This year, the National Park Service turns 100 on Aug. 25. In celebration of this important milestone of educating, preserving and inspiring people to see these special places, here are three of South Florida's most awe-inspiring parks that should be on your must-see list.
Everglades National Park
More than a million people visit Everglades National Park—the third-largest in the park system–each year. Although there is never a bad time to explore this majestic site, most travelers come in the dry season (Dec.-March).
But if you want to beat the crowds and have the park all to yourself, visit during the summer. An hour southwest of Downtown Miami, the Shark Valley entrance offers an array of activities for day-trippers.
Cycle past bellowing gators on a 15-mile loop trail or take the tram tour if you don’t want to break a sweat. Get your feet wet on a ranger-guided Shark River Slough, an off-trail hike through the “River of Grass.” There’s also the Shark Valley Visitor Center filled with educational exhibits and information on the current conditions of the trails.
By the main Homestead entrance, Royal Palm, you can take an easy stroll through sawgrass marsh on the relaxing Anhinga Trail boardwalk and spot all kinds of wildlife including alligators, turtles and birds. Learn all about these feathered creatures on a ranger-led naturalist tour.
At the southwest corner of the Everglades, in the Flamingo District, you’ll spy manatees and the only natural habitat in the park where alligators and crocodiles cohabitate. The area is a top-pick among birders, hikers, bikers and paddlers.
For campers, Everglades National Park has 48 designated backcountry campsites; choose from chickees, ground sites and beach sites. Make sure to make reservations during the busy winter months.
Explore the primal world of the 100-square-mile Dry Tortugas National Park and its seven-island archipelago in the remote waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
It is home to Fort Jefferson, the largest all-mason fortress in the United States, built in the 19th century. The site was heavily used during the Civil War and later became a prison and Naval base, refueling center and radio station.
Open year-round, the island preserve is only accessible by boat or seaplane, 70 miles west of Key West, so make sure to plan your trip well in advance.
Surrounded by cerulean seas, pristine coral reefs and a wide array of marine and bird life, is a beloved camping and snorkeling destination. Many ferries offer snorkeling gear aboard so visitors can explore the waters off the beach. Bring a dive light to snorkel the Moat Wall at night for a rare treat. Octopus, basket starfish and squid sightings are common.
Biscayne National Park
Spend a day on Biscayne Bay, home to Biscayne National Park, an oceanic "Garden of Eden," filled with crystal waters, verdant islands and vibrant coral reefs. At 173,000 acres, it is the longest stretch of mangrove forest in Florida’s east coast.
Many visitors enjoy snorkeling, diving, boating or picnicking by the park’s 65-foot lighthouse. Divers can visit six shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail—the oldest sank in 1878. Some sites, like Mandalay, are best suited for snorkelers especially during the summertime when the waters are calm.
Book a sailing trip, canoe or kayak to explore one of six different paddling trails. Go for the day or camp overnight at Elliot or Boca Chita Key.
Free Admission Days
Mark your calendar! The National Park Service offers free admission to everyone on several dates throughout 2016 including the NPS birthday (Aug. 25-28), National Public Lands Day (Sept. 24) and Veterans Day (Nov. 11).