Given its location, the most exceptional thing about Oleta River State Park is how wild and away-from-it-all it feels.
Oleta is considered the largest urban park in Florida, with more than 1,000 acres. Yet it is 3.5 miles from the upscale Aventura Mall, with more than 300 stores.
Oleta River State Park feels like an island getaway, with outstanding kayaking, mountain-biking trails and a sandy crescent of beach with especially clear water.
Many will be surprised to discover there is also a wooded peninsula here where 14 small rustic camper cabins are available for rent inexpensively (see below for details.)
We have visited many times as day-trippers, renting kayaks and trying out the kayak trail inside the park, hanging out at the beach, swimming and picnicking. We come on weekdays, when the big park feels quite empty. (On weekends, especially in the summer, Oleta fills up with groups picnicking and swimming at the beach. )
The downsides of Oleta? Condo towers along the beach are visible from most viewpoints, and planes fly overhead hurting the solitude.
Still, we found it to be a lovely getaway, worth a visit; a precious taste of nature hidden inside a big city.
Kayaking in Oleta River State Park
One of the best reasons to visit is to kayak.
We were surprised to find beautiful mangrove tunnels on the kayak trail that weaves through the park. Mangroves are a protected species; they’re important for reducing erosion and protecting shorelines from hurricanes. They’re are incubators for baby sealife.
The Oleta kayak trail took us less than an hour to complete, but we could have spent many more hours if it hadn’t been too windy to paddle to Sandspur Island.
The park’s lagoon opens out to Biscayne Bay and if you reach Sandspur Island, you can get out, picnic or stretch your legs. Kayakers sometimes see manatees and dolphins in these waters. (Your best bet of seeing manatees is November to April.)
Sandspur is also known as Beer Can Island and is one of the largest spoil islands in Biscayne Bay. It is a 15-acre island with a sandy beach facing Oleta and it takes about a half hour to reach by kayak. There are no facilities there and it is densely wooded. It is also a popular destination for power boaters on weekends.
Oleta has a large and active kayak concessionaire that offers canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards, and also offers full-moon kayak tours, Friday night sunset tours and paddle board yoga. Here’s a link to the concessionaire, Oleta River Outdoor Center.
If you want to launch your own canoe or kayak, you must launch from parking lot four or five, not the concessionaire launch site.
As of 2021, a second kayak option is available. The concessionaire has re-opened the historic Blue Marlin Fish House. It is situated on park land but is located outside its main entrance at 2500 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach.
The Fish House rents kayaks and stand up paddleboards for paddling the Oleta River — a different paddling route than the one inside the park. On the Oleta River paddlers reach mangrove tunnels that feel like you’re in the wilderness (except for the city noises you can’t quite escape.)
If you bring your own kayak there is a small fee to launch here.
The Blue Marlin Fish House was built in 1938 as a smokehouse for fish and a trading post where fishermen could barter their catch. It was refurbished and now serves beer, seafood, sandwiches, salads and, of course, smoked fish dip.
Mountain biking at Oleta River State Park
South Florida is flat, but Oleta River State Park has 10 miles of intermediate mountain bike trails that have been built to be hilly and challenging.
Oleta is, in fact, locally famous as the best mountain biking site in the region. Be warned, though: The roots will get you here. They require constant attention as you pedal through the off-road biking trails that wind throughout the park. If you kayak, cyclists are often visible from the kayak/canoe trails.
Oleta River State Park bike rental: The park concessionaire rents mountain bikes. Here’s advice we were given: If you plan to rent, test out the bike you are given to make sure it is in full working order before you head out on the trail.
The park also has three miles of paved trails, which can be ridden by bike or used by roller bladers.
Oleta River State Park camping cabins
These 14 cabins are one of Miami’s best-kept secrets.
True, they are just simple air conditioned one-room cabins with covered porches. You need to bring a sleeping bag and you use a campground-like central restroom facility, so they are more accurately considered “camping cabins.”
But they only cost $62 a night and they allow visitors to have a camping-in-nature experience in an area that is solid concrete and commerce for hours in every direction.
