Biscayne National Park: History, Facts, and Things To Do – Full Guide
How Complete Is This Guide?
The answer? Not very complete. While Biscayne National Park is one of the smaller national parks in the country, there are always nooks and crannies that are yet to be explored that we may have left out. That is one of the greatest parts of exploring the national parks of our country: finding a hidden wonder that no one seems to know about. If you feel something is missing or needs to be updated, you are welcome to contact us and contribute.
South Florida isn´t exactly known as a place of wilderness where one can go to get away from civilization and relax in the wonders of the natural world. Rather, South Florida is usually considered as a hopping place with great beaches, even better night life, and a cosmopolitan, Caribbean, urban feel.
However, as with most places in our world, it usually doesn´t take much to escape from the noise and clatter of civilization and find places that offer respite to the soul and mind. Just south of Miami, Biscayne National Park can be found. While 95% of this park is under water, you would be hard pressed to find a place more different than the bustling and hurried environment of downtown Miami.
Whether you live in downtown Miami and are looking for a place to get away from the rat race of urban life or are wanting to plan a tropical vacation to a truly unique ecosystem, Biscayne National Park is a place unlike any other. In this complete guide to Biscayne National Park, we will look at the history and ecology of Biscayne National Park, offer a few obscure and hard-to-believe facts and figures, and then go on to give you the lowdown on all the activities that Biscayne National Park has to offer so that you can plan out a truly unforgettable trip to one of the most unknown national parks in the United States.
The Storied History of Biscayne National Park
The coral reefs, turquoise waters, and pristine beaches of Biscayne National Park might be the principal attractions of this unique place. However, the history of the reef and the island itself is a great attraction for history buffs and people who want a look into the how life and civilization has evolved together.
The Glades indigenous culture inhabited the island of what is today the park around 10,000 years ago, but due to rising sea water (sound familiar?) they were forced to abandon the islands in search of higher elevations. The Tequesta people were the next indigenous habitants that returned to the islands once waters receded and lived in the region until the Spanish conquistadors forcefully took over the islands in the 16ht century.
The large coral reef ecosystem is certainly an attraction to divers and snorkelers (as we´ll see below) but for Spanish ship captains, these reefs caused several shipwrecks leaving all sorts of unique underwater treasures to explore.
In the early 1900´s, wealthy millionaires from Florida and other places around the United States made the Biscayne islands into their private getaways. Stiltsville was an actual community that sprung up on the islands in the 1930´s. While the rest of the country was dealing with the Great Depression, this remote island of luxury and excess was a haven for high rolling gamblers and millionaire parties. During Prohibition, the remote location of Stiltsville on the Biscayne Islands also allowed for moonshining.
When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba during the Cold War Era, the Biscayne Islands were used by the CIA and the US government to train Cuban dissidents who would later lead a failed invasion of Cuba in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco.
In the 1960´s, the area that is now the park was pretty much uninhabited until a massive development project led to the construction of two fossil-fuel power plants and even two nuclear power plants. Despite the ecological importance of this unique ecosystem, the national urge to reduce dependence on foreign oil led to these precarious energy developments.
Fortunately, many organized citizens who appreciated the park for its natural beauty fought against these energy developments. In 1968, the Biscayne National Monument was created while it wasn´t until 1980 that the area became a national park with full protection from industrial and residential development.
The Ecology of Biscayne National Park
The more than 170,000 acres that make up Biscayne National Park are mostly water. However, several small keys Key Biscayne in the north to Key Largo in the south offer pieces of tropical paradise throughout the park. The unique location of Biscayne National Park has allowed for four distinct tropical ecosystems to converge in one place.
Mangrove swamps are one ecosystem that act as a buffer between the keys and the coral reefs. Many small lagoons that are scattered throughout the keys provide another key ecosystem and habitat for a variety of flora and fauna. The island key ecosystem constitutes most of the 9,000 acres of land in the national park, and offshore reef habitats provide some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving found anywhere in the world.
