With 95% of its 173,000 acres covered by water, Biscayne National Park requires some planning to make the most of a visit. Being on or in the water is the best way to experience the park. We recommend planning a diving trip if you enjoy getting up close and personal with the fish and coral reefs. Since Biscayne National Park protects four distinct ecosystems (the shoreline mangrove swamp, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys and the offshore Florida Reef), we must ask you to be respectful on your journey. If you only have a short while and a boat is not available, the Convoy Point area offers a variety of land based and indoor opportunities to get to know the park. Check the park’s calendar for other opportunities.
Almost 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West lies the remote Dry Tortugas National Park. The 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands and protected reefs. The park has both cultural and ecological significance; visitors can enjoy dramatic landscapes and enjoy the history of Fort Jefferson, or go explore underwater resources including beautiful reefs, marine life and shipwrecks. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is not easily reached (which is good for the preservation of the park). Make sure to plan ahead if you are going to charter a boat or seaplane; you won’t want to miss the picturesque blue waters, coral reefs, marine life and the vast assortment of birds that frequent the area.
Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River. Believe us, there is more to this swampland than initially meets the eye. The park offers many amazing opportunities to learn and experience new kinds of wildlife that are unique to Florida. Having been hired to protect the fragile ecosystem of the everglades, the guardians of this National Park are doing their best to preserve the beauty and purity of this majestic wonder.
We recommend an encounter with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, who has made this region their home for many generations. One great place to see the wonders of the everglades is at Billie Swamp Safari. Here, you can get up close and personal with Mother Nature on air boats and swamp buggies — keep your eye out for wild ostriches and the hungry alligators! Another beautiful place to see Everglades National Park is at Shark Valley in western Miami-Dade county. Shark Valley, which is basically a geological depression at the head of the Shark River Slough, offers tourists and locals miles of expansive trails perfect for hiking and biking.
Having covered the three main geographical areas that encompass Florida’s National Parks, we though we’d mention a few smaller, yet equally as beautiful, state parks. A good place to start is Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (we know, what a tongue twister). Encompassing a 21,000-acre savanna in Micanopy, Florida (south of Gainesville), Paynes Prairie Preserve is a U.S. National Natural Landmark. Come here to see wild horses, alligators, numerous species of birds and (if you’re extremely lucky) wild bison!
Another state park that should be on your radar is Blue Springs State Park. This park covers more than 2,600 acres, including the largest spring on the St. John’s River. Blue Spring presents a unique opportunity to see the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. The spring’s crystal clear, 73-degree water can be enjoyed by swimmers, snorkelers and certified scuba divers. Fishing, canoeing and boating are also enjoyed along the St. John’s River. River boat tours are available with St. Johns River Cruises.
Lastly, we suggest a trip to the Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville. In the midst of north Florida’s sandy terrain and pine forests lies a sinkhole that is 120 feet deep and leads down to a miniature rain forest. Small streams trickle down the steep slopes of the limestone sinkhole, disappearing through crevices in the ground. A significant geological formation, Devil’s Millhopper is a National Natural Landmark that has been visited by curious travelers since the early 1880s and is a great place to enjoy a nice cold swim if you’re brave enough!