Peaceful Biscayne Bay National Park

Biscayne Bay National Park, located 38 miles from Everglades National Park, is another one of south Florida’s protected areas. Established in 1980, the National Park covers about 173,000 acres but is 95% underwater. Within its boundaries lie the Biscayne Bay, the northernmost limestone islands of the Florida Keys, a coral reef, and the longest continuous strand of mangroves on Florida’s east coast. If you like being out on the water and/or water activities, you will love this national park.

Originally, Ernest F. Coe and other conservation activists proposed that Biscayne Bay be included in Everglades National Park. Much to Coe’s chagrin, however, it was excluded and that left this area open to development and industrialization. In the 1960s and 1970s, they built two power plants and two nuclear power plants on the bay. In the late 1960s, industrialists wanted to dredge up part of the bay so they could construct a deep water seaport and build factories along the shore. A bitter battle ensued between the local residents and politicians who wanted the jobs that this development would bring and the conservationists who wanted to protect the delicate ecosystem in the bay. Lloyd Miller, Miami Herald reporter Juanita Greene, Florida Congressman Dante Fascell, and even Herbert Hoover, Jr. joined forces to lobby for the creation of a National Monument to protect Biscayne Bay. Herbert Hoover even brought Congressmen down to Florida to see the site of the proposed National Monument and to persuade them to act to protect it. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson created Biscayne Bay National Monument to protect the waters, the marine life, and the coral reef and the keys. Years later, on June 28, 1980, Congress extended the boundaries to include some of the islands and renamed it Biscayne Bay National Park.

Given that so much of the national park is underwater, you really have to go out on the water to explore it. There are a number of ways to take in this scenic paradise. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving to marvel at some of the over 200 species of diverse marine life that occupy the coral reefs. You can also go boating, sailing, canoeing, or paddle boarding out on the Bay’s blue-green waters. At the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, the Biscayne National Park Institute offers guided boat tours, snorkeling and sailing excursions, and paddle boarding outings.

David and I chose to go on a narrated 3.5 hour boat tour that would take us out into Biscayne Bay to see several of the keys and to explore the famous picturesque Boca Chita Key. While on the tour, we also learned a lot about the park’s history from our tour guide.

We crossed the Bay that is only about 8-10 feet deep heading on our way to see Adams Key. The water in the bay is very clean and clear. Luckily for us, it was a calm day and the water was not choppy. Even so, those folks sitting at the front of the boat got drenched.

Our first destination was Adams Key which is surrounded by several other smaller limestone islands called keys. Carl G. Fisher bought the entire island and then, in 1922, established the famous Cocolobo Cay Club. This became a gathering place for very wealthy businessmen and high profile politicians. Four U. S. presidents and many senators spent time at the lodge’s guesthouse over the years. They would go out fishing, dine in the lodge, gamble in the casino, hobnob with each other and enjoy the views of Biscayne Bay. The National Park Service acquired the final 77 acres form the island’s third owner, Bebe Rebozo, in 1954. The famed Cocolobo Cay Club house was destroyed by a fire in 1974 and the other structures were demolished by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Today on Adams Key there are two park service residences, a boat dock, a picnic area, and a trail.

From Adams Key, we traveled along the 7-mile length of Elliott Key. It is the largest key in Biscayne Bay National Park. This key has an interesting history as well. In the 1950s, a group of developers wanted to build a series of bridges and a road to connect all of the keys from Key Largo to the Ragged Keys. They had the idea of adding residences and other businesses to attract more tourists. Twelve of the eighteen landowners were in favor of this idea so they voted to create a city called Islandia. In anticipation of this coming development, they built a road down the middle of Elliott Key. Lancelot Jones, the owner of Porgy Key, refused to sell his island. He was a longtime resident and had made his living providing fresh fish to Cocolobo Cay Club. He knew that this proposal would forever change Biscayne Bay and the ecosystem there. He refused to sell his land thwarting the developer’s plans. After the establishment of Biscayne Bay National Monument, Lancelot sold his key to the National Park Service. Islandia was abolished in 2012. Today, the old road is a nice hiking trail. On this key, there is also a campground, boat docks, picnic area, restrooms, and a Ranger Station.

Our final stop was picturesque Boca Chita Key. Our tour boat docked near the small harbor and we got to explore the most popular and most visited key in the National Park.

Mark C. Honeywell bought the island in 1937 as a retreat for his family and his rich and famous friends. He built a number of structures on the island out of the coral rock he found there. The most iconic was the lighthouse. He erected it at the end of the jetty. Our tour guide said that he planned to use it to signal to his friends in south Miami that it was time to come over to the lavish parties that he hosted there. The light in the lighthouse was never lit though because the Coast Guard feared that ships would shipwreck on the coral reef if they saw this beacon since Honeywell’s lighthouse was not aligned with those used to navigate along the coast. Because the officials prohibited the lighthouse’s use, he installed a large cannon instead.

Our tour guide opened the 65-ft. lighthouse and David and I climbed up to the top. Since it was a clear and sunny day, the views were spectacular from that vantage point.

We walked around some of the island and saw a chapel that Honeywell built for his wife, a garage where he liked to show off his car collection, the seawalls, and remnants of a guesthouse and other utility structures.

We ate our lunch at a picnic area looking out over the bay. You can camp on on the island in the primitive campground that is near some small beach areas. There are also restrooms and a short nature trail. Just as in the days when Honeywell’s family lived here, the small harbor was full of luxury boats. We certainly understand why it is the most popular key in Biscayne Bay National Park.

After spending some time on Boca Chita Key, we headed back to the mainland having gained a greater appreciation for this national park and those who fought so diligently to preserve it.

Biscayne Bay National Park is a very peaceful place to go to escape the fast pace of our daily lives. Being out on the water, or exploring the Bay’s underwater marine life and its keys, or just sitting by the mangrove-lined shore makes this a truly unique experience and a great place to visit.

(Below is one of the National Park posters that are for sale at Dante Fascell Visitor Center)

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