A beautiful, underwater paradise—and, it’s free.

Biscayne National Park
Credit: Dennis K Johnson

About an hour south of Miami, beyond the glittering nightclubs and traffic jams of South Beach, is the country’s largest marine park—a tropical paradise with 95 percent of its area submerged underwater. Here, you'll find lagoons, shoals, creeks, and channels filled with schools of rainbow-colored fish, vibrant and vast coral reefs, sea turtles, and leaping bottlenose dolphins.

At Biscayne National Park, a federally-protected site that stays open 364 days of the year, travelers can enjoy 72,000-acres, including one of the world’s largest coral reefs, as well as thousands of individual patch reefs, native fisheries, and dense mangrove forests.

The best part? It’s totally free to the public. Here’s how to maximize your time at one of the country's most underrated national parks.

Take an expert’s advice

“My personal favorite area of the park,” confided Matt Johnson, the park’s public affairs officer, "is Jones Lagoon.” Fringed with mangroves and located at the southern end of the park, miles from any roads, the lagoon offers a perfect (and secluded) spot for canoeing or kayaking. And, Johnson added, “The serenity is stunning. There are so many amazing wild creatures here like the cassiopeia, or upside-down, jellyfish. Their tentacles look like plants waving in the water.”

Start at the Visitor Center

Most travelers begin a trip to Biscayne National Park at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center: an unflashy boathouse-type structure that offers unlimited resources for newbies to the region. From here, you can visit a museum that explains the park’s different ecosystems (there are four, in case you’re wondering: mangroves, Biscayne Bay, Florida Keys, coral reef), or speak to a park ranger about renting a boat.

Explore the Keys on a boat

Though Biscayne National Park isn’t technically considered part of the Florida Keys, you’d never know it. The park’s combination of aquamarine waters, brilliant emerald islands, and coral reefs represent a truly remarkable sight, especially for first-time visitors to Florida. And the best way to see it all is to get out on the water.

The park makes it easy for visitors to rent boats right at the dock. Simply show up at the visitor center to sign out a paddleboard or kayak, and away you go. Soon, you’ll be paddling through ancient rows of mangroves, but no one’s stopping you from charting your own course. With full access to Biscayne Bay’s seven-mile expanse, you’ll only be limited by your own sense of adventure (and rowing stamina).

Spend the night on Boca Chita Key

Boca Chita, a small island off the northern tip of Elliott Key, can only be accessed by boat, and is a must-see for anyone paddling his or her way through the bay. The island’s centerpiece is an impressive 55-foot-tall lighthouse that dates back to the 1930s, when the island was still privately owned. Nature enthusiasts should hike the half-mile promenade that curves along the edge of the harbor, ringed with swaying Thatch Palms and stunning views.

When night falls, plan on sticking around. The utterly secluded Boca Chita campground offers picnic tables and BBQ grills, and aside from the overnight docking fee you’ll pay upon arrival ($25), use of the campgrounds is totally free. As the sun sets, look north—you can see the Miami skyline glowing in the distance.

See a real shipwreck

One of Biscayne National Park’s claims to fame is its collection of six separate shipwrecks, the oldest of which is a 1,480-ton iron-hulled steamship dating back to 1878. The Maritime Heritage Trail, explained Johnson, offers exciting opportunities for snorkelers to experience a shipwreck in a beautiful natural setting. Access, of course, is by boat and flipper only.