Only 30 miles away from bustling downtown Miami, there is an almost alien, tranquil world awaiting exploration. Biscayne National Park is over 170,000 acres of subtropical underwater paradise. Unlike most National Parks, Biscayne is 95% water and a welcome excursion for divers, snorkelers, boaters, and paddlers. Social distancing is easy out on the water and downright unavoidable with a personal air tank beneath the waves. Outdoor time is more important than ever and Biscayne National Park is a wonderful location to get fresh air safely.
The Florida Keys are one of the most visited archipelagos in the world. As traffic to the area increased, local advocates pushed to protect the area. The area became a national monument in 1968 and later received even more protection in 1980 when it was christened a National Park. The park covers a lot of ground, metaphorically speaking, from the coastline to the barrier islands, from the reefs to the shipwrecks below the wave break. Biscayne is one of the most biodiverse parks in the U.S. with over 600 species of native fish and more than 20 threatened species including sea turtles and manatees. Humans have also called this area home starting with the Paleo-Indian migration to the Florida Peninsula approximately 10,000 years ago. European settlers arrived in the 1700s and the indigenous people were all but wiped out. The Seminole and Miccosukee were some of the only tribes to keep a small foothold in the area.
Even though Biscayne National Park is mostly hidden beneath the aquamarine waters of the Atlantic, there is still plenty to do on land. Elliott Key is the largest island in the park and a wonderful place to take a stroll or fish. The hiking trail is a mile-long loop and appropriate for all skill levels. Fishing is allowed off of the maintenance dock just south of the harbor or from the shoreline of the swimming areas. Check the local fishing regulations before angling in the park.
History buffs visit Biscayne to check out the Jones Family Historic District and Lagoon. Comprised of two separate keys, this area is the ancestral home of Israel Lafayette Jones. Originally, the land was purchased for $300 dollars but later sold for over a million about 100 years after the family settled there. An African American family becoming millionaires was basically unheard of in the early 20th-century South. Now, the site is protected in the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the original structures are still standing near the shore and a surrounding lagoon is a great place to kayak or canoe.
On the Water
Another way to explore this aquatic park is by paddling. Canoeing and kayaking are some of the best ways to check out the mangrove shorelines and shallow waters. Many of the creeks and inland waterways are too shallow for motorized vehicles. The lack of loud boat traffic makes these intimate waterways peaceful places to observe wading birds and terrestrial animals that call this ecosystem home. The Jones Lagoon has clear waters where rays, jellies, and small schools of fish swim just inches from the watercrafts. Hurricane Creek meanders through the mangrove forests. Snorkel beneath the mangroves to see crabs, anemones, and other marine life, but don’t forget to secure your kayak first!
Under the Water
The Gulf Stream bathes all of Biscayne National Park’s underwater acreage in nutrient-rich water creating an abundance of marine life. Sharks (lemon, hammerhead, and tiger), manatees, sea turtles, and goliath grouper all call the protected reefs home. The best way to see the biggest section of this park is to SCUBA dive or snorkel. It is estimated that about 4,000 individual reef patches cover half of the park. Visit the Maritime Heritage Trail and explore the 6 different shipwrecks spread out across the park. Nearly a century’s worth of shipwrecks now supporting marine life as artificial reefs. The sites along the trail are only accessible by boat and these authorized concessionaires are licensed to bring guests to dive sites. The Erl King, Alicia, and Lugano sites are best suited for SCUBA divers, but the rest of the sites have enough visibility for snorkeling too. The Mandalay site is a particularly good opportunity because the shipwreck is located in a shallow area, excellent for snorkelers to explore the wreck.