Southeast Florida

Biscayne National Park: The Miami treasure you probably haven’t explored

The Boca Chita lighthouse is decorative.

The lighthouse is decorative, built by an industrialist to help make Boca Chita in Biscayne National Park even more picturesque. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

If you don’t have a power or sailboat, it’s not easy to explore most of Biscayne National Park, east of Homestead. About 95 percent of its 172,971 acres are underwater.

The parts you can reach and experience, however, are worth the effort:

  • A first-rate visitor center with interesting exhibits explaining the area’s environment.
  • A mangrove-fringed coast you can explore by kayak.
  • Shady picnic spots and a scenic boardwalk into Biscayne Bay.
  • Best of all, a boat ride to Boca Chita, an island with an intriguing past.
The view from the lighthouse on Boca Chita in Biscayne National Park.

The view from the lighthouse on Boca Chita in Biscayne National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Biscayne National Park is actually the start of the Florida Keys, and when you get out in a boat a little distance from land, the stunning Caribbean-turquoise water will remind you of that.

The view from the lighthouse on Boca Chita in Biscayne National Park.

The view from the lighthouse on Boca Chita in Biscayne National Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

North of Key Largo, there are actually 33 small islands and a 28-mile-long reef, all part of Biscayne National Park. The largest is Elliott Key.

A cannon from the HMW Fowey, which sunk off Boca Chita in 1748. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A cannon from the HMW Fowey, which sunk off Boca Chita in 1748. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Despite attempts by developers, they were never connected to the mainland by bridge and thus they escaped development. The national park was formed in 1968.

Like the other keys, the islands are fossilized coral reefs formed 100,000 years ago. There were only a handful of residents when the park was created and these largely unspoiled islands give you a glimpse of how all the Florida Keys must have once looked.

Boca Chita in the distance from the boat tour at Biscayne National Park.

Boca Chita in the distance from the boat tour at Biscayne National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Biscayne National Park boat tour

The islands are too far to reach for most kayakers, so the only way most people can visit them is on a tour from Biscayne National Park.

After several years where no tours were available, the park partnered with Miami-Dade County Parks to offer boat service on Thursday to Sundays to Boca Chita Island.

Most of the time spent on the tour, guided by a national park ranger, is the boat ride. It takes 45 minutes to motor to Boca Chita, you spend 45 minutes on the island, and then it’s 45 minutes back.

The 45-foot power catamaran is shaded and I bet it’s a pleasant breezy trip even on steamy summer days.

As you approach, Boca Chita Island is a beautiful sight framed by the turquoise water. It looks like an island paradise, which is exactly what it was developed to be.

Purchased in 1937 by millionaire Mark Honeywell, founder of Honeywill Inc., Boca Chita was a private party island for Honeywell, his moneyed pals and their yachts.

Refugee rafts at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Refugee rafts on Boca Chita at Biscayne National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Honeywell had a decorative lighthouse built, which you can tour and from its top admire the spectacular view of blues and greens.

There’s a cannon from the HMS Fowey, which sunk on the reef near here in 1748, on display, a cannon Honeywell fired off to get his party started.

To make the story even more Hollywood-worthy, it is tinged with tragedy. Honeywell’s wife suffered an accident boating at the island and died, and he sold it in 1945.

Today the island is still a party destination, but now it’s for powerboat owners from Miami who come to hang out for the day, barbecue and play their music, often loudly. Unfortunately, that noise does not contribute to a real “national park experience.”

There’s a small rocky beach on the island, and the ranger/guide told folks on the boat they were welcome to take a dip or wade in if they wanted.

In 45 minutes, however, there is only enough time to walk around, see the lighthouse and beach and perhaps gaze on a few balsero rafts that recently carried Cuban refugees to the area.

The picnic sites are shaded with a great view at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The picnic sites are shaded with a great view at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The boat tours cost $35 for adults and $25 for kids aged 5 to 12. It’s free for children 4 and under. Reservations are advised although you do not pay in advance. To reserve, call 786-335-3644 or by stop by the visitor center bookstore. Walk-ins and groups are welcome if the trip isn’t full.

Here are more details about the boat tour.

A second boat tour, smaller, longer and more expensive, might suit some: All day excursions on a sailboat carrying six people for $145 per person. These tours will leave at 10 a.m. and return at 4 p.m. These trips will include opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, island hiking, kayaking or paddle boarding.

The rocky beach at Boca Chita, Biscayne National Park.

The rocky beach at Boca Chita, Biscayne National Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

These tours involve sailing on the bay for a few hours, a stop at either Boca Chita or Adams Key, where guests can use stand up paddleboards or kayaks to explore mangrove tunnels and nearby waterways. Guests can hike on trails on the islands and swim at small beaches on each island. Here are details about the sailboat excursions.

Paddle board and kayak rentals are available on weekends from Sports Stylee Paddling at Convoy Point (the location of the park visitor center). Call 786-389-2522 for more details.

The park website lists several possible kayaking routes leaving from the visitor center area:

While the Biscayne National Park website does list kayaking to Elliott Key as a possibility, a ranger explained it is seven miles of open water, which is about six hours of paddling if you’re lucky. This is a trip for advanced kayakers and perfect weather.

Biscayne National Park on land

Displays in the visitor center at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Displays in the visitor center at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are plenty of objects to touch in the visitor center at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are plenty of objects to touch in the visitor center at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Admission is free to this national park, and it’s a great place to stop for a picnic because the tables are in shade overlooking Biscayne Bay.

While here, you can stroll out onto a quarter-mile-long boardwalk that leads to a jetty along the boat channel. It’s a scenic walk, past families fishing and wading in the water along the mangroves.

The boardwalk leading to the jetty at Biscayne National Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

The boardwalk leading to the jetty at Biscayne National Park. (Photo: David Blasco)

The visitor center is worthy of a national park, with exhibits to help you identify plants and animals from Biscayne Bay as well as a good account of the human history. There are extensive hands-on objects and an informative short video.

 

Camping at Biscayne National Park

There is camping both on Boca Chita and Elliott Key, but you need to reach the islands on your own boat. The fee is $25 per night including tent site and docking for a boat in the harbor. No reservations: it’s first-come, first served.

The islands are notorious for mosquitos in the rainy season.

Planning your visit to Biscayne National Park

Things to do near Biscayne National Park

  • If you’re driving to Biscayne National Park, you may want to keep going to explore the Florida Keys. Our Florida Keys mile-marker guide is an ideal companion to a roadtrip.
  • Everglades National Park is 20 minutes away. Here are our tips for visiting Everglades National Park. A free trolley connects the two national parks and the city of Homestead.
  • Robert is Here is a great stop in Homestead for milkshakes (key lime passion fruit!) plus exotic fruit and variety of farm animals.
  • Drive down scenic Card Sound Road and discover Alabama Jack’s, a classic Keys tiki bar known for its conch fritters.
  • An attraction that belongs on the Florida funky hall of fame: Coral Castle Museum, is minutes away.
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