The Cape Florida lighthouse located 12 miles north of Boca Chita Key.

How to visit Biscayne National Park

With the third longest coral reef system in the world, Florida’s watery wonder is a haven for snorkeling, boating, and diving.

The 1930s Boca Chita Lighthouse offers one of the best views of the islands around Florida’s Biscayne National Park and the Miami city skyline.
Photograph by Michael Melford, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why you should go to Biscayne National Park

Despite being so close to one of the largest urban areas in the country, Biscayne National Park’s wild waters, islands, and mangroves remain in a surprisingly pristine state. The park thrives today, despite efforts in the 1960s to transform the area into a massive waterfront residential community.

Less than a dozen miles from downtown Miami as the gull flies, the park protects the northern end of the Florida Keys and the world’s third longest coral reef system. Its animal biodiversity on land and water easily matches and surpasses every other unit of the National Park System.

About 95 percent of Biscayne is water—a huge lagoon-like bay as much as eight miles wide—and most of the mainland portion is impenetrable mangrove. That unique geography sets it apart from neighboring—and better-known—Everglades National Park.

“A lot of people have the misconception that because we’re so close, Biscayne is the same park as Everglades,” says Elizabeth Strom, the ranger overseeing Biscayne’s volunteer program. “While we do have some similar ecosystems and resources, the parks are unique,” with Everglades being primarily freshwater and Biscayne being saltwater.

Biscayne’s warm subtropical waters are an aquatic adventureland for canoeing and kayaking, motorboating and sailing, scuba diving and snorkeling, fishing, and paddleboarding. But you’re not limited to underwater pursuits. As a stop on the Atlantic Flyway, the park is one of the best places for birders, too.

(Make the most of your next national park trip with these planning guides.)

Where to find the best views in the park

Built in 1938, the 65-foot-high Boca Chita Lighthouse offers the park’s best view of the Miami skyline. The lighthouse, located in Boca Chita Key, is only accessible by boat. The Biscayne National Park Institute (BNPI) has numerous eco-friendly packages that visit the key and the lighthouse, including an easy half-day heritage cruise ($79 per person) and a daylong sailing and snorkeling adventure ($199 per person). Check the NPS website for other authorized concessionaires. At press time, Boca Chita Key Historic District was undergoing maintenance, so check for closures before you book.

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Where to find the park’s best hikes and water trails

Hikes: With fewer people and the possibility of more wildlife (especially birds), the Black Point Jetty Trail is the better of the park’s two mainland trails and starts at the south end of SW 8th Avenue. The out-and-back stroll takes around an hour from the parking lot and walkers can round off their hike with lunch or sunset margaritas or mojitos at the nearby Black Point Ocean Grill.

The Spite Highway trail runs seven miles on Elliott Key and offers arguably the best chance to spot the large, rare Schaus swallowtail butterfly. The path was originally blazed in the 1960s by disgruntled developers who, out of spite, drove bulldozers down the middle of the island to protest national park authorities taking possession. The trailhead is near Elliott Key Campground, about halfway down the island.

(This ambitious new Florida trail links two national parks.)

Water trails: Given the copious amount of open water, the Elliott Key Paddling Trail is the most challenging of the park’s four official canoe/kayak routes. But the Crocodile Creek Paddling Trail offers a much deeper dive into Biscayne’s flora and fauna, via a 3.75-mile round trip that includes a loop through the narrow, dark mangroves south of the visitor center. Both routes start from the small beach beside Dante Fascell Visitor Center.

Out in the Atlantic, snorkelers and divers can explore the Biscayne Maritime Heritage Trail, which connects six shipwrecks inside the park boundary, from the steamship Arratoon Apcar that ran aground in 1878 to the schooner Mandalay that sank in 1966. The route extends from just south of Key Biscayne to the bottom end of Elliott Key.

Where to find the best spots for seeing wildlife

Biscayne National Park harbors an incredible range of wildlife, from sea turtles and the rarely seen American crocodile to manatees, bottlenose dolphins, more than 600 native fish species, and hundreds of bird species.

The Biscayne Birding Trail includes 10 stops—at islands, mangroves, jetties, and reef lights—where paddlers can observe feathered friends. The BNPI offers a Jones Lagoon trip to a remote end of the park known for its nesting colonies and rare birds, like the roseate spoonbill, as well as sea turtles and baby sharks.