Unlike a lot of state park cabins, the Oleta cabins seem fairly easy to reserve. (Weekends, of course, book up first.)
We would recommend a stay in the cabins for two types of visitors:
- South Floridians who want a quick, inexpensive getaway close to home. It would be good for families with young children, for example.
- Visitors to Florida on a budget who like natural settings, kayaking or mountain biking.
Most cabins are equipped with one double bed, a bunk bed and air conditioning. Exceptions are Cabin 2, with one double bed only, and Cabin 3 with two sets of bunk beds. Cabin 1 is ADA-accessible. Linens are not provided and cabins have no kitchens or bathrooms, a restroom with hot showers is located nearby and each cabin has a grill and fire ring.
Be aware: No see ums and mosquitos like a natural setting too and can be nuisance here at sundown and sunrise. Bring bug spray.
Oleta River State Park: Beach an picnic pavilions
There is a broad, manmade beach opening up onto a lagoon off Biscayne Bay. The shallow water and lack of waves makes this a nice beach for young children, although there are no lifeguards.
Because the location is very near the Haulover Inlet, the water is remarkably clear.
On a visit with a toddler we spent hours here splashing, floating on beach toys and playing in the sand. It was relaxing for the adults because the beach felt so safe.
The beach is surrounded by picnic areas and pavilions that are easily accessible from the beach parking lot.
The nine picnic pavilions are available on a first-come, first-seated basis, or you can rent one by reserving in advance for your group. Call the park office at (305) 919-1844 to reserve a pavilion. One of the pavilions has 24 tables; the others have 10 tables each.
These pavilions have beautiful views and several are convenient to the beach, making them popular for family gatherings and parties.
Oleta River State Park fishing
The Oleta River State Park fishing pier along the Intracoastal is popular with fishermen because the proximity to the Haulover Inlet increases the variety of fish in these waters. Fisherman have landed snook, redfish, flounder, snapper, mullet, tarpon and many other varieties.
Resources for visiting Oleta River State Park
Oleta River State Park
400 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach, FL 33160
Hours: 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year
Day use entrance fee is $6 per vehicle (up to 8), and public showers are available for day visitors. Pedestrians can access the park for $2, and single-occupant vehicles or motorcycles are $4.
To reserve a cabin: Go to reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 1-800-326-3521, Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. up to 11 months in advance. (TDD 888-433-0287) Minimum stay is two nights. Maximum stay is 14 days.
Cabin fees: In addition to the base rate, which varies from park to park, campers will pay state and local taxes, a $6.70 booking fee and a new $7/day utilities fee for cabins with water and/or electric power.
Cancellations and changes: Cancellation fee is $17.50, up until the day before the reservation begins. If you cancel on the first day of your reservation, you will also sacrifice your first night’s fees. Cancellations are not permitted within 18 days of making the reservation. Any other changes to your reservation will cost $10.
Pets: Not allowed in state park cabins or cabin areas.
The interesting history of Oleta River State Park
Oleta was preserved surprisingly late in the 20th Century — the State of Florida bought the initial parcel of land in 1980 to protect and restore it. (Aventura Mall was built in 1983, so in 1980, it was probably Oleta’s last best hope.)
The river was originally named Big Snake Creek in 1841, and it connected Biscayne Bay and the Everglades. Pioneers moved here in the 1890s and started growing pineapples and vegetables.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, known as the champion of the Everglades, was a regular visitor at Oleta River State Park from its opening in 1986 and attended its opening ceremony.
What’s near Oleta River State Park
Haulover Beach Park. (cross the Intracoastal on 826, and turn right at Collins (State Road A1A). Be forewarned, this beach is clothing optional.
Haulover Marine Center. Full-service marina with a boat launch for larger boats, and a bait shop for fishermen, and a waterfront restaurant.
Take Sunny Isles Blvd. (SR 826) east from I-95 and cross U.S. 1. You will cross the river (the historic Blue Marlin Fish House is on your right) and the entrance is a short distance on the right side. You can also access the park from State Road A1A by taking Sunny Isles Blvd., just north of Haulover Inlet.
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.