Picture of a stilt house in Biscayne Bay National Park, Florida

A remnant of the mid-20th-century Stiltsville community stands in the waters of Biscayne Bay.

Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr., National Geographic Travel

Location: Florida

Established: June 28, 1980

Size: 172,924 acres

Biscayne National Park basically begins where Miami ends—in the shallow, aquamarine waters and lush sea-grass beds of Biscayne Bay. Protected within the park’s mostly submerged 173,000 acres are the longest stretch of mangrove forest on Florida's east coast, the northernmost Florida Keys, and part of the world's third longest coral reef tract. Many visitors never venture beyond the park’s northern waters, a popular playground for boaters, anglers, and windsurfers, as well as Miami-based charter boat trips and sunset cruises. Travel farther south (and below the surface) on a snorkeling or diving trip to discover Biscayne’s dizzying array of undersea treasures. Highlights include six shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail and spectacularly diverse and colorful aquatic life, including sharks, rays, sea turtles, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, and more than 500 species of fish. Above the surface, join a ranger-led canoe trip through the mangroves to see wading birds, crabs, and maybe even a manatee (November through April).

Inside Tip: To visit the park’s longest stretch of terra firma, book a boat tour to Elliott Key, home to the “Spite Highway” nature trail. The approximately six-mile-long path (blazed in the 1960s by landowners intent on sabotaging efforts to designate Biscayne as a national monument) leads through a subtropical forest. Hike the trail to see butterflies, including the federally protected Schaus swallowtail, a large, colorful butterfly native to South Florida but, in recent years, found mostly on Elliott Key and northern Key Largo.

How to Get Around: Currently, there is no in-park watercraft concessionaire (a temporary service may be available by November 2015). For boat tours, kayak rentals, and other water activities, make advance reservations with an authorized park tour operator. Weekends from late November through late April, take the City of Homestead’s free, guided trolley tour from downtown Homestead to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center.

When to Go: December to April is dry season and has increased ranger-led programs. For offshore activities, plan your visit based on your activity. For example, winter is windy, which is ideal for visiting Elliott Key and the other islands but not for the reefs. Though summer can be buggy on the islands, it's typically good for snorkeling (due to calmer waters and clear visibility).

What to Do: Preplanning is key. Look at the park website well in advance of your trip, check the schedule of events, and, if needed, find an authorized tour operator to get you where you want to go. If you have limited time (and no access to a boat), visit the Dante Fascell Visitor Center to learn about the park, picnic along Biscayne Bay, and join a ranger-led program. Reservations are required for ranger-guided tours that have limited availability, such as the daylong paddling excursions to secluded Jones Lagoon, where you could spot an upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopea). Take a scenic boat tour to Boca Chita Key to picnic, camp, and see Biscayne National Park’s unofficial symbol, a 65-foot ornamental lighthouse built in the 1930s by one of the island’s former owners.

Where to Stay: Primitive island camping is the only in-park option. A boat is required to reach the campgrounds on Boca Chita Key, which has a grassy camping area, and Elliott Key, which has forested and waterside sites. The nearest hotels to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center are in Homestead and Florida City. If you're taking a boat trip with a Miami-based tour operator, it may be more convenient to stay in Miami.

Helpful Links: Biscayne National Park

Fun Fact: The Hoover vacuum played a role in the creation of Biscayne National Park. In 1960, plans called for an oil refinery, a seaport, luxury homes, and other development in the keys and underwater acres now protected within the park. Herbert W. Hoover, Jr., then board chairman and company president of his family’s vacuum operation, had loved Biscayne Bay since childhood. An early conservationist, Hoover funded the successful campaign that led to the creation of Biscayne National Monument in 1968.

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