Biscayne National Park, located in southeast Florida, is all about the water: 95 percent of the park is water, protecting and preserving Biscayne Bay and its offshore barrier reefs, as well as several of the northern Florida Keys and “transitional” islands.
Biscayne National Park is the 44th national park on this massive road trip across the 48 states — and is located in the 44th state we have visited thus far.
With a little advance scouting, we knew we would have to take a boat cruise to experience this park… but of course, we started our exploration with a visit to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, where we watched the very informative park film — which focuses on the four distinct ecosystems within the park: the shoreline mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the northern Florida Keys (including Solider, Boca Chita, Elliott, Adams, Swan and Old Rhodes), and the offshore Florida Reef (one of the largest coral reefs in the world). You might be asking yourself — why are all these islands off the shore of Florida called Keys? They are called Keys, which is an anglicized version of the Spanish work cayo, meaning a small island. Crazy fun fact: All of the Florida Keys were once underwater coral reefs — buried under an ancient sea (when water levels were about 25 feet higher than today). The northern keys are part of a formation called the Key Largo Limestone. The keys in the southwestern portion — ones that are perhaps more well known — from Big Pine Key to the Marquesas Keys are part of the exposed area of the Miami Limestone.
While at the visitor center we also toured an interesting — and very sad — art installation… the Debris Maze Challenge, which showcases all the debris collected from Biscayne Bay. The walls are full of so much plastic — from water bottles to rafts and umbrellas, fins, snorkels, tarps, and so much more. We are literally killing ourselves with the stuff we dump (inadvertently or not) into rivers and oceans. Small fish ingest this plastic and are then eaten by larger fish — and all the way up the food chain into the fish we buy… and eat. So, we are eating our own garbage — and all the toxins associated with it. You can learn more about this worldwide problem — as well as what you can do about it — by watching this powerful documentary: A Plastic Ocean.
We also hiked the one mainland trail of the park — the short and easy Jetty Trail, which starts at the picnic area outside the visitor center and follows along a shoreline boardwalk and continues on a dirt pathway until the end of the jetty. The hike lets you get up close and personal to a mangrove-lined shore. Information panels can be found along the trail that discuss the environment and wildlife in the area.
One of the most interesting panels discusses the trees and plants that grow on the keys within the park — from seeds that drifted in from far off places (such as the West Indies) — species that do not grow on the mainland.
There’s also a plaque discussing the impact of Hurricane Andrew, which hit the park in 1992 — one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history — though Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida in 2017, was equally devastating to parts of South Florida.
Biscayne National Park was only established in 1980, however, the interest in preserving the bay goes back decades before; in fact, it was originally proposed to be a part of Everglades National Park. Finally, in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson created Biscayne National Monument — after concerns of the dredging of Biscayne Bay and the cutting of the coral reef for ships servicing oil refineries — and planned development of Elliott Key (where developers had cleared most of the land for a proposed highway and had dredged channels around the key). The preserved area was expanded by its 1980 re-designation by an act of Congress as Biscayne National Park — and it now protects about 173,000 acres (most of which is aquamarine waters, along with some emerald coral rock islands, and vibrant coral reefs). Biscayne’s shallow coral reefs (which are colonies of coral, the cities of the sea) are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the Earth and contain more than 500 species of fish that depend on the reef.
Because most of the park is water, to really experience its beauty, one must get into the water — and happily, there are multiple ways to do so. We chose a boat cruise to Boca Chita Key, the most visited island in the park — and home to the iconic and historic lighthouse built by wealthy industrialist Mark Honeywell (of Honeywell Heating Controls) in the late 1930s, when he developed the island as a holiday resort for the “Committee of One Hundred,” a social club for industrialists. (The island is located not far from what was the Honeywell’s Miami Beach home). A canon located near the lighthouse on the harbor was fired as a welcome gesture to the guests arriving for their island adventures. The 65-foot tall lighthouse (which you can tour when taking the cruise), is purely ornamental and never used as a navigational aid. Fun fact: Boca Chita, along with Solider Key and Ragged Keys, are the only keys with sand covering the coral rock — and are designated as transitional islands. Elliott Key is the true beginning of the Florida Keys. Besides the lighthouse, one can spend time on the beaches, have a picnic, or walk the .8-mile Boca Chita Key Loop Trail (which was not a loop when we hiked it as a bridge is out over an old canal carved into the island).
By the way, we used the Biscayne National Park Institute, an official partner of the National Park Service, for our boat cruise. They provide a variety of eco-adventures — including a coral reef snorkeling package and a standup paddleboard adventure. You can also use one of a handful of other outfitters authorized to operate in the park… or use your own boat.
One final area within the park to explore is Elliott Key, which has a campground (with cold showers), picnic area, and hiking trails (a 1-mile loop trail near the campground and the 6-mile “Spite Highway” Trail that runs right down the middle of the island — from what remains of the swath developers cleared decades ago).
Next up? More exploring of south Florida — moving on to the Western Everglades.