When thinking of the USA’s majestic national parks, a massive swamp, a seemingly endless swath of the Atlantic Ocean or a 19th-century fort might not immediately come to mind.
Yet these places represent three of the country’s most biologically diverse and captivating national parks. And all three are located at the southern tip of Florida. Among some of the best places to visit in the state, its three national parks capture everything that’s natural, wild and even a little dangerous about the Sunshine State. Here’s everything you need to know about how to get to, what to see in and where to stay at Florida’s national parks.
1. Everglades National Park offers the best wildlife viewing
When it comes to national parks, Everglades is a biodiversity overachiever. In addition to its federal designation, the park is also classified as an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Everglades’ 1.5 million acres of wetlands contain more than 120 different tree species and nearly 40 varieties of orchids. Also prowling the area are hundreds of types of wildlife, including alligators, crocodiles, manatees and the state’s eponymous – and critically endangered – panther.
In the Everglades, adventure beckons. Hikers will find a small network of trails behind each of the three visitor centers. One of the easiest and most well known is the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, a 0.8-mile boardwalk path that allows visitors to walk along the sawgrass marsh. If you have a little more time and a bike (rentals are available), take a spin on the Shark Valley Trail, which winds 15 miles underneath a canopy of cypress, palm and mangrove trees.
The western side of the park is ideal for exploring by kayak, with multiple marked water routes. The granddaddy of them all is the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which connects Flamingo and Everglades City. Recommended only for serious paddlers, the trip takes about eight days, with camping available on the many beaches and wooded platforms scattered along the route (backcountry permits are required).
Visiting Everglades National Park: The eastern gateways into Everglades are about an hour away from Miami, making for an easy day trip. Although there are no lodges within the park, visitors can overnight at Long Pine Key (open during the park’s peak season, November through May) and Flamingo (year-round) campgrounds, with rates starting around $25. Bring lots of insect repellent, as mosquitoes can be brutal during the summer.
2. Scuba divers and snorkelers will love Biscayne National Park
Most of Biscayne National Park’s 173,000 acres is ocean, which means a visit here will require a boat. Visitors flock to the park to catch a glimpse of migrating water birds and hundreds of varieties of reef fish (fishing is permitted with a valid Florida fishing license), as well as dolphins, endangered sea turtles and other wondrous creatures who live along the world’s third-longest coral-reef tract. Below the surface, divers can explore the remnants of six shipwrecked boats lying on the ocean floor.
Above the waterline, the park encompasses the northernmost Florida Keys, including Elliott and Boca Chita Keys. Stiltsville has been battered by hurricanes since its days of being an off-shore gambling and vice haven, and now only seven of its original structures remain. The National Park Service has been working to protect and preserve these stilt houses as a reminder of the area’s lawless past and to potentially serve as education centers in the future.
Visitors who prefer to hike have a few options, including the so-called Spite Trail, which runs down the middle of Elliott Key. The 7-mile, one-way trail follows the remnants of a six-lane road built in 1968 by developers angry the federal government planned to turn the area into a park. Luckily, nature eventually reclaimed that bulldozed swath, and today an intimate dirt path leads through a beautiful hardwood forest.
Visiting Biscayne National Park: There’s no fee to enter the park. The Biscayne National Park Institute offers multiple paid guided water tours, giving visitors a chance to explore via sailboat or kayak or go underwater with scuba or snorkeling gear. If you bring your own boat, experienced paddlers can kayak less than 10 miles from the visitor center to Elliott or Boca Chita Keys, where they can explore the islands and camp for $25 a night. (There’s no RV camping inside the park, but you can find plenty of privately owned options throughout the Keys and on the mainland.) The 65-foot-high Boca Chita Lighthouse offers great views of Miami and the surrounding landscape but is usually only staffed during the September to May peak season.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park delights history lovers
Seventy miles west of Key West and surrounded by miles of gorgeous, crystal-clear turquoise ocean, Garden Key is not only the biggest island in Dry Tortugas but also its main attraction.
Built in the 19th century on Garden Key, Fort Jefferson originally defended American waters from pirates. During the Civil War, it became a key strategic base for Union forces, blocking Confederate supply ships. In the aftermath of the war, the fortress became a prison. Its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg hours after he assassinated Lincoln and was later tried and convicted for being one of Booth’s co-conspirators. During a yellow-fever epidemic on the island, Mudd began treating patients after the on-station military doctor died in the outbreak. Credited by both the military and his fellow prisoners for saving dozens if not hundreds of lives, Mudd eventually earned a pardon as well as a plaque on the fortress walls. Years later, Ernest Hemingway and a group of friends were marooned at the fort for more than two weeks as strong storms battered the island.
The 8 best beaches in the Florida Keys
After touring the fort, most visitors head down to one of the island’s small beaches, where they swim, snorkel or sunbathe until it’s time to head back to civilization.
Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park: Like Biscayne, there’s no fee to enter Dry Tortuga’s waters – but there’s a catch. If you have your own boat and plan to stop on one of the islands on a Keys excursion, you’ll need a free permit, which you can get in person at the Garden Key boathouse. If you don’t have your own boat, you’ll need to take a ferry or seaplane to get to Fort Jefferson. Plan ahead, as reservations go fast. Expect to pay $200 or more per person.
If you want to extend your visit, primitive camping is available on Garden Key on a first-come, first-served basis. Be sure to bring everything you need, as there’s no camp store to buy supplies. All trash must be carried out.