Recently we found ourselves in Key West for our best friends' wedding. Since all of Florida's National Parks are in South Florida, we extended our trip to explore them. This trip was a little different for a few reasons: We didn't have the pets, we were staying in hotels instead of camping and all 3 of the parks are mostly water. We traded our typical hikes for boat rides and guided tours.
Florida is home to Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. Everglades is one of the oldest and most popular parks in the country, while Dry Tortugas is one of the most secluded.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is 70 miles away from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, you have to take a ferry, private or charter boat or a seaplane. We opted to take the Yankee Freedom Ferry because it was the cheapest option at $180 per person. It is a full day trip and includes breakfast, lunch, an hour tour of Fort Jefferson, snorkel equipment and the park entrance fee. For reference, the seaplane is $361 per person for a half day, $634 per person for a full day.
Dry Tortugas is a very strange and interesting place. On the island is Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States built in the 1800's. It was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the valuable shipping line into the Gulf of Mexico. Building the fort was a major undertaking, it was built to be impenetrable with 3 tiers and 6 sides with over 400 heavy guns/cannons. They used 16 million handmade bricks. But after working on it for 30 years, the fort was abandoned. Never finished and never used, what a waste!
Tortugas looks so out of place in the middle of the ocean with nothing but miles and miles of water around it. The fort is in remarkable condition and the brickwork, wide archways and windows overlooking the water were beautiful. We walked the seawall before taking the guided tour. Our guide was terrific and really helped give us some insight into why the fort was built, different transitions and uses it underwent, some notable prisoners it housed and why it was eventually abandoned.
Fun Fact: Ever heard the phrase "Your name is mud"? It's a reference to Dr. Sam Mudd who was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. There is a LOT of debate on whether Dr. Mudd even knew who Booth was when he treated him. While he was eventually released and pardoned, his good name had been "dragged through the mud".
On the island, there are also two small beaches where you can snorkel, on one side you are able to swim through the ruins of the South Coaling Docks. You can swim through the pilings and maybe even see a barracuda (Kevin is convinced he saw a big scary one, but we've seen the video and it sure looks like a regular old fish). What's your vote?
Biscayne National Park
Before researching all of the NP's and hitting the road, I had honestly never heard of this one. This park is closer to Miami and 95% underwater. The park protects the northernmost living coral reefs in the US. To take advantage of this park, you need a boat! There are a few different boat tours offered by the Biscayne National Park Institute. We chose the Boca Chita Island boat tour which took us to Boca Chita where you can climb a lighthouse and have a beautiful view of the water. While driving over, our tour guide told us some interesting stories about who used to live out there and the lavish parties they used to throw. There is a lot of wildlife to see from a variety of beautiful birds, dolphins, fish, sea turtles, manatees. While we didn't opt for a snorkel tour, we would recommend trying it, you will probably have a greater appreciation for the park and get to see the unique and beautiful coral reefs.
Everglades National Park
Home of the alligators, crocodiles, pythons and panthers. The park spans over 1.5 million acres of wetland with four different visitor centers and entrances. Since the park is so large, we spent two days exploring. The first day we went to Flamingo (South Entrance) which provides access to mangroves and Florida Bay. We rented a kayak and paddled for a few hours and spotted tons of crocodiles, alligators, manatees and birds. It was a beautiful and peaceful day.
On our second day we went to Shark Valley (North Entrance), to experience the swampy everglades. We took an air boat tour and road the trolley. There are no vendors within the main National Park area that do air boat tours so you have to go outside. They are all pretty much tourist traps, but at Kevin's request we went. We did do our research and tried to find a company that didn't engage in feeding the gators, bringing them up on the boat and putting on an alligator wrestling show. We enjoyed the ride and were pleasantly surprised that our eardrums didn't get blown out, it really wasn't too loud at all. Next up in the park, we took the tram tour. The tram follows a 15 mile loop which you can also bike. If you haven't seen many gators and crocodiles we definitely recommend taking this loop, we saw over 30 along our ride.
For Dry Tortugas, our launching point was Key West. For Biscayne and Everglades we decided to stay in Homestead. While there really isn't anything to do and very few restaurants there it was a great mid point between these two parks, with decent hotel options and overall was just convenient.
If you visit the Everglades, make sure to stop at Robert is Here. What started out as a local farm stand is now a real tourist destination. The selection of fresh fruits and veggies is impressive and the smoothies are delicious
By: Ashley Quiambao