You need a boat to see and visit most of Biscayne National Park, east of Homestead. About 95 percent of its 172,971 acres are underwater.
Fortunately, if you don’t have a boat, there are a variety of experiences available to visitors of Biscayne National Park, including:
- 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.
- Most popular of all, a boat ride to Boca Chita, an island with an intriguing past.
- Snorkeling trips to shipwrecks and reefs.
- History-oriented tours to Stiltsville and to lighthouses.
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.
North of Key Largo, there are 33 small islands and a 28-mile-long reef, all part of Biscayne National Park. The largest is Elliott Key.
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.
Biscayne National Park boat tours
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 now has a partner who offers a wide variety of experiences, a nonprofit called Biscayne National Park Institute.
The most popular boat tour is to Boca Chita Island, a little island that was once a rich man’s private island, complete with a decorative lighthouse you can climb.
Other boat tours include snorkeling trips to reefs and shipwrecks, eco-trips to Jones Lagoon where you explore by stand up paddleboard and tours of Stiltsville and lighthouses.
The boat trip to Boca Chita
The three-hour tour is on a 25-foot powerboat and it takes at least a half hour to reach the island.
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.
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 the time allotted on the island, however, there is not a lot of time for swimming.
The Boca Chita Island Experience costs $44 for adults and $34 for kids aged 5 to 12. It’s free for children 4 and under.
Other boat tours and snorkeling trips
There are a variety of other tours.
- There are two snorkeling trips: A daily trip is offered in the morning and in the afternoon and its destination will vary to include patch reefs and possibly a shipwreck. It’s $59.
- The “shipwreck” snorkeling tour, is $69. The captain chooses the shipwreck snorkeling site daily based on sea conditions, but the primary wreck that is snorkeled is the Mandalay. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on snorkeling a shipwreck.
- A boat trip goes to one of the southernmost islands, where you explore remote Jones Lagoon by stand up paddlboard, looking for baby sharks, sea turtles, jelly fish and other sea life. It’s $89 and is offered Sundays and Thursdays. (Kayaks are available for those who prefer.)
Scenic history tours
- Floridians have always loved Stiltsville. From tales of gambling and debauchery in the 1930s to ‘60s, to appearances on Miami Vice in the ‘80s to mentions in Carl Hiaassen novels, Stiltsville has represented the wild, cool and kooky side of Miami. The seven remaining houses, built on stilts in Biscayne Bay a mile from land in Miami, are now part of Biscayne National Park and can only be seen well by boat. The three-hour tour is led by a well-trained volunteer guide who provides extensive background and history of not only Stiltsville, but also of Biscayne Bay. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the Stiltsville tour.
- If you love lighthouses, there is a four-hour tour offered twice a month from Deering Estate that tells the stories and takes you close to three lighthouse—Cape Florida on Key Biscayne, Fowey Rocks and Boca Chita. The summer is the best time for this tour because calmer seas often allow the boat to get very close to the Fowey lighthouse and the nearby wreck of the Aratoon Apcar, which is part of the Maritime Heritage Tour, according to Manges. The tour is $70.
Evening boat tour with entertainment
- This one is shorter and affordable. If you just want to get out on the bay for a pleasant ride, the 5:30 p.m. Saturday evening cruise is for you. For $15, you spend one hour on the boat, learn about the park and be entertained by local musician Grant Livingston.
See Biscayne Bay by kayak or canoe
Canoe, paddle board and kayak rentals are available starting at $25 for 90 minutes.
The park website lists several possible kayaking routes leaving from the visitor center area:
- Black Point paddle trail guide
- Crocodile Creek paddle trail guide
- Deering paddle trail guide
- Mowry Canal paddle trail guide.
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
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 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
- Information about guided tours and booking tickets.
- Biscayne National Park official website
- Maritime Heritage Trail
- Take history-oriented tour of Stiltsville in Biscayne National Park.
- Find a room in Homestead
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.