Travelers love Key West for its relaxed and easy-going atmosphere. Casual dining, informal accommodations, leisurely walks, and the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square are just a few of the reasons people keep coming back. But there’s more to the Keys than just the city of Key West. If you’ve more than a weekend to spend here, it’s worth checking out the natural beauty and abundant wildlife at the two national parks near Key West, Dry Tortugas and Biscayne.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is one of the newer national parks, and it’s accessible only by water. There’s a commercial ferry with regular round-trip departures from Key West, about 70 miles away. Private and charter boats can also access the park. This park consists of seven small islands and the surrounding waters. It was first established as Fort Jefferson National Monument by President Roosevelt in the 1930s and later expanded to include additional keys and waters, becoming Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992.
What to See and Do
Geography and the man-made structures here offer an inviting environment to abundant sea life. Snorkeling and diving along old naval pilings, the moat wall, and shipwrecks and natural coral reefs offer something for everyone, from novice to expert snorkelers and divers. Popular sites include Little Africa, a coral reef called that because of its shape, plus Windjammer Wreck, Pulaski Shoals, and Texas Rock. Visitors to Dry Tortugas can even snorkel and dive along the moat wall at night for a chance to see nocturnal animals in action.
Tours of Fort Jefferson provide an overview of the dramatic seafaring history of the area. Special events including living history programs and stargazing at night. Garden Key and Loggerhead Key have beaches that are open to the public. Guests who’d like to extend their stay and explore all that the Dry Tortugas have to offer can book campsites at Garden Key. These are first come, first served. Campers must carry in all supplies, including water.
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On the Water
Recreational and sport fishing are welcome in many areas of the park but you would have to get special permits. Going with a charter fishing company can ensure compliance with all of the applicable rules. In addition, the charter fishing boat often has all the fishing tackle anyone could need, so travelers don’t need to worry about not having gear of their own. For visitors who’d prefer a smaller boating experience, paddle around the shoreline of the keys by kayak or canoe for the best view of sea turtles, nesting and wading birds, and other wildlife.
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Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is located at the uppermost part of the Florida Keys. This park is less than a 150-mile-drive north from Key West along the scenic Overseas Highway. Nearly all of this unique national park is under water. It was established in the late 1960s as part of an effort to protect the last unspoiled parts of the Florida Keys from development.
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What to See and Do
Book a tour from the park’s visitors center for an overview of the cultural, historical, maritime, and natural make-up of the area. Outside companies also offer tours, as authorized by the park. These tours tend to fill up quickly. However, keep in mind that if you’re driving up from Key West for a day, it’s recommendable to make reservations.
Biscayne Bay is shallow enough to see a plethora of diverse marine life from over or under the water. The shores are lined with mangrove trees and the ecosystems they support. Canoe and kayak trails (and rentals, if needed) allow visitors to see wildlife and plants up close. Jones Lagoon and Hurricane Creek are especially popular and allow for access to areas otherwise unreachable by boat. Visitors who’d like to camp overnight in the park can do so at Boca Chita or Elliott Key. Campsites fill up first come, first served. Boca Chita has no amenities beyond the campsites. Elliott Key has restrooms with showers, picnic areas, trails, and swimming areas.
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On the Water
Biscayne National Park is a great place for fishing and paddle sports. Grouper, bonefish, snapper, and tarpon are often caught here. State regulations and licensing laws apply as to what areas can be fished and what can be kept. For non-local visitors, booking a charter fishing boat can make the trip easy. These captains generally know where the most active fish are. They have the necessary permits and gear for a smooth sailing trip, whether you’re interested in reef, wreck or shoreline fishing.
The Maritime Heritage Trail is a string of underwater sites. These include several shipwrecks from as far back as the 1880s, and ranging from wooden ships to vessels with steel hulls. Some sites are restricted to scuba divers only, and others to snorkelers. The park’s Biscayne Birding Trail is a good way to see wading and shorebirds of all kinds that find a home here. Most of them are here temporarily and it’s quite a surprise on any given visit which birds might be seen.
The great parts of Key West itself can’t be underestimated. There’s great food, entertainment, and natural beauty the city streets, parks, and squares. But for visitors with a little extra time, a visit to the area’s national parks can provide an off-the-beaten-path experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Have you ever been to Key West? How do you like these national parks? Let us know in the comments!