For those who don’t have their own boat, the best way to get up close and personal with staghorn, elkhorn, and other coral species, and thousands of colorful tropical fish is one of the scuba and snorkel experiences offered by the BNPI.

(Scared to scuba? Here are five reasons it’s finally time to learn.)

Best things to do for families

At only 0.8 miles round trip—much of it on wooden boardwalk—the Convoy Point Jetty Trail near the visitors center offers an easy walk for kids of any age or parents with strollers.

Strom recommends the Junior Ranger and Reef Ranger programs. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center features a “touch table,” where visitors can pick up corals, animal bones, and sponges to learn about the park’s ecosystems.

Children aged eight and older can participate in several guided activities organized by BNPI, including a small-group snorkeling experience and an outing that combines snorkeling with sailing and paddling, plus an island visit. Others, like the snorkel and paddle eco-adventure, are open to kids 12 and older.

(10 things you can do to save the ocean.)

A manatee munches on a wisp of eelgrass in Ichetucknee River, most of which flows through Ichetucknee Springs State Park, about 37 miles north of Gainesville, Florida.

Manatee spotting

A manatee munches on a wisp of eelgrass in Ichetucknee River, most of which flows through Ichetucknee Springs State Park, about 37 miles north of Gainesville, Florida.
Photograph by Erika Larsen, Nat Geo Image Collection

Where to stay in Biscayne National Park

Campsites: The only way to spend the night in Biscayne National Park is tent camping on Elliott Key or Boca Chita Key. There are no roads to the islands, so visitors must arrive by private boat.

The 40 campsites on Elliott Key and the 21 campsites on Boca Chita Key are first come, first served and payment for a site is through Both islands have boat docks, restrooms, and grills; Elliott Key has showers, picnic tables, and potable water. The fees are $25 per night for campsites and $35 for boat docking and campsites.

Hotels: Homestead has the nearest indoor accommodations. The half-dozen hotels where Campbell Drive meets the turnpike are just a 15-minute drive from the park’s visitors center.

(Here’s how to plan the ultimate camping adventure.)

Here’s what else you need to know

Fishing: Anglers 16 years of age and older require a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) license to fish in park waters. Many areas are closed to fishing; check the NPS website for prohibited areas and additional details on fishing and lobstering.

Boating: The park’s navigable waters are open 24 hours per day. Due to low tides and sensitive coral areas, it’s important to review the park’s boating guidelines on marinas, safety, and tide predictions before you visit.

Going car-free: Visitors without a vehicle can reach the park on the Homestead National Parks Trolley (weekends late November to April), which connects to Miami-Dade municipal bus service from elsewhere in the metro area.

Planning ahead: Because Biscayne National Park is mostly accessible only by boat, many visits take advance planning—like making reservations for boat tours or island camping. Anyone visiting during summer should pack insect repellent; Biscayne’s mosquitos are notoriously aggressive. Reef-friendly sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are highly recommended for anyone who’s getting in the water to swim, scuba, or snorkel.

Are pets allowed in Biscayne National Park?

Service animals are permitted in Biscayne National Park. Pets are only allowed on the grounds at Convoy Point (not inside the Dante Fascell Visitor Center) and on Elliott Key. They are not allowed anywhere on Boca Chita Key, even in docked boats. Pets must be kept on a maximum six-foot-long leash at all times. Visitors must pick up after them and properly dispose of waste. Find the full pet policy, and the definition of service animals, for Biscayne National Park here.


Besides accessible parking spaces near the visitors center, the Homestead National Parks Trolley is free, wheelchair accessible, service animal friendly, and available from several locations in the south Florida city.

Dante Fascell Visitor Center offers ramp and elevator access, ADA-compliant restrooms, information brochures in Braille, wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, and accessible videos in a theater with wheelchair seating. The Convoy Point Jetty Trail is accessible for wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Some boat tours are also accessible. Find more details along with a map of the Jetty Trail here.

(Learn how the National Park Service is making its public lands more accessible.)

Six-time Lowell Thomas Award winner Joe Yogerst has worked on more than 40 National Geographic books. He lives in California.
Go With Nat Geo: Learn more about Biscayne National Park in the National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States Ninth Edition.
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