Dry Tortugas National Park

The National Parks of Florida & Why You Should Visit

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When you think of Florida, you probably imagine Disney World and the exquisite Florida beaches. Few Florida visitors know about the national parks of Florida. They offer amazing hiking, snorkeling, and hiking that you can’t find anywhere else. 

Many of the national parks are also extremely close to Florida’s biggest cities. So, you can enjoy the parks along with the city’s nightlife and dining options. 

While the Everglades is the most well-known Florida national park, there are other must-see destinations that should be on your bucket list. You’ll also find some incredible national monuments where you can learn about Florida’s history. 

Whether you’re a Florida resident or visiting, the national parks are a great way to experience Florida and all the best of wildlife and swimming. 

Shores of Dry Tortugas
Shores of Dry Tortugas

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Visits to the US National Parks

The 63 US national parks are some of the most gorgeous and unique parts of our country. These are precious natural resources that are protected and should always be treated with respect.

Many of the US national parks do charge a fee to visit, often covering for multiple visits within a one-week period. However, if you’re staying for longer, or plan to visit more than one national park within a year, it’s a great idea to purchase a national park pass.

A popular pass that everyone is eligible for is the America the Beautiful Pass. It costs $80 a year and it’s available at one of my favorite stores, REI, online or in-person. And who knows? Purchasing this pass may even tempt you to visit more of our beautiful national parks! What a great idea!

Florida National Parks

When you’re visiting Florida, don’t miss visiting the incredible national parks: Tortugas National Parks, Everglades National Park, and Biscayne National Parks. These special parks reflect the best of what Florida offers.

Tortugas National Park 

If your main goal for visiting Florida’s national parks is to explore the water and marine life, Tortugas National Park is an incredible place. Lesser known and very remote, it’s off the Gulf Coast of Florida and 70 miles west of Key West. It consists of 7 small islands, so swimming and snorkeling are the top activities there. 

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Dry Tortuga’s Shorelines

Everglades National Park 

Everglades National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a national park. It’s an amazing place for seeing wildlife, going boating, and enjoying incredible guided tours. Not only is it popular with tourists, but it’s also a top spot for scientists as well. The Everglades is one of the top places for science research in the United States. 

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Water Canals in the Everglades

Biscayne National Park 

Biscayne National Park is near Miami and Homestead. You need to take a boat to get to the islands that comprise the park. They have guided eco-adventures, ample opportunities to canoe and kayak, and fishing and lobstering. You can also camp in the main areas of the park. 

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Lighthouse in Biscayne

National Monuments and Memorials

Florida also has over 47 national monuments and historic areas. The most famous are Fort Caroline National Memorial, De Soto National Memorial, and Fort Matanzas. 

The National Park Service of Florida has over 318 million visitors every year. They have been working to protect all the natural areas of Florida since 1916. Their main goals are preserving local history and celebrating the local culture. By visiting the Florida national parks, you will see what an amazing job they have done to accomplish these goals. 

Tortugas National Park 

A visit to Dry Tortugas is an unforgettable experience. If you don’t want to navigate it on your own, this catamaran ride from Key West seems like the perfect way to spend a day!

Top Things to do in Tortugas

Although Dry Tortugas is seven different islands, only three islands offer numerous activities that make them worth visiting. 

Garden Key

Garden Key is the largest island in the park. It’s also the only place on the island guests are allowed to camp on. Exploring Fort Jefferson is the main activity on this 14-acre island. 

You can also do several water activities, including: 

  • Snorkeling
  • Swimming (North, South, and East Beach)
  • Boating
  • Fishing
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Fort Jefferson at Garden Key

Loggerhead Key 

Loggerhead Island is the best place for wildlife viewing in Tortugas National Park. 

  • Tortugas means Turtle in Spanish, and this island has five different turtle species. 
  • See over 300 different species of birds, including over 100,000 Sooty Terns.
  • The reefs are easy places to see sharks, lobsters, squid, octopuses, and colorful coral. 

Snorkeling in Loggerhead is also amazing. It’s a great place for beginners as the water isn’t too deep and the beach gradually slopes. So, even if you aren’t a great swimmer, you can still be comfortable in the water at Loggerhead Key. 

Make sure to snorkel to the coral reef named “Little Africa.” It’s just a few yards off the swimming beach area. When looking at the reef from above, it looks just like the continent of Africa. If you have a GoPro or waterproof camera, it will give you some amazing photos. 

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Birds in Loggerhead Key

Bush Key 

For hiking, Bush Key is the best island on Dry Tortugas. The trail is one mile round trip through the shoreline where you can see beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Note that Bush Key is closed from February through September because of nesting season. 

Bush Key is usually only accessible by kayak or canoe, so you’ll need to rent one from Garden Key. During certain times of the year, a land bridge forms where you can walk to it. 

