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.
The trip to Boca Chita Key is the most popular of the choices for good reasons: You travel over dazzling turquoise waters into Biscayne Bay to stop briefly on an island that was designed to be a rich man’s paradise.
Biscayne National Park: Where the Florida Keys begin
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 Florida 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.
The Biscayne National Park boat trip to Boca Chita
The islands are too far to reach for all but the most experienced sea kayakers, so the only way most people can visit them is on a tour from Biscayne National Park through a nonprofit called Biscayne National Park Institute.
The trip to Boca Chita Island leaves from either Deering Estate (tickets $66) or Coconut Grove (tickets $79.) The little island 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. More details and more about the park are below and boat tour tickets are here.)
The three-hour tour to Boca Chita is on a 25-foot powerboat and it takes at least a half hour to reach the island from Deering Estate, 16701 SW 72nd Ave., Miami, FL 33157, where our tour began.
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 Honeywell 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.
The structures Honeywell built are now the Boca Chita Key National Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Historic items include a cannon from the HMS Fowey, which sunk on the reef near here in 1748. Honeywell fired the cannon to get the party started.
To make the island’s story even more Hollywood-worthy, it is tinged with tragedy. Honeywell’s wife suffered a fatal accident boating at the island, 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.
More to do in Biscayne National Park
Here are six more things to do in Biscayne National Park, all good reasons to visit.
- Visit the Homestead headquarters, where a first-rate visitor center features interesting exhibits explaining the area’s environment.
- Explore by kayak along the mangrove-fringed coast from the Homestead
- Picnic at a scenic shady spot overlooking Biscayne Bay at the Homestead headquarters.
- Stroll the scenic boardwalk into Biscayne Bay in Homestead.
- Snorkel shipwrecks and reefs on trips offered from Coconut Grove and Homestead.
- Paddle on a kayak or paddleboard on one of the southernmost islands, where you explore remote Jones Lagoon by stand up paddlboard or kayak, looking for baby sharks, sea turtles, jelly fish and other sea life. From a paddleboard, you can peer into the clear water at the wondrous sea life. It’s $99 and is offered daily from Homestead. Visitor tip: Be prepared for mosquitos even in winter.
- Take a history-oriented tour to Stiltsville or to the bay’s lighthouses.
Scenic history tours in Biscayne National Park
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 six 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. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the Stiltsville tour.
If you love lighthouses, there is a four-hour tour offered one Saturday 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 $80.
Seeing Biscayne Bay National Park 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.
Biscayne National Park camping via motorboat, sail or kayak
Two islands in Biscayne National Park accommodate campers on primitive tent sites with limited amenities, and both islands are accessible for camping only by private boats.
Boca Chita Key is the park’s most popular island. It features beautiful waterfront views, a grassy camping area, picnic tables and grills. Toilets are available, but there are no showers, sinks or drinking water. A cleated bulkhead is the only place for docking.
Elliott Key is the park’s largest island. Restrooms with sinks and cold water showers, picnic tables and grills are available. Drinking water is available, but bring your own water as a precaution if the system goes down. There are 33 boat slips in the marina.
The 7-mile paddle by kayak across Biscayne Bay is for experienced paddlers only. Leaving a vehicle in the parking lot at the park’s Visitor Center is permitted when camping on one of the park islands, but you’ll need to fill out a free parking permit.
Cost: $25 per night including tent site and boat docking ($12.50 per night with senior pass.) Tent camping only is $15 per night. Sites are first come, first served. Payments with exact change upon arrival. Camping and docking fees are waived from May 1 to Sept. 30, when the park is less popular because of heat and bugs. There is no ferry service for campers.
Planning your visit to Biscayne National Park
The park’s headquarters and many boat tours are at Convoy Point and is located at 9700 SW 328th Street, Sir Lancelot Jones Way, Homestead, FL 33033.
Some tours (to Boca Chita and Stiltsville) leave from Deering Estate, a Miami-Dade County park (that is wonderful) at 16701 SW 72nd Ave., Miami, FL 33157.
- Information about guided tours and booking tickets.
- Biscayne National Park official website
- Biscayne National Park map
- Maritime Heritage Trail
- What it’s like to take the history-oriented tour of Stiltsville in Biscayne National Park.
- Find a room in Homestead
- Biscayne National Park: How to get there. From the Florida Turnpike take exit 6 (Speedway Boulevard). Turn left from exit ramp and continue south to SW 328th Street (North Canal Drive). Turn left on 328th Street and continue for four miles to the end of the road. The park entrance is on the left just before the entrance to Homestead Bayfront Marina.
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.
- There’s a unique park in Homestead that showcases trees and other plants that produce edible fruits and nuts. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Fruit and Spice Park.
- An attraction that belongs on the Florida funky hall of fame, Coral Castle is minutes away. Here from Florida Rambler are 15 things to amaze you at this mysterious ‘work of art’ in Homestead.
- Knaus Berry Farm, for strawberry milks shakes and Florida’s best cinnamon rolls, in Homestead.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.