Avid bird watchers often make their way to Biscayne National Park for an opportunity to spot some of the unique tropical birds and migratory birds that can´t be found anywhere else in the continent. Furthermore, Biscayne National Park is home to hundreds of species of marine animals, both mammals, fish, and crustaceans. The giant blue land crab is a rare site that can be spotted throughout the keys.
The Caribbean reef octopus is another unique species that can be found in the water while flamingos, bald eagles, and other varied birds can be found in the air and nesting in the mangrove trees above.
Some Unique Facts and Figures about Biscayne National Park
· 95% of the park is underwater
· Two pirates, both named Black Caesar lived in on the islands of the park in the 18th century
· During Prohibition people came to the keys to drink since alcohol was permitted one mile offshore
· Hurricane Betsy in 1965 ruined Stiltsville, a makeshift community of wealthy Miamians who had built stilt houses on the keys
· In the coral reef, Elkhorn coral dominate up to a depth of 10 meters while staghorn coral make up the majority of the deeper reef ecosystem
· Five species of endangered whales can be occasionally spotted in the offshore waters, including the iconic sperm whale and humpback whale
· The lionfish, endemic to the Indian Ocean, can also curiously be found in the waters of Biscayne National Park
· Burmese pythons, probably illegally released from human captivity, have also been found in the park
· The National Park Services estimates that all of the land of the keys at Biscayne National park will be lost to rising sea levels within the next two centuries
While there is one terrestrial entrance to the park at Convoy Point, the vast majority of people arrive to Biscayne National Park via boat. Because of the fragile coral reef ecosystem, however, you will need to be careful to follow the buoys. Several fatal boating accidents have occurred due to irresponsible boat driving, and if you do cross into the protected reef ecosystem, you risk a hefty fine from park authorities.
If you don´t have a boat of your own, you can easily sign up for a unique boat tour of the national park at the visitor´s center which will take you through much of the park, introducing you to the four unique ecosystems, the unique flora and fauna, and also the historical structures located throughout the park. The glass bottomed boat tour is something you won´t want to miss. You can also charter a private boat or rent one from the mainland. It is free to enter into the park via boat, though you will need to pay a $20 dollar fee to dock overnight at the harbor at Boca Chita.
Most boaters who make their way to the national park come to fish. If you aren´t an experienced fisher, you might want to sign up for a free fishing awareness class offered by the national park service that will teach you what species you can catch and which you need to let be.
Snapper and rock bass are some of the most common species to be caught making for an excellent fish fry at your campsite after a day out on the water. Lobsters, crabs and shrimp can also be found in abundance throughout the park. If you have any luck, you might be in for quite a feast.
Tropical fish and sharks cannot be caught under risk of heavy fine and penalty. While you can fish for the spiny lobster and stone crab (both delicious!), there is a designated lobster sanctuary in the park that you will have to avoid.
If you want to try your hand at a more primitive form of fishing, spear fishing is also allowed in the park and some tour operators might offer unique classes so that you can try your hand at this unique activity. Make sure to sign up for your Florida seawater fishing license before heading out to catch your evening meal.
One of the most important gear for fishing or boating is a quality cooler to keep your catch cold until dinner. For a complete list of the best coolers out there, check out our camping cooler reviews
Another extremely popular activity at Biscayne National Park is kayaking. Especially during holidays and weekends, the amount of motorboats around the park can take away from the enchantment of this tropical paradise. Fortunately, there are several areas around the park that don´t allow motorboats to enter. These restricted areas will allow kayakers and canoes to find their own hidden corners of the park where the only sound you hear will be the gently rolling of waves and the calls of tropical birds in the mangrove swamps.
Simply paddling along the shoreline of the keys will allow you to spot everything from lobsters to crabs to strange looking sponges. If you really want to escape the motorized boats, consider paddling the roughly 7 miles across the bay towards Elliot and Adams Keys. South of Caesar Creek there are several unique lagoons that are closed to motorized boats. Jones Lagoon is perhaps the best place for kayakers where you can find jellyfish and the occasional shark spinning through the waters.
If you didn´t your own kayaks, there are several places to rent. A quick stop by the visitor’s center will allow you to check out all of the different paddling routes that the park offers to people wanting to explore the area without a motor.