The Dry Tortugas parking station for the ferry is located at 300 Grinnell Street, Key West, FL, 33040. 

How to Get Around Tortugas 

Tortugas National Park is only accessible by boat, so you don’t need a car on the island. To get between the seven islands, you will need to take one of the boat services offered by the park. The main way to get to the island is by ferry, though only ten campers are allowed on it per day. (Be sure to plan well in advance!) If you or your friends have a boat, you can ride it yourself to the national park. 

How Much Time to Spend in Tortugas

Most people find one day on each of the three main islands is enough to explore Dry Tortugas and do all the activities they want. So, you will want to plan for about three days in the park. If you’re planning on camping, you will need to plan how much time you want to spend in Tortugas to ensure you bring enough food and water. You can’t purchase any on the islands. 

Where to Stay in Tortugas 

The only option to stay in Tortugas is camping. If you want to stay close, Key West is a great option.

Budget: If you want to stay inside the national park, you can camp at the site on Garden Key. 6-person campsites are first-come, first-serve. If you are traveling with a group of 10 or more, reservations are required for the larger campsite. All visitors need to bring their own tents and camping gear. Composting toilets are available, and the ferries have fresh water rinses for showering. 

Mid-range: The Laureate Key West is only 3 miles from Duval Street, the main street in Key West. It’s also less than a mile from the beach. They have a beautiful outdoor swimming pool perfect for relaxing and recharging. 

Luxury: Orchid Key Inn is also located on Key West. It’s right on the beach and has a great bar. They also have an outdoor swimming pool, free wi-fi, and a spa with a jacuzzi. To get to Tortugas, you will need to take the ferry from Key West to and from the islands. 

Where to Eat in Tortugas 

As secluded and remote as it is, there are no dining options at the park. However, fishing is allowed and encouraged. Many campers at Tortugas National Park choose to fish every day for their meals. You will need to bring enough food, water, and cooking utensils for your entire stay, though. 

For cooking fresh food, the campsite has BBQ grills. Make sure to bring your own charcoal, as wood fires are not allowed. Gas stoves are permitted if you have a small one that you’d like to bring. 

Everglades National Park 

Top Things To Do in the Everglades 

There are many visitor centers in the Everglades. Starting at one of them is the best way to begin exploring the Everglades.

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Wooden Walking Bridge in the Everglades

Flamingo 

Flamingo Visitor Center is one of the more popular centers and offers many activities. 

  • Take a 90-minute boat Backcountry tour through small canals and lesser-explored places of the islands. 
  • See amazing wildlife on the 90-minute boat tour of Florida Bay. 
  • Rent a kayak or canoe.
  • Rent a bicycle to ride down the trails and marina. 

The Flamingo Center is located at 1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy, Homestead, Florida 33034 and is open from 8 to 5. 

Flamingos in Everglades
Flamingos in the Everglades

Gulf Coast 

The Gulf Coast visitor center is the best place to go if you plan to explore the Ten Thousand Islands, the mangroves, Flamingo Bay, and Florida Bay. 

  • The Ten Thousand Islands tour has several tours a day. It’s a 90-minute tour of Chokoloskee Bay, Indian Key Pass, and the mangroves. 
  • Rent a canoe or kayak and explore the waterways by yourself or take a guided tour. 
  • Take a shuttle to Flamingo Island. 

The Gulf Coast Center is located at 815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, Florida 34139. It’s open from 8 to 5. 

Boat dock in Everglades National Park
Boat dock in the Everglades

Shark Valley 

The busiest center in the Everglades offers great tours and activities. 

  • Take a guided tram tour of the area. Halfway through the tour, you’ll be taken to a 45-foot high observation deck, where you can take some amazing photos. 
  • Rent a bike or electric scooter and ride the 15-mile loop to see wildlife and the ecosystem at work. 
  • Take a walk on one of the two trails to see the wildlife up-close. Be careful of alligators!

The Shark Valley Center is located at 36000 SW 8th Street, Miami, Florida 33194, and is open from 8 to 5. 

How to Get Around the Everglades 

The different visitor centers and main points of the Everglades are between 30 minutes to 2 hours from each other. Since it’s the largest wetland in the United States, you will need a car to get between visitor centers. Some people choose to Uber or Lyft from their hotels since parking can be very limited at some of the centers. 

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Kayak canal in the Everglades

How Much Time to Spend in the Everglades 

Most people find that spending two days in the Everglades is enough time to explore the area. This should give you enough time to kayak, see wildlife, and take a few boating or tram tours. 

Where to Stay in the Everglades 

Budget: You can camp on Gulf Coast Island and Flamingo Marina. Both places offer the option to rent camping equipment directly from them, or you can rent your own. Reservations are required. 

