Southern Florida is home to three great National Parks! One of my favorite things about our National Parks is that they all have something unique to offer, and the Florida parks are no different. For future planning purposes, just know that two of them are very accessible, while the third is a little trickier to travel to.
I’ve been to the Everglades twice, and both times had very different, but equally great experiences. The everglades are home to many birds, mammals, and reptiles, the most popular of which being alligators. The first time we visited, my family went to an area outside the official park lands, and took an air boat ride. Pro tip: go first thing in the morning before too many boats have gone out, and you will see so many more alligators!! The air boats are very loud, so after the morning hours you tend to see less alligators because of all the noise. Riding on an air boat was a really cool experience; I was channeling my inner Adam Sandler from The Waterboy the whole time. On an air boat you’re able to get some pretty remarkable views of the alligators, all while still maintaining a respectable distance. Air boats are only inches off the water, and thankfully we didn’t find out until after our ride that alligators are actually able to jump up to six feet out of the water! Another interesting fact we learned was that the average depth of the everglades is only about 4 to 5 feet, with the shallowest part being only inches and deepest being 9 feet.
The second time I visited, we traveled to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor’s Center. The Everglades have four visitors’ centers total, and the Ernest F. Coe Visitors Center is located about an hour and a half south of the Fort Lauderdale airport. I like stopping at the visitor’s centers to talk with Park Rangers because they always offer the best suggestions on how to utilize the time you have at the park.
We took some time to drive the scenic route and view a few of the overlooks, but we ended up spending most of our time at the Royal Palm area. At the visitors center I had asked one of the rangers, in somewhat of a joking manner, how likely it was for us to see an alligator. The Park Ranger looked at me and stated, “Oh that’s guaranteed.” Dumbfounded, I asked how they manage that from a safety standpoint? She said that it’s not a big deal during the day because alligators only hunt in the evening. Still a bit skeptical, we ventured out anyway. Sure enough, as we were walking along trail, an alligator came creeping out in front of us… and then it seemed like we were seeing them everywhere we looked!! We even saw some baby gators in the brush! The alligators seemed very relaxed, but they’re still wild animals nonetheless, so we maintained our distance. All in all, it was a very memorable experience!
The Dry Tortugas are located 70 miles south of Key West, Florida. The most common way to get to the island is by ferry, specifically the Yankee Freedom III. However, you can also take a sea plane or rent a charter fishing boat, for a much higher cost. The ferry travels to the park year-round, except for on Christmas Day. It is recommended to book your tickets well in advance, especially if you plan on visiting in the spring or summer, as they will sell out (I may or may not know this from experience). The ferry ride to the park is about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and if you’re not planning on camping, the day trip will allow you about 4 and a half hours at the park. The ferry is pretty large, carrying about 175 passengers. They provide breakfast and lunch, as well as share interesting facts and history about the park on your ride over.
Even though the park is on a secluded island, there is so much to do. Once you reach the park, you can take advantage of a free guided tour of historic Fort Jefferson, which was once used as a prison during the Civil War. While on our visit, my sister, mom and I also took advantage of the snorkeling. Complimentary snorkel gear (snorkel, mask, and fins) are provided to all on the ferry, but you’re also allowed to bring your own if you choose. This area is ranked in the top 10 for snorkeling in the United States, so we were in heaven. We snorkeled around the moat wall, and when I think back on it, I still compare what we saw to scenes in Finding Nemo! We saw an abundance of coral, tropical fish, and even a manta ray. The Dry Tortugas not only offer crystal blue waters and pristine beaches, but also a lot history. It’s truly a magical place!
The Dante Fascell Visitor’s Center at Biscayne National Park is located about half an hour from The Everglades. Biscayne National Park is 95% water, so while there are many opportunities for excursions at this park, there is not much offered on land at the visitor’s center. Opportunities for excursions include snorkeling at a shipwreck and the coral reefs, cruises to Bocha Chita Key and the lighthouse (which can be heavy with mosquitos in the spring), sailing, kayaking, cannoning, and much more. We walked along one of the trails at the bay and were able to see some wildlife, but unfortunately the weather (very windy/choppy) and our sleep deprived state prevented us from taking advantage of the tours. At Biscayne you’re also allowed to bring your own boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, etc. to make your own adventures. If I lived in Florida, I would definitely take advantage of this beautiful, protected area. Biscayne Bay, I’ll be back!