Biscayne National Park: The Complete Guide

Palm trees on a grassy coast at Biscayne National Park in Florida

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Biscayne National Park

Address
Florida, USA
Phone +1 305-230-1144

Established in 1980 to protect Florida’s northernmost keys and the sparkling seas that surround them, Biscayne National Park is something of an anomaly in the U.S. National Park System as it is made of 95 percent water. This distinguishing detail makes the 173,000-acre park a bucket-list destination for boaters, fishing fanatics, snorkelers, paddlers, and scuba divers as well as anyone who enjoys warm breezes, sparkling shallow seas, subtropical temperatures, lagoons teeming with wildlife, snorkeling or camping on lush islands under palms.

The shorelines, mangroves, and 250 square miles of water are home (or temporary home in the case of migratory birds) to a wide range of tropical, subtropical, and marine animals and plants including more than 500 kinds of reef fish, a menagerie of birds, 20 threatened and endangered species, and unfortunately some pesky and hungry insects. The park also contains more than 10,000 years of human history starting with the migration of Paleo-Indians down the Florida Peninsula, to the arrival of the Tequesta people as the waters rose, through European colonization, and to the present day.

This complete guide contains all the information you need to plan a trip to this scenic and special Sunshine State spot a stone’s throw from Miami including where to camp, what to do and see, and how to get there.

Stiltsville, Florida

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Things to Do

Start your time at the park with a visit to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. The center features dioramas/exhibits detailing the park’s four ecosystems, a ranger desk, a 20-minute park film called "Connections," a gallery highlighting local artists inspired by the park, and a porch full of rocking chairs. 

Whether you bring your own sailboat or swim in the seagrasses close to the shoreline, getting out on or getting in the crystalline water is a must. Sailing and boating are two of the most popular activities in the park. Homestead Bayfront and Black Point are marinas that feed directly into the park.

Enjoy a Sightseeing Tour

Biscayne National Park Institute operates a wide variety of private and small-group sightseeing tours including a snorkel experience that stops at a shipwreck. All ages are welcome aboard the three-and-a-half-hour history boat tour that makes an island stop and often encounters wildlife. The guided paddleboard tour through the mangrove-lined waterways of Jones Lagoon is perfect for more active folks and often results in sightings of baby sharks, upside-down jellyfish, rays, turtles, and manatees as well as roseate spoonbills and other birds.

Get Out on the Water

You can also bring your own canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. They are ideal ways to navigate around the mangroves, the shallow bay, lagoons, creeks, and channels south of Caesar Creek. Launch free of charge from the designated area adjacent to the parking lot. Many areas in the park are too shallow for motorized watercraft so paddlers get these scenic spots to themselves and can enjoy some peace and quiet. Jones Lagoon and Hurricane Creek are some favorite spots. For a real challenge, attempt the 7-mile crossing across Biscayne Bay to Elliott or Boca Chita Keys.

Explore the Park on a Hike

While water-based activities like boating, fishing, kiteboarding, and diving around coral reefs are what the park is known for, there are a few stay-dry options like hikes. Two trails twist through the tropical island landscape on Elliott Key. One runs the entire 7-mile length of the island while the other is a 1-mile loop between the bay side and ocean side of Elliott that starts in the marina. The jetty near the visitor center also has a short trail.

The Biscayne Birding Trail has 10 stops including the Fowey Rocks historic lighthouse, Convoy Point, Black Point shoreline, several keys, and the Pacific Reef light. Shorebirds and seabirds like frigates, brown pelicans, and yellow-crowned night herons are very common. The park also gets seasonal winged visitors and a few species that hail from the Caribbean pop over from time to time. It also has one of the largest populations of mangrove cuckoos in Florida.

See the Houses of Stiltsville

Biscayne is home to architecturally significant houses on stilts in the overwater neighborhood called Stiltsville. After Hurricane Andrew swept through the region in 1992, only seven of the kooky houses dating back to at least the 1930s survived. The storied history of the homes—which were annexed into the park in 1985—includes the original Stiltsville pioneer who sold bait, beer, and crawfish chowder, private social clubs with nude sunbathing decks, Life magazine coverage, and lots of hurricane damage.

