How To Visit Biscayne National Park: The Best Tours and What To Know About Visiting
March 6, 2022
Biscayne National Park is a Florida national park that is 95% water! The park protects 270 square miles around the northernmost group of living coral reefs in the United States. Biscayne was officially designated a national park in 1980, but the fight to protect this area began much earlier.
In the 1950’s, Americans were taking more vacations to Florida and the Keys. A vision to dredge a canal to the ocean for a new city and a major seaport was forming in the area that Biscayne occupies today.
Luckily, a small group that disagreed with this plan began to fight for public support to protect this area. Biscayne was declared a national monument by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and was designated a national park about a decade later.
Entry to Biscayne National Park is free but there is little to do without purchasing a guided tour. This post covers things to do in Biscayne National Park, when to visit and more things to know about visiting this underrated national park.
Biscayne National Park is located on the South Florida coast less than an hour’s drive from Miami. Many of the water activities and tours will begin at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, located a 45 minute drive away from the Miami international airport.
You can also fly into the Fort Lauderdale Airport, which is a little over an hour from Biscayne National Park.
There is really no bad time to visit Biscayne National Park. If you’ll be swimming, the weather may be nicest to visit during the summer when the temperatures are warm. If you want to camp on one of the islands, you may want to avoid the heat of the summer. Also keep in mind that hurricanes are most likely to occur between August and September.
I visited in March and had very nice weather!
If you have a boat or arrange transportation by boat, there are two islands in Biscayne that allow camping. The more popular option in Boca Chita Key. This island has a lighthouse, picnic tables and grills. There are toilets but no drinking water or showers available.
The other island is Elliott Key, which is bigger. Elliott Key has some hiking trails along with cold water showers and drinking water.
If you would like to stay in a hotel, the closest area is Homestead. Homestead is 20 minutes from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. This is also a great base for exploring Everglades National Park during your trip!
There are a handful of tour operators authorized to give tours inside of the park, but Biscayne National Park Institute is the only non-profit. The institute offers a variety of tours, including a historic boat tour, snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing and scuba diving.
Tour Options with the Biscayne National Park Institute:
- Heritage of Biscayne Cruise: Covers the history of the park and takes about 3.5 hours. A popular option if you don’t want to get wet.
- Small Group Snorkel Experience: Includes two snorkel locations and takes about 3.5 hours.
- Snorkel and Paddle Eco Adventure: Includes snorkeling, paddle boarding and a stop on Boca Chita and takes about 6 hours. This is the tour that I did.
- Jones Lagoon Eco Adventure Paddle: Paddle boarding in the Jones Lagoon area for 3.5 hours.
- Paddle the Mangroves and Seagrass Meadows: 1.5 hours of kayaking.
- Scuba Eco Adventure: 6 hours of scuba diving.
- Sail, Paddle, Snorkel and Island Visit: This tour includes a mix of snorkeling, paddling and a visit to Boca Chita on a sailboat. It takes 6 hours and the snorkeling will be in the calmer waters around mangrove trees.
In addition to Biscayne National Park Institute, there are a few other tour operators authorized inside of the park. Wind Addict Florida and South Florida Kiteboarding offer kiteboarding lessons and Explore Miami, Ocean Force Adventures and Miami Sailing Charters offer different options for sightseeing.
The Snorkel and Paddle Eco Adventure is a great option to spend the day seeing a variety of the park. This tour includes both paddling and snorkeling, so you’ll get to see different types of scenery and have a lot of adventure along the way.
What To Expect:
- This is a small group tour! The group for my tour was only 6 people.
- At this writing, this tour costs $179 per person.
- Snorkel and paddling gear is included but lunch is not.
What to Bring:
The tour began with a long boat ride out from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center to our snorkeling location. On the way, our guide told us about the history of the park and the surrounding area.
From the boat, you’ll be able to see the Turkey Point Nuclear Powerplant. One interesting thing about the powerplant is that the saltwater cooling ponds and adjacent freshwater ponds for the powerplant form an ideal environment for endangered crocodiles. The crocodiles are monitored here and this has been a crucial area for increasing the population of crocodiles in Florida.
There are far less crocodiles than alligators than Florida. Crocodiles are larger and have more of a V-shaped snout.
Unfortunately, it was too windy on the day of my tour to go to the Atlantic side and snorkel among the coral reefs. Typically on a nice weather day, you would visit the coral reefs. Instead, we snorkeled alongside mangrove trees at the keyhole of Sands Key. We saw schools of fish, plantlife on the mangrove roots and even some lobsters under a rock ledge.
After snorkeling, we headed to Boca Chita Island to eat our packed lunches. I was a bit surprised to see so many boats docked up on the island playing music, cooking and having a good time. (It honestly took away from the peacefulness of the national park). On the island, our guide unlocked the lighthouse for us and we climbed to the top for an amazing view of the island and the aqua-colored water.
The lighthouse on Boca Chita, along with the other structures on the island, were built by Mark Honeywell in the 1930’s. It was built as their holiday resort and was meant to be used for parties. The lighthouse actually faces inland instead of at the sea, because it was built to impress guests instead of providing navigation.
In addition to the lighthouse, the island had restrooms, a chapel and picnic tables. We didn’t have much time to explore any other part of the island. Today, all of the buildings on Boca Chita are leftover from the 1930’s, except for the restroom facility.
The best part of Boca Chita was seeing some dolphins swimming around the bay. There were two that were jumping out of the water and swimming around almost the entire time we were there.
The third part of the tour was paddle boarding in the peaceful waters of Jones Lagoon. On the way, we passed by Adams Key, another island in the park that visitors can explore for day use. There are picnic tables and a short trail on the island.
When we reached Jones Lagoon, we were surrounded by beautiful mangrove trees. Each guest had the option of SUP paddles or kayaking paddles as we made our way through mangrove tunnels. While paddling, we saw nurse sharks, jellyfish and stingrays. It was a beautiful area to paddle and explore.
Overall, I had an amazing day trip with the Biscayne National Park Institute and learned a lot about the history and geology from my guide. I highly recommend an experience like this for your day trip to Biscayne National Park.
Be sure to explore the Dante Fascell Visitor Center before or after your tour. There is a museum area upstairs where you can learn about the wildlife and ecosystems in the park. There are also some educational films and a touch area where you can feel things like sea sponges and corals.
Portions of Everglades National Park are located less than an hour from Biscayne. On your way to the Everglades, be sure to stop at the Robert is Here Fruit Stand for exotic fruit or a milkshake! For more information on visiting the Everglades, read my Everglades itinerary.
Biscayne is also very close to the start of the Florida Overseas Highway, which leads to Key West. If you are planning a Florida Keys road trip, I have a 5 day itinerary that includes both the Upper Keys and Key West.
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