Snorkeling and Diving Activities
Perhaps the most appreciated activity offered by Biscayne National Park is snorkeling and scuba diving. To scuba dive in the area, you will have to bring proof of your active scuba license. Snorkeling, however, can be done by anyone.
While you can try and snorkel along the shorelines of the keys, the mangrove forest and the grass and seaweeds can drastically limit what you are able to see and explore. A much better alternative for people wanting to get the true underwater, coral reef experience, is to paddle about 10 miles out to the actual reef where you will find the best snorkeling anywhere in the country. If you don´t feel like you have the stamina to paddle the 10 miles there (and back!), guided tours offered by both the park and private companies out to the reef are also available and you should have a couple of hours built into the trip to spend time exploring the reef with your snorkeling gear.
The Five Best Snorkeling Spots at Biscayne National Park
If you are ready to hit the water and discover the underwater world waiting for you there, you need to know the best places to go snorkeling. Much of the beaches near the keys are populated by thick sea grass which will impede your underwater vision and make for a rather unpleasant snorkeling experience. However, Biscayne National Park offers several fantastic snorkeling spots that allow you to explore everything from shipwrecks to sharks. Below we offer our advice on the top five snorkeling spots around the park.
Maritime Heritage Snorkel Adventure
While some people might think that snorkeling around a shipwreck isn´t as natural or exciting as a “real” coral reef, many ecologists have found that ship wreckage that settles at the bottom of the ocean eventually becomes a part of the natural ecosystem where fish, sharks, corals and other sea creatures make their home.
The Maritime Heritage Snorkel Adventure is a ranger guided snorkeling tour that will allow you to explore the wreckage of the Mandalay shipwreck that went down on 1928. Besides checking out the ship itself, you will also be able to see all sorts of colorful fish, purple sea fans, and other unique aquatic life.
One of the best parts of snorkeling the Biscayne Reef is that the national park service limits the amount of people that are allowed to visit each day. This has allowed for a greater protection of the fragile coral reef ecosystem. Only one private company is allowed to take a maximum of 45 people each day out to the reef, so you will need to make reservations in advance.
Once you get to the reef, however, you will find a virtually untouched reef ecosystem where clownfish, parrot fish, barracudas and even the occasional shark will be your swimming companions.
John Pennekamp Reef
If you forgot to make your reservation for the Biscayne Reef and the tour is booked up for the next couple of days, the nearby John Pennekamp Reef is another great option. Since this reef is just outside the national park, there is less control meaning that there are no limits to the number of people who can visit. You can either private charter a boat to take you to this reef or take your own boat. While the reef itself is less “pristine” than the Biscayne Reef, you will still find a spectacular underwater ecosystem teeming with colorful coral and all sorts of fish.
While Elliot Key is one of the least visited places in the park, there is also some quality snorkeling spots that can be appreciated. What´s more, you can enjoy hiking throughout Elliot Key and end your day with a snorkeling adventure to cool off. You can find quality reef spots anywhere between and 8 and 20 feet deep just off the coat of Elliot Key
While the main coral reef is located a good distance away from the keys and the park´s mainland, there are patch reefs located around Stiltsville. If you contract a private boat to take you to visit the old stilt houses from the 1930´s, you might also ask your guide to let you stop and explore the patch reefs that are located nearby.
The Top 9 Fish to Spot While Snorkeling at Biscayne National Park
Unless you´re a marine biologist or a specialist in coral reef ecosystems, chances are that all of the vibrant colored corals, sponges, fish, and other marine life will look like something straight out of a fairy tale. To help you know what to look for and to identify the fish that magically appears from behind a piece of coral, below we offer a brief descriptions of 10 of the most common species of fish that can be spotted at Biscayne National Park.
These peculiar fish are recognized by their bright yellow color with bluish and turquoise lines running across their bodies. What is unique about the French grunt, however, is that if you listen carefully, you might be able to hear them “grunting”; a unique (though somewhat disconcerting) sound that you can hear while snorkeling.
