Biscayne National Park is one of the most unique and special National Parks in the country for an endless number of reasons, most notably because it’s the largest coral reef in the United States and 95% of the park is underwater. That being said, there are many different ways to visit and experience the magic of this national park, and after visiting twice, I learned a lot that I wish I’d known prior. Hopefully this helps you in planning an epic trip to Biscayne National Park!
Biscayne National Park is Miami’s Best Kept Secret
Biscayne is located less than 30 minutes from downtown Miami, one of the most populated cities in America, yet it’s one of the least visited National Parks in the country! In fact, many locals don’t even know the park exists. Ironically, one of the keys near Miami that draws a large tourism crowd is called Biscayne, but it’s located outside of the park boundaries and is often confused with the national park. This initially threw me off a bit when I was researching the location. Biscayne National Park’s feeling of exclusivity is one of the many reasons it’s so charming and if you’re lucky enough to visit, you’ll get to experience the magic for yourself. Just be sure to do a bit of research before so you don’t end up encountering the same snags that I did!
Biscayne’s Tour Company is Separate from NPS
The first thing to note is that most of the park requires a boat to explore. While there is a small trail at the visitor’s center and you can kayak around the mangroves that hug the mainland, the majority of the park is under water in Biscayne Bay or in the Atlantic Ocean. That being said, if you want to see anything beyond the shoreline you have to take a boat tour. Biscayne National Park Institute provides all tours at Biscayne is not managed by the NPS. Biscayne tours have a great relationship with the NPS and are a well-organized reputable company that we had a great experience with.
Popular Tours Book Up in Advance
If you’re anything like me and you’re the type of traveler that likes to show up without a solid plan and figure it out when you get there, this is the park to adjust your behavior dramatically. We first visited Biscayne in March, which is coincidentally during Spring Break when Miami is the busiest, and we had a hard time finding tours with availability a week in advance of our visit. I was pretty disappointed to see that all of the snorkeling tours were completely booked up throughout most of the month, since the true beauty of the park lies under water, but we were able to book two reservations for the island tour to Boca Chita as well as the kayak tour around the mainland mangroves.
Not all Tours Depart from the Visitor’s Center
I was excited to have successfully booked our two different tour reservations for the same day, with an hour in between, until I got my confirmation emails with the departure locations for each. I quickly searched them both on Google Maps and realized that the departure locations were 40 minutes apart from one another, without traffic. Once my initial panic subsided, I called the tour company and asked if it would be possible to make both tours. I was advised that it would be too risky to try to make both work in the same day, and thankfully I was refunded in full for the kayak tour that we decided to cancel.
Visiting the Coral Reefs and Shipwrecks Requires a Bit of Luck
The snorkeling tours through Biscayne National Park Institute each list a variety of potential snorkel sites that are “dependent on weather conditions,” and will be narrowed down on the day of your tour. The coral reef and shipwrecks are all located on the Atlantic side of the keys, as opposed to Biscayne Bay, which is in between the mainland and the keys where the waters are calmer. The Atlantic waters can be dangerous to explore when the weather conditions are rough and the boat tours will only venture to the Atlantic side of the keys when the conditions are safe. Our snorkeling tour guide explained that summer months offer the calmest weather conditions and therefore, the highest likelihood of being able to venture out into the Atlantic waters to explore the reef. He explained that tours rarely go out to the reef in the spring and I was really disappointed that information hadn’t been made explicitly clear before booking, since I’d primarily booked the tour to see the reef and shipwrecks.
Jones Lagoon is a Paddler’s Paradise
After seeing several different sites on multiple tours throughout Biscayne Bay, Jones Lagoon was the last and hands down the best. The water is crystal clear and shallow, so you can see straight down to the bottom in most places. There are mangroves that create tree covered tunnels and beautiful wildlife both above and below the surface. I could have spent all day paddling around Jones Lagoon and aside from the 5 other people in our tour group, we felt like we had the entire lagoon to ourselves. There were tours that solely went to Jones Lagoon that offered much more time there, and if I were to do it again I would have gone that route. We saw baby sharks, jellyfish, stingrays, colorful fish, turtles, etc. It truly was the highlight to our Biscayne experience!