Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park sees over 460 thousand visitors each year

Located in Biscayne Bay, Biscayne National Park at the north end of the Florida Keys has four interrelated marine ecosystems: mangrove forest, the Bay, the Keys, and coral reefs. Threatened animals in this national park include the West Indian manatee, American crocodile, various sea turtles, and peregrine falcon.


An endless paradise of islands and coral

There are 42 islands in Biscayne National Park, which anchor together the northern end of the coral rock Florida Keys and transition to the sand barrier islands in the north. They offer a glimpse into what all of the Keys looked like before development. Elliott Key is the park’s largest island and is considered the first of the true Florida Keys. Elliott and the keys to the south are the remains of coral reefs, which formed when ocean waters were much higher than they are now. Today, you can see remains of the coral around Elliott Key. The islands to the north of Elliott Key, from Sands Key to Soldier Key, are considered “transitional” islands. They share features of the hard rock coral keys to the south and some with the sand barrier islands to the north. All of the park islands provide a protective barrier for Biscayne Bay and the mainland.

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Native American History

Home of the Paleo indians and the Tequesta

Biscayne’s human history begins over 10,000 years ago with the migration of Paleo-Indians down the Florida peninsula. Physical evidence such as the campsite at the Old Cutler fossil site are well documented along the bay shoreline. When sea levels were very low during the ice age, the Florida peninsula was probably twice as wide as it is today, with most of that additional landmass being on the state’s west coast. The area of what is today Biscayne Bay was probably a broad, dry savannah. This large, open expanse likely served as a place for nomadic peoples to hunt for mammoths, mastodons and other animals of the period.

As the ice age ended and waters began to rise, the bay filled in. For several thousand years after the time of the Paleo-Indians (now referred to as the Archaic Period), there is little physical evidence of native peoples in the Biscayne area, but that may be because evidence of these sites is now submerged. Many archaeologists believe there is much to learn about the area’s earliest native peoples at the bottom of Biscayne Bay.

2500 years ago, the people in this area (now referred to as the Glades culture) had become less nomadic and more settled. Piles of discarded conch and whelk shells began to grow, and these shell middens offer archaeologists opportunities to learn about these people.

As populations grew and settlements split from one another, smaller, more distinct cultures developed. They created pottery and established trade networks. The people from this time period in southeast Florida are today known as the Tequesta.

Unlike many of the groups of people in other parts of the United States, and even in other parts of Florida, who began to rely heavily on corn and other crops, the Tequesta took advantage of the bounty of the sea. Having to spend less time working crops meant that there was more time for things like art and religion, and complex social structures developed. At the mouth of the Miami River, a village developed, and nearby a still-not-well-understood feature now called the Miami Circle was constructed.

The arrival of European explorers to the area in the 16th century was the beginning of the end for Florida’s native peoples. Diseases like smallpox and measles swept through native populations in epidemic proportions. By the mid-1700s, virtually all of the area’s indigenous people had been wiped out.

Around this time, Creeks from neighboring Georgia and Alabama began to expand into what is today Florida, eventually giving rise to tribes like the Seminole and Miccosukee.

Much of southeast Florida’s native human heritage is now beneath the roads and buildings of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and surrounding communities. Large protected natural areas like Biscayne National Park may be the last, best chance for gaining a fuller understanding of the area’s prehistory.

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Park History

How Biscayne became a National Park

The Florida Keys is one of the most famous and most visited archipelagos in the world. Contrary to what many may think, the Florida Keys do not begin at Key Largo. To the north lie nearly 50 more keys (ancient coral reef islands) that are virtually undeveloped. The fight to protect these last unspoiled keys culminated over 30 years ago with the creation of Biscayne National Monument.

During the early 1950s, an era of newfound prosperity, Americans were taking more vacations and moving to Florida. The keys were a popular destination and property values soared. Many people looked at the northernmost keys, the ones bypassed by Henry Flagler’s railroad and within the present day boundaries of the park, and saw them languishing in placid waters. They envisioned hotels, roads and other developments. Several years later came a plan to dredge up 8,000 acres of bay bottom to create a jetport. In 1961, 13 area landowners voted unanimously to create the City of Islandia. Plans for Seadade, a major industrial seaport, were announced in 1962. The proposal called for the dredging of a 40-foot deep channel through the Bay’s clear, shallow waters. Dade County’s “new frontier” was born, but it never grew beyond the toddler stage.

An initially small, but vocal, group of people had an entirely different vision for these islands; a national park unlike any other. The park would be covered by water, protecting not only the islands but the bay to the west and the reef to the east. It would provide a haven for wildlife and a respite for people tired of cramped city life. The park’s proponents were not extraordinary in the usual sense of the word. They were doctors and pilots, farmers and writers. They were people who knew the area — people who understood new concepts like ecology and environmental preservation.

The Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on the two feuding groups. Words were exchanged, tempers flared and fights broke out. Lloyd Miller, president of the local Izaak Walton League, said that the opposition poisoned his dog and tried to get him fired from his job because of his support for the park idea. Slowly though, support began to build. Juanita Greene’s inspiring newspaper stories in the Miami Herald helped accelerate the pace. Hardy Matheson based his entire campaign for county commissioner on the issue of establishing the park. Vacuum cleaner magnate Herbert W. Hoover, Jr., who spent considerable time in the area as a boy, brought legislators down from Washington for dramatic blimp rides over the proposed park, convinced that anyone who saw the place would be just as smitten with it as he was. By early 1968, local and national support for a Biscayne National Monument was at an all-time high.

Facing a ground swell of public support for the park idea, landowners in the city of Islandia brought in bulldozers in an attempt to spoil the area. Dubbed “spite highway,” the swath was six lanes wide and seven miles long, right down the middle of Elliott Key. Park proponents were not deterred. Congress, led by longtime Representative Dante Fascell, created Biscayne National Monument to protect “a rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty.” President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill on October 18, 1968.

That was nearly 50 years ago. Since then, a lot has changed. Greater Miami has become a Latin American capital, with 4 million residents and 10 million annual visitors from all over the world. The park has undergone several enlargements and a name change. Spite highway has grown in to an intimate tunnel through a tropical hardwood forest, and serves as the park’s one and only hiking trail.

While the struggle to protect the park from current local threats continues, some things have not changed. The northern keys are still untethered by roads and bridges. The shallow water is still clear and beautiful. It is still a haven for wildlife and a respite for weary urban dwellers.

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The best things to do at Biscayne National Park

Park wonders attract South Florida residents as well as visitors from around the world. Recreational opportunities include; fishing, boating, diving, snorkeling, paddling, hiking, camping, wildlife watching, cultural exploration and the rare opportunity to experience largely undeveloped Florida Keys. Boat tours, ranger programs, art exhibits, special events and more. The park offers a variety of ways to help you get to know and enjoy its rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands and vibrant coral reefs.

Guided Tours
Outdoor Activities
Indoor Activities
For Kids


Seagrass feeds the entire ecosystem at Biscayne National Park

Seagrasses form important ecosystems in coastal areas around the world. They are highly productive and rich in biodiversity. Seagrass ecosystems provide nursery habitat for small fishes and invertebrates, and food for a wide variety of animals. They stabilize sediments and help maintain water clarity.

The park contains extensive seagrass beds throughout Biscayne Bay and on the reef tract. Most of the recreationally and commercially important fish, crustaceans and shellfish spend a portion of their lives in seagrass habitat.

Three seagrass species are commonly found in the park.

Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) has wide leaf blades and a deep root structure. It forms most of the large, lush seagrass meadows found in the park. Sea turtles and some fish like parrotfish feed on turtle grass.
Manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme) is recognized easily because of its cylindrical leaves. Like its name suggests, manatees feed on this type of seagrass.
Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii) is an early colonizer of disturbed areas and usually grows in very shallow water. The leaves are generally smaller than the other two species.
Other seagrass species include star grass (Halophila englemanni) and paddle grass (Halophila decipiens).

Numerous species of macroalgae are found in park marine habitats. Macroalgal species are often called marine plants, however these species are non-vascular precursors to true plants. Although not exhaustive, the following list includes commonly observed species of macroalgae. Very few species of marine macroalgae have widely recognized common names, so only scientific names are provided.

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Animal Life

Animal life is incredibly diverse at Biscayne National Park

The park is home to an incredible diversity of animals and plants including over 600 native fish, neo-tropical water birds and migratory habitat, and 20 threatened and endangered species including sea turtles, manatees, the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly and Florida semaphore cactus. Some animals and plants are in the northern limits of their ranges.

The park preserves unique marine habitat and nursery environments that sustain diverse native fishery resources and support world-class fishing for spiny lobster, snapper, grouper, tarpon and bonefish.

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Hiking Trails

The best hikes at Biscayne National Park

There are five trails within Biscayne National Park, though calling them “hiking” trails is probably giving them more credit than they deserve. Four are around a mile or less in length, while the longest, the 7-mile, one-way Spite Highway Trail on Elliott Key, runs down the middle of the island and the scenery never changes. The Jetty Trail on the mainland at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is probably the most scenic, while the ones on the islands simply offer a mild diversion from activities such as swimming, fishing, camping, and drinking beer.

Jetty Trail

Adams Key Loop Trail

Elliott Key Loop Trail

Spite Highway Trail

Boca Chita Key Loop Trail

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