This monster fish will most likely scare you if you encounter it during your first snorkeling trip. However, these fish are pretty docile and will most likely leave you alone. Between 2 and 5 feet length, these fish are a spectacular blue gray color and shimmer in the water while they swim.
This foot long fish is unique because of its pink or reddish coloring. Furthermore, the glasseye snapper is a carnivorous, nocturnal species. You might find it in darker spaces amongst the reef, since during the day it will most likely be resting.
The French Angelfish is the quintessential coral reef fish. The almost triangular shape of this fish along with its pointed nose, large fins, and elaborate bluish coloring make this an easy one to spot and identify.
These fish are definitely less attractive than some of their other reef companions, but they are a relatively common sight. Large and oblong shaped, these fish can easily reach several feet in length making them substantially larger than other fish you might encounter underwater.
This is one of the prized fish that snorkelers love to find. The vibrant, beautiful color patterns of the dragonet species make them easily identifiable and a favorite of scuba divers and snorkelers. While these fish are usually found at depths of 45 feet and deeper, they do occasionally rise to surface.
Spotted Sea Trout
Many people think that trout are only fresh water species. However, it is completely possible to find sea trout as well. This species is common in the area and has a beautiful colors along its dorsal fin making it easy to pick out from the pack.
Jack Knife Fish
This unique fish is a frequent visitor to these coral reef and is easily identifiable by its sharp, pointed fin that juts up from its back. The jack knife fish is usually black and white colored though there are other specimens with more vibrant color schemes.
The name alone should make this fish one that you try to spot. The unique turquoise coloring on the peacock flounder makes it a unique, beautiful fish that enlivens the reef ecosystem.
Most people don´t come to Biscayne National Park to hike due to the wide array of water activities from boating, fishing, kayaking and snorkeling. However, if you have an extra day or two, there are a few unique trails through some of the keys that will offer you a completely different glimpse into the reality of the region.
A six mile trail running the length of Elliot Key (one of the park´s most unexplored and least visited lands, is a fantastic opportunity to spot some of the unique birds and wildlife that populate the park. There is also a great swimming area that will allow you to cool off after a long day in the sun. For people who are a bit more adventurous, you can also set up camp either in the depth of the forests or along the beach where you will enjoy the clatter of bird song at both dawn and dusk. The stars over the bay aren´t too shabby either.
Visiting Historical Structures
Another good activity you can do either by water or by land is visiting some of the unique historical structures that give testament to the park´s storied history. A private boat tour will take you to the area of what is left of Stiltsville where you´ll be able to imagine a once lively community of wealth millionaires enjoying their own private tropical paradise. While most of Stiltsville´s building were lost to hurricanes, there are a few that are still left standing and in good shape.
Just outside the park, on Key Biscayne, the Cape Florida Lighthouse can also be visited. This lighthouse has been standing continuously since 1825. For a small fee you can climb to the top and enjoy some beautiful views of the surrounding waters. Making it to the top for a sunset view is truly extraordinary.
Lastly, though they aren´t “structures” in the typical sense, Biscayne National Park offers a shipwreck trail where you can visit several of the ships that these rough, coral reef laden waters have claimed over the years. The SS Arratoon Apcar is one shipwreck that is only 10 meters deep. If scuba diving isn´t your thing, you can easily spot the remains of this shop from your boat.
When to Visit Biscayne National Park
Because of the tropical climate at Biscayne National Park, there really isn´t a huge difference in temperature between summer and winter. While the winter months will be slightly cooler, you might want to plan your trip around the rains. The dry season runs from November to April and the temperatures are usually significantly cooler, with an average temperature between 66 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dry season, then, is usually the best time of year to visit as it will offer you an excuse to escape the colder winters from your hometown. You will also be conveniently missing the hurricane season.
If you are looking for a tropical adventure, great climate, unique wildlife and birds, and one of the most accessible tropical coral reefs in the world, Biscayne National Park is the place for you. Whether you are just escaping from the noise of downtown Miami for a day or two, or coming to spend several weeks exploring the four unique ecosystems, there is plenty to do, see, and explore at Biscayne National Park.