Biscayne National Park is the largest marine park in the National Park System. Since most of Biscayne’s 173,000 acres are in Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, traveling by boat is the best way to explore and appreciate the park. Currently, there isn’t an in-park concessionaire offering watercraft rentals or boat tours (a temporary service may be available by November 2015). To get out on the water, make advance reservations with an authorized park tour operator. If you don’t have access to a boat, land-based activities are available at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center and museum at Convoy Point (nine miles east of Homestead). Inside the center, take a virtual, multimedia voyage through the park, and examine corals, sponges, and other park specimens at the "touch table." Outdoors, participate in ranger-led programs such as Jetty Walks and Shoreline Snorkels and walk the short interpretive trail. Best Bet: Weekends from late November through late April, take the City of Homestead’s free, guided trolley tour from downtown Homestead to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. The tour includes free parking in Homestead. Spend an hour or a full day at the park before catching a return trolley (check schedule for times).
When to Go: December to April is the busiest season and the best time for ranger-led programs, including the free and educational Family Fun Fest program on the second Sunday of each month. If you plan to explore in or on the water, the best time to visit will depend on your activity. Winter is windy, which is ideal for visiting islands but not the reefs. Summer is typically good for snorkeling.
Must Dos: Book a sightseeing or sailing cruise, boat rental, or snorkeling or scuba trip with an authorized park tour operator such as Miami Ocean Rafting. The Miami Ocean Rafting ecotour includes snorkeling (no experience required) in the marine park’s coral reefs. Check the park calendar before your trip to see what ranger-led program and other special events are available. Inside Tip: Bring food and drinks. There’s no restaurant at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, but there are picnic areas overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Helpful Link: Biscayne National Park
Fun Fact: Biscayne National Park and the Stiltsville Trust jointly manage seven elevated shacks that appear to hover over shallow park waters off the southern tip of Key Biscayne. Built on pilings on the sandy flats, the little wooden houses are all that remain of the offshore Stiltsville community, a gambling hot spot and getaway for moneyed Miamians during the 1940s and '50s.
Photograph by Stephen Frink, Corbis
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary basically protects all of the waters surrounding the Florida Keys, excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. Within the sanctuary’s 2,900 square nautical miles, which includes the third largest living coral barrier reef system in the world, are opportunities to experience every imaginable water adventure, including sailing, snorkeling, and exploring the nine dive sites on the Shipwreck Trail. To preserve and protect the sanctuary’s coral and other fragile habitats, review the visitor regulations and choose only Blue Star Operators—such as A Deep Blue Dive in Key Colony Beach—for charters and dive trips. Inside Tip: June through September is the best time for snorkeling and diving in the sanctuary. The water is warmer and, generally, calmer, creating better underwater visibility.
Castellow Hammock Park
Castellow Hammock Park is beloved by locals yet less frequented by tourists. The Miami-Dade County park is considered one of Florida’s premier locations for bird—and butterfly—watching. October through May brings the greatest influx of birds, including the brilliantly colored male painted bunting, which winters in South Florida. In addition to over 120 bird species, some 70 butterfly species have been spotted in the park. According to the Miami chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, Castellow Hammock is “considered by many to be, acre for acre, one of the top butterflying locations in Florida.” Butterflies can be seen year-round. Two notables to look for: malachite (Siproeta stelenes) and amethyst hairstreak (Chlorostrymon maesites). Bring close-focusing binoculars for the best views. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Inside Tip: After visiting the park, stop at nearby Knaus Berry Farm for a hot and gooey cinnamon roll. Open Monday to Saturday, November to mid-April; cash only.
Jonathan Dickinson State Park
From Miami, it’s about a two-hour drive north to Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound. The 11,500-acre site (once home to Camp Murphy, a top-secret World War II training school) harbors ancient cypress trees, sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, mangroves, river swamps, and a section of the Loxahatchee River, Florida's first federally designated National Wild and Scenic River. Nearly as diverse as the habitats are the recreational options, which include hiking, biking, paddling, boat tours, ranger programs, and wildlife viewing. Rent bikes, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and motorboats on-site. Make campground reservations to tent or RV camp, or stay in a rustic cabin. Inside Tip: From late fall through early spring, guided horseback trail rides (or hand-led pony rides for those six and under) are available at the Eagles View equestrian area in the park. Fees vary and no reservations are accepted (opens at 9 a.m.).