Mid-range: Towneplace Suites Miami Homestead is the best place to stay if you want to visit the Everglades and Biscayne National Park. They have BBQ grills, full in-suite kitchens, and an amazing outdoor pool. They’re also pet-friendly!

Luxury: Port of the Islands Everglades Adventure Resort is one of the closest hotels you can stay to the Everglades. Featuring 52 cottages with kitchenettes and screened porches, you get a secluded stay right in the wetlands. 

Where to Eat in the Everglades 

Flamingo Marina has small food trucks selling sandwiches, salads, and other basic meals. This is one of the best places to eat if you don’t want to leave the Everglades. 

Angler’s Cove at the Port of the Island Resort has happy hour every day. They also have amazing dinner options such as ahi tuna steak and shrimp scampi pizza. 

Triad Seafood Market and Cafe is one of the best places for fresh-caught seafood. Try the fried clams, the mahi-mahi sandwich, or the clam chowder. The menu also features many classic southern options that are not seafood or fish. 

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Water lilies in the Everglades

Biscayne National Park 

Top Things To Do in Biscayne 

With two main islands to visit, there is plenty to do in Biscayne National Park. 

Boca Chita Key 

Boca Chita is the most visited island in the park. It does offer boat docking if you are planning to drive or rent a boat. 

  • Take a guided boat tour of the island to learn about the history of the iconic lighthouse.
  • Take a half-mile hike to the south side of the island for some beautiful scenery.
  • Visit the 65-foot high observation deck on the lighthouse for an aerial view of the water and surrounding islands. 
Shores of Biscayne
Shores of Biscayne

Elliott Key 

The largest island in the park has several activities.

  • Hike the Spite Highway 6-miles roundtrip to see the maritime forest.
  • Use the BBQ grills to have a picnic near the beautiful marina. 
  • Take a wildlife watching tour.
  • Fish on the south side of the island if you have a permit. 

How to Get Around Biscayne 

Once you get to Biscayne, you can travel by boat between the islands. You will need to park in the lot at Dante Fascell Visitor Center, and then boats will take you to the other areas. 

How Much Time to Spend in Biscayne 

Most people find that spending one day on each of the islands is enough time for tours, boating, and kayaking. So, you will need to plan for 1-2 days, depending on if you want to visit both keys or just one. 

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Maritime forest in Biscayne

Where to Stay in Biscayne 

Budget: Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key both have campgrounds. Boca Chita has indoor toilets but no showers, while Elliott Key has full showers and sinks. There are grill facilities where you can bring your own food at both. Make sure to bring drinking water since neither campground has any. 

Mid-range: Hilton Garden Inn Homestead is close to the Miami Speedway and the Homestead Air Force Base. They have an amazing outdoor swimming pool, a 24-hour front desk, and many different suite options to fit your traveling needs. 

Luxury: Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay is close to Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami. They have an outdoor pool, an on-site restaurant, and a 24-hour fitness center. From here, you can easily get to all of Miami’s attractions and Biscayne National Park. 

Where to Eat in Biscayne 

Boater’s Grill has fresh-caught seafood with a Latin flair. Try the lobster asopado, stone crab, and tostones with shrimp. They also have amazing drinks and wine. 

Novecento is an Argentinian restaurant and has incredible plates with large portions. Make sure to order the beef tenderloin, croquetas, or the salmon rosado. They also have ample vegetarian options and an extensive wine list. 

Florida National Monuments & Memorials

Florida is home to some beautiful national monuments and memorials. 

  • Fort Caroline National Memorial was the first site of contact between American Indians and the Spanish settlers. It’s located near Jacksonville, a large city in Florida on the east coast, close to all the best beaches. At Fort Caroline, you can go hiking, see cannon firings, and visit historical exhibits. 
  • De Soto National Memorial is in Bradenton. Take a ranger-led kayaking tour to learn about the history of De Soto and his exploration of Tampa Bay. It’s a great historical tour of Florida and how colonization has shaped the state. 
  • Fort Matanzas was originally built in 1742 and was meant to defend Florida. It’s located in St. Augustine. Take a walking guided tour of the fort and then go hiking on some of the nearby trails. 
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Fort Matanzas

When to Visit the National Parks of Florida

The best thing about Florida is that the weather is warm all year. Visiting the national parks of Florida during the peak seasons isn’t ideal since the parks are often quite crowded overcrowded. Try to avoid the national parks in June, July, and August. The month of December and the beginning of January also tend to be very busy. 

Florida’s National Parks are Waiting For You! 

The national parks of Florida are the easiest and best way to explore the state of Florida and get out of the hustle and bustle of the cities. They offer sights that are uniquely Florida and well worth seeing. All the national parks have opportunities to canoe and kayak, great ways to get outdoors and enjoy nature. You can also experience the best wildlife and swim in crystal clear waters, making them a real treat.

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