Biscayne National Park
[Biscayne National Park, FL, Dec 29, 2017]
Although the Everglades get all the glory, Florida actually has two other national parks – Dry Tortugas, which I wrote about earlier, and Biscayne National Park. Visiting Biscayne can be a little difficult because 95% of the park is on water. This means that the best way to experience it is on a boat.
Biscayne National Park is just now starting to offer its own excursions from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center down in Homestead. When I visited in Dec 2016, there were no tours or excursions organized by the park. The park website simply provided a list of concessionaires that were allowed to take people out on the water within the park boundaries. Calling the concessionaires and figuring out their schedules and offerings was left up to you. I had booked a half-day snorkeling excursion with one of the concessionaires, Miami Ocean Rafting. The tour started out of Bill Baggs state park on Key Biscayne.
I was expecting to be on a normal boat, like the one featured on their website… instead I was on a racing catamaran, which, as you can see, is not exactly meant for tours. Their yelp reviews were far from stellar even back then but the small list of concessionaires did not leave me much choice.
The catamaran actually needed some service. About 10 minutes after we left the engine sputtered and shut off. When it finally got going again, the catamaran was going so slow that it took us an hour and a half to get out to our snorkeling spot instead of the usual 40 minutes. The whole thing left me feeling a little uneasy. Nevertheless, I snorkeled in the clear warm water on the bay and saw some great fish. We also went by the Cape Florida lighthouse, the oldest structure in Miami-Date county (built in 1825), and Stiltstville – a collection of buildings on stilts built in the Bay of Biscayne between the 1930s and 1950s. Accessible only by boat, Stiltsville was the place to party in Miami Beach back then. Most buildings did not last long due to hurricanes. The state of Florida deeded the land underneath to the federal government, which made it part of Biscayne National Park.
I never did make it to the actual park visitor center back in 2016 because it is so far south. But when B took me to the Zoological Wildlife Foundation this past December, I realized we were only 20 minutes away and we went by after our ZWF tour.
I got my passport stamp and we spent a little bit of time talking to the park rangers. They said that the Biscayne National Park Institute, a newly created non-profit, now provides various excursions to the keys within the park boundary as well as snorkeling and diving opportunities. There is still a list of concessionaires you can also book through; you’ll note that Miami Ocean Rafting is no longer on the list (below is a screen grab from today). Note that most of these companies don’t offer in-water activities, which is consistent with what I had experienced the year before. Their draw is the starting location, which is often more convenient that the park visitor center.
The park rangers also said that they are working on providing tours from Coconut Grove, which is an area much closer to Miami. All of these changes should make it much easier to access the park. The link I’ve provided to the Biscayne National Park Institute should give you the latest info.
If you’re not a water person but still want to check out this national park, do go to the visitor center and bring a picnic. The Dante Fascell visitor center is actually located within the Homestead Bayfront park, which will give you access to beaches and bayside picnic tables, many of them under the shade of mangrove and palm trees.
Just remember to check the weather and prepare for mosquitoes if coming in summer.