Water, Water Everywhere: Wading into Florida’s Three National Parks
Water, Water Everywhere: Wading into Florida’s Three National Parks
Camping recommendations and tips for visiting the Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas.
By: Noel Fleming & Chris Miller
Florida lays claim to a trifecta of marine-influenced national parks. Each with its own unique character, they are connected by water and all play a significant role in the health of our regional and global ecosystems.
We spent about a week in early February exploring Florida’s three national parks in our Winnebago EKKO. Here is a recap of our experiences as well as some of the important insights we learned.
Everglades National Park: An Ocean of Seagrass
Some national parks proclaim their grandeur with impressive vistas. Even before you arrive at an official park entrance, a landscape of expansive cliffs, gaping canyons, or soaring mountains can drop jaws and cause gasps of wonder.
Not so with the Everglades. They sit unassumingly, hiding the intricacies of their expansive domain and far-reaching impact. Quietly, and in no hurry for any man, the shallow river of water pushes its way toward waters of the Florida Bay and the Atlantic. This sea of grass that never exceeds an elevation of 8-ft above sea level sustains life, connects diverse ecosystems, and supports the earth in complex ways.
In order to protect its rare biological diversity, the Everglades’ 1.5-million acres were established as a national park. On the surface, it looks soggy, murky, tangled, and bug ridden. The secret of its fragile power lies in the details.
It’s elusive splendor calls visitors to seek its cache much like the treasure hunters in the past sought value in the hidden shipwrecks that dotted the ocean floor. To truly get the glory of the Everglades, you must seek it out. Dig deeper.
The National Parks service and its authorized concessioners offer a variety of ways to see the beauty and understand the intricacies of our 26th national park. Four visitor centers offer insightful films, educational exhibits and ranger-led experiences. You can participate in moonlit bike rides, walks through sloughs, and attend talks about specific species that inhabit the park.
There are short walks on raised boardwalks that allow up-close views of the vegetation and wildlife. You can also take a boat tour into the backcountry or the bay, or join a paddling excursion (evernpi.org and flamingoeverglades.com).
Everglades National Park has two main areas for visitors. The southern portion, with its entrance located in Homestead, features the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and the nearby Long Pine Key campground. (We booked this camp site a few months before our trip.)
The Main Park Road, a 38-mile stretch complete with stops that highlight a variety of habitats, extends from the entrance to Flamingo Campground and its accompanying visitor center. We booked our reservation here early, in October 2022, to make sure we could get a site. But, we are also firm believers in checking campgrounds for cancellations! So, don’t rule it out until you call!
(Note: A helpful resource for this trip and others has been Campnab.com. You can pay a monthly fee to have it scan available campground sites at a pay-per-month fee based on how many campgrounds you select and how often you want it to scan.)
The Flamingo Visitor Center area serves as a launching point for water excursions. A hotel and restaurant are currently under construction, and the visitor center is undergoing an extensive renovation.
We spent several nights at each campground in order to access the activities and amenities at each end of The Main Park Road.
The northern portion of the park features activities in the Thousand Islands area, bordering the Gulf of Mexico and at Shark Valley, located inland. Bike rentals are available and open-air tram tours www.sharkvalleytramtours.com are led by trained naturalists. The two-hour tour covers 15 miles and includes a stop at a 45-foot observation tower.
During our trip, the wildlife sightings were abundant, and we may have constructed a whole new section of our brains just to contain the information conveyed by the ranger.
Every national park has a history and a future that is intricately interwoven with human stories. For the Everglades, this human dimension includes agriculturalists, commercial developers, journalists, conservationists, and fashionistas. (Think beautiful hats adorned with dead birds; it was all the rage.)
Human goals and designs have threatened the Everglades, most notably by shrinking its boundaries and altering the natural flow of its water. The military too had a presence during the Cuban Missile Crisis era. In fact, a Nike missile site – a relic of the Cold War, remains inside the park. Park staff and volunteers work to preserve the site and offer education to the public through scheduled tours. Schedule information can be found at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center.
Biscayne National Park: A Bay Metropolis Next to Booming Miami
Twenty-one miles to the east of Everglades National Park, lies Biscayne National Park.
Like the Everglades, it boasts an array of interdependent ecosystems. Within its boundaries, visitors can explore coral reefs, mangrove shorelines, and keys in a Caribbean-like climate.
Biscayne’s allure is in its diversity and the vastness of its waters. It is the largest marine park in the national park system. In fact, 95% of this park is water! Standing on the mainland section of the park and looking towards the horizon, the dazzling clear water invites you to find a way to experience the marine portion of BNP.
A visit to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center can orient you to the splendor of the park. The theater has an exceptionally well-crafted movie, an extensive hands-on display, and beautiful exhibits. Often overlooked in the past, this gem of a park is gaining popularity. Since so much of the exploration is water-related (fishing, paddling, boating, exploring the keys, snorkeling, and diving) it is a recreational haven.
You can even explore the remains of six shipwrecks on the Maritime Heritage Trail! Plan ahead and consider the many options to find what best matches your timeframe and passions. Learn more at BiscayneNationalParkInstitute.org.
There are no campgrounds on the park’s mainland. Tent camping is accessible by boat on a first-come, first-served basis on some of the keys. We chose to camp at Long Pine Key in the Everglades while we explored Biscayne. Whatever way you choose to experience the nation’s 41st park, you will be struck by its proximity to the ever-enlarging Miami metropolitan area.
In no other park that we’ve visited has the delicate balance between modern development and preservation been more obvious. The passion for protecting this area is a joint effort between many agencies that each have a vested interest. If Biscayne is to survive and thrive into the future it will require continued collaboration.
Dry Tortugas: An Ocean Fortress
The southernmost of Florida’s National Parks, Dry Tortugas contains a cluster of seven islands. This remote park, located 70 miles southwest of Key West, is a small giant. The 100-square-mile park is 98% open ocean.
Packed with historical significance and natural beauty, it is worth the advanced planning necessary to witness firsthand our 50th national park. It is ONLY accessible by boat or seaplane. The boat passage takes about three hours; the plane passage about 45 minutes.
We opted to travel by seaplane, and we were not disappointed! The pilot offered an educational narrative along the way and coached us while hunting for aerial views of marine life.
As we approached Bush Key, the massive hexagonal shape of Fort Jefferson loomed ahead. This structure, the largest brick building in the western hemisphere, was worked on for over 30 years and yet never completed. While on the island you can get info at the visitors’ center, walk the seawall, tour the fort, enjoy the beaches, and snorkel in the idyllic blue waters.
Just as Fort Jefferson served the purpose of fortification and protection, the Dry Tortugas today serves as a protector for ecosystems and threatened species. A layover for thousands of birds migrating between the southern and northern hemispheres, it also provides nesting habitat for sea turtles and a rookery for the sooty tern.
What a whirlwind of an adventure it was to visit these three parks one after another! At times our heads were still processing what we had learned in one park as we stepped into the next. And yet, the meshing of the experiences created a cohesive picture for us. Coming into focus was the importance and fragility of these parks, their power and overarching global impact, and our responsibility to steward well.
There’s always something worth discovering in our national parks. Download the National Parks app for up-to-date information, and remember to save selected park info for offline use. (Go to www.nps.gov or search in the App Store for “National Park Service.”)
Happy treasure hunting!
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