Visiting South Florida’s 3 National Parks, by Land and Sea

Everglades sunrise (Photo © Chimani, Inc.)

Three National Parks in 5 days? It sounds like something you can only do in Utah (home to the “Mighty 5” of Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion). But as Chimani co-founder and CEO Kerry Gallivan discovered this week, South Florida also has three parks that you can easily visit in one grand loop, while also allowing plenty of time to check out the nightlife of Miami and the beaches and bars of the Florida Keys and Key West.

Miami is the logical place for setting off on a tour of Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park. The vast Everglades deserves at least two days of your time (and more if you decide to do a side visit to the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve), while the other two parks are strictly day trips.

Boardwalk through the Everglades (Photo © Chimani, Inc.)

Swamps and gators: that’s the enduring mental image of the Everglades, and you’ll see both in abundance (as well as invasive Burmese pythons and, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, a rare Florida panther) on a boat tour of the park or during your independent explorations by canoe or kayak. What you might not expect is to see a Nike missile site, a relic of the Cold War that recently opened for exploration by park visitors.

This 1.5 million acre park is located west of Miami, with a trio of visitor centers including the main facility in Homestead, Fla. (there also are park entrances and auxiliary visitor centers in Miami and, on the gulf coast, in Everglades City). You can actually drive right out of the heart of Miami and be in the Everglades within a half hour (with a stop for a cubano at Versailles in Little Havana along the way), but driving to the main Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead will take you about an hour and a half.

Lighthouse on Boca Chita Key in Biscayne National Park (Photo © Chimani, Inc.)

Biscayne National Park may be the most overlooked unit in the National Park system, which is understandable: it’s mostly underwater, and most visitors are Miami-area residents who come on their own boats. Like the Everglades, the visitor center for Biscayne is in Homestead, where you can get a good overview of the 500 species of fish inhabiting the park and learn about activities like diving, boating, fishing, hiking the Spite Highway Trail on Elliott Key,  and camping on Boca Chita Key, which also is the destination for a popular boat tour of the park.

In our mind, there’s never a bad reason to visit Key West, which is a 3-1/2-hour drive from Miami  (or 2-3/4 hours from Homestead). The drive down the fabled Overseas Highway is spectacular, with plenty of opportunities to stop for photo ops and explore the string of low-key communities of the upper and middle Keys.

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park (Photo © Chimani, Inc.)

The bars, restaurants, and eclectic culture of Key West are legendary, of course, but for history it’s hard to top Dry Tortugas National Park. Like Biscayne, this park is mostly a marine ecosystem, but the parts on dry(ish) land are pretty amazing: most visitors flock to the massive Fort Jefferson, an isolated outpost built for coastal defense in the 19th century. The fort is a 3-1/2 hour ferry ride from Key West but totally worth the trip (you can also get there by seaplane if you’re in more of a hurry). In addition to Ranger-led tours of the fort, park visitors can swim off the beaches of seven isolated islands, snorkel, fish, camp, and of course boat 100 square miles of protected waters.

Be on the lookout for new Chimani guides to Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park, all coming soon. Meanwhile, visit the Chimani website to check out our 20-plus free mobile apps to other U.S. national parks and download your favorites today!


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