Public access to the properties is by permit only. To inquire about renting one of the homes for camera shoots, small conferences, artist-in-residence sessions, or small family gatherings (day-use only), reach out to the nonprofit that oversees them, Stiltsville Trust at least three weeks before your planned stay. Biscayne National Park Institute also offers a two-hour cruise to get a closer look at the homes in the northernmost corner of the park. It leaves from Dinner Key Marina in Miami’s Coconut Grove.

Fishing in the Park

The bustling waters of Biscayne Bay support hundreds of fish species and encourage world-class fishing for spiny lobster (which cannot be taken out of the park), snapper, grouper, tarpon, and bonefish. A Florida saltwater fishing license is required for anyone over 16. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission sells the permits and also sets the regulations. Be sure to brush up on the local fishing rules before your visit.

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

The Maritime Heritage Trail boasts exciting opportunities to snorkel or scuba dive around many of the region's shipwrecks. Six wrecks, spanning nearly from 1878 to 1966, fall within Biscayne’s borders. They can only be reached by boat and have established mooring buoys. Mandalay is the ship site most suited to snorkelers. It is also quite decent around the base of the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse. Erl King, Alicia, and Lugano on the other hand are the best sunken ships for tank dives. For a more guided experience, the Biscayne National Park Institute has a variety of snorkel and scuba tours.

Overlooking the palms trees on Florida Bay in Biscayne National Park

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Where to Camp

There are two campgrounds within the park: Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key. As the names suggest, both are located on islands within the park’s boundaries and therefore you must have a boat to get to them. You must also pay the appropriate fee which is $35 per night for docking and camping or $25 per night for camping only. Use Recreation.gov to pay no later than sunset on arrival day. There are no advance reservations.

Boca Chita is the most popular choice with its waterfront views, grassy campsites, and swaying palms. There are picnic tables, grills, and toilets, but no showers, sinks, or drinking water.

Elliott Key, the park’s largest island with 33 boat slips in the marina, offers cold showers, sinks, picnic tables, grills, and drinking water. There’s a group campsite for 10 or more about a third of a mile from the main campground. 

Both islands maintain quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. There is no backcountry camping and all trash must be packed out.

Where to Stay

Biscayne is 33 miles from Homestead, Florida and around 35 miles from Miami. Both cities offer dozens upon dozens of hotels of every size, service level, and price range. For some inspiration, check out our round-up of the best hotels in Miami.

How to Get There

Biscayne is in Homestead about 45 minutes south of Miami by car. The visitor center is at the end of 328th Street just before you get to the entrance to the Homestead Bayfront Marina. It can be reached from the Florida Turnpike or U.S. Highway 1.

lighthouse in Biscayne National Park

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Accessibility

To go beyond the mainland shore you'll need a boat, which immediately limits accessibility. But several measures have been put in place to accommodate the needs of visitors with mobility and other challenges including:

  • The visitor center and park headquarters have ramps, elevators, and boardwalks.
  • Audiovisual programs are closed-captioned and available in English and Spanish. Exhibits along the jetty trail are also bilingual and Haitian Creole translations are available at the center’s help desk. Junior Ranger booklets come in those three languages and the park brochure is translated into several more. 
  • On Boca Chita, Elliott, and Adams Keys, restrooms are accessible but some buildings aren’t. Sidewalks are nonexistent on the latter two while Boca only has them around the harbor and restrooms.  
  • Legitimate service animals are allowed in buildings and on all islands.

Tips For Your Visit

  • There is no charge to enter and enjoy this park. Some activities like commercial filming, weddings, and memorial services do require permits. Visiting the Stiltsville structures also requires permission and permits from the Stiltsville Trust.
  • The park’s waters are open 24 hours a day year-round. However, the visitor center maintains hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days) and is closed on major holidays. 
  • Pets are only allowed on leash on Elliott Key within developed areas and may not be left unattended. 
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Everything to Know Before Visiting Biscayne National Park