Biscayne National Park-Florida’s Homegrown Coral Reef

Biscayne National Park is one of the leastcrowded parks in America’s national park system, probably because its main attractions are kinda difficult to reach. It’s not a question of being remote—it’s so close to Miami,  you  can  do  it  as  a  day  trip—but more   about   being   hidden   from   view. Aboveground, you’ll see only a no-big-deal strip of mangrove shoreline and 44 barrier islands,  most  of  them  mere  specks  off  of South  Florida’s  east  coast.  But  beneath the  surface  lies  the  world’s  third-longest coral  reef,  an  aquatic  universe  pulsing with multicolored life. All it takes is strapping  on  a  snorkel  and  fins  for  kids  to  be able  to  cruise  around  this  tropical  paradise,  encountering  bright  parrotfish  and angelfish,  gently  rocking  sea  fans,  and coral labyrinths.

The  clear,  warm  waters  of  Biscayne National  Park  are  packed  with  reef  fish, rays,   moray   eels,   jellyfish,   anemones, sponges, even sea turtles and dolphins—some 512 species, all told, in this 173,000-acre     expanse.     Not     only     that,     an underwater   trail   identifies   five   shipwrecks  about  3  miles  east  of  Elliott  Key; mooring   buoys   point   the   way   to   the wrecks, with waterproof cards attached to tell the kids what they’re seeing. You can rent  equipment  at  the  full-service  dive shop  at  the  park’s  mainland  entrance  at Convoy  Point,  and  if  you  don’t  have  your own  boat,  you  can  take  a  3-hour  snorkeling  or  diving  tour  operated  every  afternoon by Biscayne National Underwater Park, Inc.; you’ll either stick  to  the  bay  or  head  out  to  the  reefs, depending    on    the    very    changeable weather.  Even  beginning  snorkelers  will get a satisfying eyeful.

The mainland entrance is 9 miles east of Homestead, off U.S. 1; a small beach and marina are nearby, but the rest of the park is accessible only by boat, either your own or  the  park  concession’s  water  transport.   Few   of   the   park’s islands are even open to visitors; the two most  popular  are  Elliott  Key  and  Boca Chita Key, which can be reached by launch from the visitor center. Both islands have campsites  and  places  to  moor  your boat;  Elliott  Key  also  has  an  interesting nature  trail,  and  Boca  Chita,  once  an exclusive  haven  for  yachters,  has  some restored historic buildings.

If you prefer not to dive, take the wimp’s way  out  and  view  the  underwater  sights on  a  3-hour  glass-bottom  boat  tour offered  by  Biscayne  National  Underwater Park, Inc., departing from Convoy Point at 10am.  Reservations  are  almost  always necessary.