Just south of Miami, Florida lies Biscayne National Park. Consisting of almost 50 keys (coral reef islands), the park was originally created to protect the area from imminent development in the 1960s, and today it harbors unique marine life, scenic waterways, and even a few shipwrecks.
History of Biscayne National Park
Native Americans inhabited the park site about 10,000 years ago, but as water rose, traces of their existence were submerged. Ponce de Leon discovered The Keys in 1513, and many Spanish treasure fleets sailed the area, getting caught in hurricanes and sinking. In fact, there are 44 documented shipwrecks that occurred here between the 16th and 20th centuries. It wasn’t until 1897 that the region was actually settled.
One of the area’s original settlers, Israel Lafayette Jones, was a black farm laborer and stevedore in Wilmington, North Carolina, before he found his way to South Florida and became a caretaker for a white landowner. Within a few years, Jones had accumulated enough experience farming pineapples and enough money to purchase Porgy Key for $300. He established his own farm, growing not only pineapples but key limes, and at the same time growing his family to include a wife and two sons.
A year after his purchase of Porgy Key, Mr. Jones bought Rhodes and Totten Keys and continued to expand his ownership throughout Biscayne Bay. His sons continued his legacy, clearing land, working the farm, and guiding visitors, including several US presidents, on fishing trips throughout the region, while their father grew in stature and engaged in more community involvement.
Israel Jones had a hand in establishing a Negro industrial school in Jacksonville, as well as overseeing the support and growth of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Miami. After his death, his sons became the only year-round residents from North Key Largo to Soldier Key. They eventually sold their land to the National Park Service when the area was named Biscayne National Monument, knowing that the land and its bounty would be protected.
Why Visit Biscayne National Park in Your RV?
Biscayne National Park is 95% water, so the use of your motorhome or travel trailer is limited to driving to the Dante Fascell Visitors Center on the mainland. From there exploration of the park is done by boat, and what a fascinating journey it is. Visitors can take sailboat tours or launch their own canoes and kayaks from the center, and Miami Dade County has boat services from several docks in the area.
Places to Go
There are plenty of unique places to go. Here’s a look at some of the best places you should check out on your visit.
Dante Fascell Visitors Center
Located on the only mainland-based section of the park, the center houses exhibits on the natural history of the area, along with an information desk and park videos. An on-site gallery for contemporary art displays Biscayne National Park through paintings, photographs, sculpture, and collage. Ranger-led programs start from the center, and a picnic area and restrooms are available.
Boca Chita Key
Boat to this, the most visited key in the park and hike up its ornamental lighthouse for expansive views of the area.
The largest key in Biscayne National Park was once a thriving pineapple farm. Take a picnic lunch with you and good hiking shoes, as the only hiking trail, “Spite Highway,” lies within the park boundaries and showcases a hardwood tropical forest. You can also enjoy tent camping with a permit.
Once home to the famous Cocolobo Club, visited by presidents and wealthy financiers for years, this key has a picnic pavilion for an afternoon outing.
Maritime Heritage Trail
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view six different shipwrecks and an offshore lighthouse by snorkeling or SCUBA diving. A brochure documenting the location of each is available, and mooring buoys are installed at each site.
Remnants of several buildings built on stilts in the bay have been renovated for public use.
Things to Do
Regulated by the state of Florida, saltwater fishing is the most popular activity in the park. You will need a permit, and it is suggested that you know Florida State Fishing Regulations.
With miles and miles of water, there’s no limit to exploration around the park. Discover living coral reefs, mangrove forests and calm waterways. Mooring buoys are scattered throughout the park to make your adventure easier.
Snorkeling and SCUBA Diving
Biscayne Bay is shallow and clear, a perfect location for snorkelers to enjoy the varied sea life. You may view rays, manatees, crabs, anemones, and even upside down jellyfish.
Spite Highway on Elliott Key is the only hiking trail in the park, but it offers a unique view of many indigenous animal habitats.
There are two campgrounds within the park. The one on Boca Chita Key has a grassy camping area with picnic tables and grills, but no water. Toilets are available there and no pets are allowed. On Elliott Key, there are restrooms with cold showers, drinking water, picnic tables, and grills. Dogs are allowed on leash. Both campgrounds are accessible by boat only, and low tide runs between two and one-half feet to four feet.
There are several swimming beaches on many of the keys within the park.
Canoeing and Kayaking
Because many of the lagoons, creeks, and channels within the park are extremely shallow, kayaking and canoeing are great ways to explore the bay. It’s also a good way to view many species of fish and birds that call this area home. Biscayne National Park has produced six different paddling guides for the following trails:
When to Visit Biscayne National Park
The park is open year round, however, the most temperate times to visit are winter and spring. That’s when you will find the bulk of tourists in the area. Temperatures can escalate in summer, bringing with them higher humidity and a variety of irritating insects.
Fees for overnight boat mooring and camping are waved in the summer months, and the opportunity for total solitude on the water is higher during that time frame, as well.
Where RVers Can Stay
As mentioned before, there are only two campgrounds within the boundaries of Biscayne National Park, and both are only accessible by boat. However, RVers will find a plethora of campgrounds and resorts on the mainland within the Homestead and Miami city limits. Here are just a few:
- Miami Everglades RV Resort is not far from the Dante Fascell Visitors Center and offers all the amenities one would expect from a resort, including a clubhouse and pool with hot tub, pickleball and volleyball courts, and a dog park and laundry facilities on 34 acres.
- Pelican Cay RV Resort has boat slips and RV sites large enough to handle any rig. The resort is located in Key Largo.
- Southern Comfort RV Park is in Florida City and has a large array of activities available to its residents. A tiki bar and recreation center are on site, and it is close to not only Biscayne National Park, but the NASCAR Speedway, several golf courses, and shopping.
Getting to and Around Biscayne National Park
Getting to Biscayne National Park is easy. Getting around the park is easy if you have access to a boat. To drive to the Dante Fascell Visitors Center, take Highway 1 to Homestead, Florida. Turn left onto Speedway Blvd. and continue south for five miles, turning left on North Canal Drive. Drive four miles to the end of the road and the entrance is on the left.
Once at the Visitors Center you can park your vehicle and take a boat tour or launch your own water vessel (no personal motorized vehicles are allowed). There are boat launches at the Center, as well as at various Miami-Dade locations along the bay.
As you can see, Biscayne National Park offers a wide variety of activities and experiences for the whole family. If you enjoy water sports, amazing marine life and tropical sunsets, don’t overlook this little-known gem in the national park system.
Is Biscayne National Park on your list of future locations? Why or why not? Leave a comment below!