First-timers enjoy Biscayne’s natural beauty

HOMESTEAD, Fla.— Paige Matthews grew up admiring nature through her father’s National Geographic magazines. That’s why, as a new resident of South Florida, the young fitness trainer made it a priority to visit Biscayne National Park as soon as she had the chance.

“I love being outdoors. I’ve been living in Miami for a few months and I’m always working, so I rarely go out. But today that I had the chance, I wanted to come to Biscayne,” said Matthews who lives in Miami Beach. “My friends told me I’d love it. I knew I would but I didn’t know what to expect. Now that I’m here, I don’t want to leave. It’s beautiful.”

First-time visitors enjoy snorkeling, exploring Biscayne National Park’s delicate reefs (Photo courtesy of National Park Service).

Until his girlfriend brought him to Biscayne National Park, Jorge Gonzalez-Tablada had never been in contact with nature. But one visit is all it would take for Gonzalez-Tablada to get a new appreciation for the outdoors.

“I have never done anything outside. My girlfriend wanted me to come out here for a long time but I’d always put it off. Going to a national park seemed boring,” said Gonzalez-Tablada of Boca Raton, Fla. “But it’s not. It’s actually very relaxing. It makes me want to come back.”

Like Matthews and Gonzalez-Tablada, there are many first-time visitors who come to Biscayne National Park here in South Miami-Dade County, not knowing what to expect.

But after a day or even a few hours at the park, they quickly realize just how much they enjoy being there. And just how much they would like to return in the future to enjoy the scenic view, which is mostly surrounded by water.

“I kept telling Jorge he would enjoy the trip but he didn’t believe me until we were here,” said Melinda Sandoval, Gonzalez-Tablada’s girlfriend. “It’s a wonderful place. You can have a lot of fun exploring the area. I’m sure he’ll want to come back soon.”

Biscayne National Park is primarily underwater, which doesn’t typically fit people’s notions of what a national park should look like. Still that doesn’t stop visitors from coming.

“We get about a half million visitors a year. The vast majority of those folks don’t even know they’re in a national park because 95 percent of the park is covered by water,” said Ranger Gary Bremen. “But folks don’t seem to mind that it’s mostly water.”

The splendor and peacefulness of Biscayne National Park appeals to all first-time visitors (Photo courtesy of National Park Service).

So what is it about the park’s 172,000 acres that makes first-time visitors want to return? According to visitor Bryan Harold, it’s the freedom to explore the park and do whatever one wishes to do.

“I first came to Biscayne in 1979, and I keep coming back because I can do whatever I want,” said Harold, who is from Clearwater, Fla. “I think anyone can appreciate that.”

Everyone can also appreciate that there are a variety of fun-filled activities in which to participate.

 “You can always do something different,” said Harold. “That way you never get tired of making trips down here.”

When they first arrive, visitors are encouraged to make a stop at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point before they begin exploring Biscayne National Park.

There they can make reservations for equipment and tours and learn about the park’s diverse ecosystems through the virtual museum. Visitors can also tour the art gallery and explore the Touch Table, which has an array of interesting marine items to touch and feel, such as bones, shells, feathers, and water sponges.

“I’m glad I went to the Visitor Center before I did anything else,” said Matthews. “It got me ready for everything I would see later.”

Before setting off to explore the park, one can visit the concession stand to purchase light snacks, such as chips, sodas, and sandwiches, as there are no restaurants or food services in the park. One can also make a stop at the bookstore for souvenirs and educational items. From there, visitors can pretty much do whatever they like.

For those who bring their own boats, there is the option of sailing around the vast water areas of the park, as well as the protected islands that are located about five miles offshore to the east.

For visitors who want to be near the water but are without a boat, there is the option of renting canoes and kayaks to explore the park’s picturesque mangroves and lagoons. Those who have more experience navigating with a paddle can cross Biscayne Bay to reach Boca Chita or Elliott Key. One can also sign up to go snorkeling and scuba diving.

There are also more opportunities for visitors who wish to tour the surrounding area. For instance, one can take the three-hour Island excursion tour with a park ranger and learn about all the people who helped to establish the park. During certain seasons, visitors can also take an underwater glass bottom boat trip, another three-hour tour, and see the wildlife that exists.

And for those who simply wish to relax and soak in the splendor of the park, there is the option of fishing, picnicking, and camping overnight. But be advised: the campsites feature toilets but no showers or places to drink water.

“I really liked the camping. You spend the whole day outside, doing your activities and then at night you get ready to sleep outside,” said Gonzalez-Tablada. “It’s interesting because you don’t have all the stuff you have in your house.”

The Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point is an ideal place for first-time visitors to stop before exploring Biscayne National Park (Photo courtesy of National Park Service).

And, of course, there are countless opportunities to catch a glimpse of the wildlife that makes Biscayne National Park so attractive. Where else could one see bobcats and turtles, alligators and bats, vultures and snakes, and dolphins and rainbow-colored butterflies?

“This is the first time my kids are here and they love the animals more than anything else. They wish they could touch them and take pictures with them,” said Harold. “I think they like it more than the zoo.”

“It’s like Animal Planet at the park, but up close,” said Matthews. “I love seeing what the animals do. I think that’s what any first-time visitor would like the most.”

But observing the flora and fauna amidst the watery wonders of Biscayne National Park is just a part of what makes the park highly unique. According to Sandoval, the peacefulness of the park is the main reason first time visitors have an unforgettable time while they are there.

“When you’re here, you forget about the outside world. It doesn’t matter what you do,” said Sandoval. “It’s like the park is designed to be memorable. When you leave, it’s hard not to think about how much fun you had. You can only hope to come back soon.”

If You Go

9700 SW 328 St., Homestead, Fla. 33033, 305-230-7275

Biscayne National Park’s headquarters are open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The water portion of the park is open 24 hours a day.

Biscayne National Park has no entrance fees. However, there are fees for certain things:

  • $15/night camping fee for up to six people and two tents. Reservations not accepted for individual tent sites.
  • $30/night camping fee for groups of more than six people and two tents at Elliott Key. Reservations required.
  • $20/night fee for boats docked overnight in Elliott Key or Boca Chita Key harbors
    First come-first serve basis. Reservations not accepted.
  • $100 rental fee for Boca Chita Key Pavilion. Half-day rental (four-hour period). A $100 refundable deposit required to reserve space.

Visitors can park their vehicles in the parking section connected to the mainland. Vehicles parked overnight require a permit that can be obtained at the Visitor Center.

Pets are welcome at Convoy Point and Elliott Key as long as they are on a leash.

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