure to catch the sunrise at 9-mile pond or sunset at Paurotis Pond, where all the birds flock to nest in the trees at night. There’s literally a traffic jam of herons and wood storks coming in. Pahokee trail is excellent for seeing lots of owls. And Big Cypress is the swampy area of the Everglades where you’ll see alligators, snakes, turtles, and birds.
Dry Tortugas is another national park that is great for day trips or even camping there for up to three days on the island. There’s no cell phone or internet as you’re 76 miles away from Key West. There are options to take seaplanes or boats to the island, and it’s just a great summer trip!
Recommendation for a few days in the area: Spend a day and a half in the Everglades, a day at Biscayne, and explore the rest of the area in the remaining time.
Biscayne National Park Do Not Miss Moment
There are so many incredible moments to be had at Biscayne, but Elliott Key, paddleboarding, snorkeling in the coral reef, and seeing the turtles in the water are all incredible activities. But catching the sunsets is on the top for do not miss moments at the park.
About our Featured Guest:
Sandra is an avid road-tripper, photographer, and history nerd known for her passion for telling the stories of National Park sites in the US. Based in Missoula, Montana, Sandra began her photographic journey documenting her 20-year political career, which then blossomed into a passion after her first visit to Gettysburg. When she’s not traveling, Sandra is the principal for Ramos Creative, a project-based photography and technology firm, and is the photography ambassador for the Hello Ranger community.
National Trippers Podcast
Did you know we also have a podcast all about Biscayne National Park? Get ready for even more awesomeness of this incredible National Park!