The essential guide to Florida's national parks

By Rebecca Powers

Home to manatees, fabled shipwrecks and the largest all-masonry fort in the USA, Florida's national parks will fascinate adventurers and history buffs alike.

Bush Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, as seen from Fort Jefferson. Photo / 123RF
Bush Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, as seen from Fort Jefferson. Photo / 123RF

As the USA's National Park Service celebrates its centenary, we're profiling the wilderness areas it manages.

Today: The national parks of Florida . . .

Biscayne National Park

"No sea-lover could look unmoved on the blue rollers of the Gulf Stream and the crystal-clear waters of the Reef."
- Ralph Middleton Munroe, an early Floridian, in his autobiography, 'The Commodore's Story'

A shark swims through the coral reefs of Florida's Biscayne National Park. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user A. Bourque, National Park Service
A shark swims through the coral reefs of Florida's Biscayne National Park. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user A. Bourque, National Park Service

This park, explorable only by watercraft, is 95-percent underwater.

Here, in the shallow bay one hour from Miami, is a world of shipwrecks, manatees, coral, sea grass, sea turtles and 500 species of fish.

Its protected, in some cases endangered, assets may be discovered via a boat cruise or snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing or kayaking. Camping also is allowed on two Florida Keys: Boca Chita and Elliott.

On Elliott Key, the park's largest, hiking is available.

The wrecks of six ships that sank between 1878 and 1966 have been mapped and are part of the Maritime Heritage Trail, where snorkellers may view them.

Canoeing and kayaking also afford exploration of the park's mangrove-edged shorelines.

Visitors may want to learn about the park's best-known resident: Lancelot Jones, a man of African-American and Bahamian-American descent whose family became wealthy as the country's largest independent supplier of Key limes. He eventually became a sought-after guide to southern Biscayne Bay. He sold his island properties to the Park Service to ensure their protection.

Stiltsville, a part of Biscayne Bay's history, is within the park. Seven shacks built atop stilts remain from a one-time coluorful community of 27 structures. Today, they are protected and preserved by the Stiltsville Trust. Access is by permit only.

Size: 172,971 acres

Founded: National monument, 1968; national park, 1980

Attendance: 508,164 (2015)

Dry Tortugas National Park

"Here, you may find a ruby-throated hummingbird, broad-winged hawk and white-eyed vireo all in one tree."
- The Park Service's 'Dry Tortugas National Park News'

A view from the wall of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo / 123RF
A view from the wall of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo / 123RF

The name Tortugas (sea turtles in Spanish) dates from 1513, when explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived here. "Dry" refers to the lack of fresh water on the seven Florida Keys. Those who come (by water or seaplane) should tote their own food and drink.

Although the Tortugas are far-flung, they have a rich history because of their key location along the shipping channel that links the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. That history includes the construction, from 1847 to 1875, of Fort Jefferson on the park's Garden Key. It's the largest all-masonry fort in the United States and was positioned to protect the water gateway to heartland America. Also here are 200 sunken ships dating to the 1600s.

Novelist and fishing enthusiast Ernest Hemingway notably visited several times when he lived 112km away, on Key West. Activities here today include snorkelling, swimming and camping. Some of Garden Key's largest and best-preserved coral heads grow so massive that you cannot swim over them. Visitors are advised to protect such vulnerable assets.

Size: 64,701 acres (40 acres above water)

Founded: National monument, 1935; national park, 1992

Attendance: 70,862 (2015)

Everglades National Park

"It is a river of grass."
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas, journalist and environmentalist, in 'The Everglades: River of Grass'

A boardwalk in Everglades National Park. Photo / 123RF
A boardwalk in Everglades National Park. Photo / 123RF

This park is a prairie, although not in the "Little House" sense. Sharp-edged sawgrass stretches for acres of marshland. It's a landscape Native Americans called Pa-hay-okee (grassy waters). "Everglades" was the name early European explorers applied to the expanse.

Following thousands of years of use by indigenous people, newcomers came to grow sugar cane, as well as hunt and fish. Bird populations were decimated for their plumes to festoon women's hats. Developers dredged, drained and diverted the wetlands. They cleared mangroves to open up ocean views.

Quickly vanishing resources prompted the creation of the park to protect its ecosystem. Today, it's a designated by UNESCO as both a biosphere reserve (along with Dry Tortugas) and World Heritage site, and also is a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

This third-largest park in the lower 48 states is home to at least 30 rare, threatened and endangered species, including the Florida panther. It claims the largest mangrove (coastal vegetation) ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. Among the plants and animals protected here is the manatee (176 adults and seven calves were observed in 2005).

A young alligator at Everglades National Park. Photo / 123RF
A young alligator at Everglades National Park. Photo / 123RF

Despite being a protected environment, Everglades is a remarkably accessible park. Three car entrances include the main entry in Homestead. Boaters and paddlers can enter via its coastal boundaries and waterways.

Ranger-led programmes include a meteor-shower bike ride, sightseeing by tram and various birding excursions.

Size: 1,400,539 acres

Founded: Authorised as a reserve in 1934; national park, 1947

Attendance: 1,077,427 (2015)

Read more:

The essential guide to Alaska's national parks
The essential guide to the National Park of American Samoa
The essential guide to Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park
The essential guide to California's national parks
The essential guide to Colorado's national parks
The essential guide to Hawaii's national parks
The essential guide to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park
The essential guide to Nevada's Great Basin National Park
The essential guide to Utah's national parks
The essential guide to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

- Washington Post

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