Winter has arrived in Tennessee! That means it’s time to stock up on sleds, bread, and milk, because the snowpocalypse could arrive at any time!
All jokes aside, you’re probably already missing those hot summer afternoons as you scrape the frost off your windshield. Of course, there are those rare souls who love winter and all the fun it brings with it, such as skiing at Beech Mountain, snowshoeing through the Roan Highlands, or enjoying hot cocoa by the fireplace. The majority of us, however, can only dream of palm trees and the warm Florida sunshine.
Disney, Universal, and Daytona Beach may all be calling your name, but consider spending some time exploring the natural wonders of the Sunshine State. A plethora of state and national parks are scattered from the Georgia line all the way to Key West, offering a respite from the crowds of Orlando. You can snorkel with Manatees, hike the Florida National Scenic Trail, or bird along isolated beaches.
Biscayne National Park might just be the crown jewel of Florida’s natural areas. Located to the east of Everglades National Park, this tropical haven gives its far more famous sibling a run for its money. At first glance, visitors might wonder just where this national park even is. It may come as a shock, but over ninety-five percent of Biscayne National Park is covered in water. While the canyons and mountains of western parks are nowhere to be found, this park is more akin to our own Great Smoky Mountains, as the true treasures are found not in the landscapes, but in the plants and animals that make it home.
First-time visitors should make their way to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Located just a short drive from Homestead, you’ll pass the Homestead-Miami NASCAR Speedway on your way down Canal Street. This is a day-use area and closes at sunset each evening, so plan your travel times accordingly. The visitor center features a museum that provides an in-depth look at the amazing ecosystems found throughout the park’s four main habitats. A twenty-minute video explains the park’s unique environments, from the mangrove forests which surround the shorelines, to the coral reefs found just off the coast of the keys.
Yes, you read that correctly. Biscayne National Park protects the northernmost of the Florida Keys, those tiny spits of land which stretch all the way to Key West and beyond to Biscayne National Park in the Gulf of Mexico. Boca Chita, Elliott, and Adams Keys lie about eight miles off the mainland, separated by the waters of Biscayne Bay. While the estuarine waters of the bay are home to amazing creatures such as dolphins and manatees, visitors will need to go a couple miles east of the keys to see the true stars of the park. Here lie some of the northernmost coral reef systems in North America, home to sponges, anemones, and angelfish.
These areas are only accessible by boat, so chat with a ranger at the visitor center or check out the park’s website at www.nps.gov/bisc to plan your trip. Biscayne National Park Institute offers guided tours which depart from the visitor center daily. Tours start as low as $39 per person and can range from a peaceful day of sailing on the bay to historical trips to the Boca Chita Key Lighthouse. Snorkeling trips allow an intimate look not only at the beautiful coral and fish species, but also the many shipwrecks which are scattered among the reef system. Some of these date back several hundred years!
Those who feel more comfortable on dry land can still enjoy this park. As mentioned before, Boca Chita Key is home to a historical lighthouse which offers breathtaking views in all directions. This makes a great place to bird and scan the bay for marine life. Visitors will find a campground as well as a half-mile hiking trail which makes a semicircle around the southern half of the key. Just to the south lies Elliott Key, by far the largest land area within the park. Here one will find a spacious campground with showers and fresh water, a picnic area, restrooms, and a dock for fishing. Spite Highway, a six-mile hiking trail stretches the length of the key and provides an in-depth look at the unique forest ecosystems of south Florida. Another recreation area is available at the much smaller Adams Key, where a picnic pavilion and hiking trail are the main attractions.
If you’re short on time, the grounds surrounding Dante Fascell Visitor Center offer several hours of exploration without leaving the mainland. Besides the museum and theater already mentioned, an art gallery displays the handiwork of local artists influenced by the park’s beauty. A picnic area and park store can be found here as well. The Jetty Trail begins just outside and leads to a boardwalk over the bay (the last half was closed on our visit due to damage from Hurricane Irma, but check the park’s website to see its current status). Keep a sharp lookout for wildlife in this area, as we were lucky enough to see a manatee just a few feet off the shoreline! Kayak rentals are available for those who wish to explore the mangrove shorelines up close. Of course, you could just sit along the shoreline and enjoy the dolphins, sunshine, and views of Miami’s skyline beyond.