Travelers (and especially couples) 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. You might be tempted to stay in the historic district and spend most of your time there but If you’re planning to spend more than a few days here, you should definitely check out the natural beauty and abundant wildlife at some of the national parks near Key West.
Biscayne National Park
When speaking of national parks near Key West, the first thing that comes to mind is Biscayne National Park. Located at the uppermost part of the Florida Keys, this park is less than a 40 miles south of Miami and 150 miles north of Key West, connected via 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 in Biscayne
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)
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.
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 you’ll never forget.
And speaking of off-the-beaten-track experiences and national parks near Key West…
The Key West Nature Preserve
Most people who visit Key West have no idea that on the south side of this tightly-packed island, you can find a designated nature preserve that’s home to interesting species such as the Bark Anole, the Cuban Brown Anole lizard, and the common Green Anole (among others). So, if you’re looking for some interesting and non-touristy things to do near Key West, head down to the south end of White Street between the Higgs Beach Area and the White Street Pier and proceed along Atlantic Boulevard to get to this small untouched piece of nature.
Bahia Honda State Park
On the way to Key West, the beautiful Bahia Honda State Park often makes visitors who made it this far ask themselves “do I really have to travel any further?” Famous for the beautiful scenery consisting of palm-lined beaches, crystal-clear waters, and some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, it’s no surprise that Bahia Honda attracts thousands of visitors every year. There are also several great snorkeling spots and the park is a great place for birdwatching enthusiasts because it’s home to a colony of wading birds and shorebirds.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is a great destination for people who are interested in seeing the best of Key West’s parks but it’s also a must for history lovers. On the far southern edge of the island, you’ll find Fort Taylor; one of the oldest buildings in the region and one of the rare forts in the US that predates the Civil War. Inside the fort, you can also find the largest cache of Civil War armament in America with cannons and gun ports that will make history come alive in front of your eyes.
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge
The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest heron species, the great white heron that’s unique to South Florida and the Florida Keys. The refuge that encompasses numerous islands known as the Backcountry, was established in 1938 and is one of the oldest refuges in the US. In addition to the great white heron, this refuge is also home to colonies of white-crowned pigeons, frigatebirds, and critter cams, among others, making it one of the best bird-watching spots in the whole country.
Key West National Wildlife Refuge
Located halfway between Key West and the Dry Tortugas National Park, this wildlife refuge is one of the most pristine places in the area. Only 2,019 acres of the refuge are above sea level and these keys are unpopulated and designated as wilderness within the Florida Keys Wilderness. This refuge was created to help preserve the native and migratory birds, as well as fish, plants, and other wildlife, and create a safe breeding ground.
Today, the refuge is one of the least frequented places near the keys. There’s no visitor center and the only way you can reach the refuge is by boat.
Dry Tortugas National Park
When we speak of national parks near Key West, we just have to mention Dry Tortugas National Park. This is one of the newer national parks near Key West, 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 in Dry Tortugas
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 (Dry Tortugas)
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, All-In Fishing Charters is a great choice for observing sea turtles, nesting and wading birds, and other wildlife. Alternatively, if you don’t want to pay a charter fishing company, you can also get your own kayak or canoe and explore independently.
Helpful resources for visiting Key West
For some great accommodation deals in Key West, use this Booking.com special offer and get up to 15% off on all accommodation bookings. Another great budget option is staying in motels. For the best motel deals in Key West, check out Motel6.
Are you planning to visit a lot of popular tourist sights? Use this offer to get a City Pass and save up to 44% when visiting the most famous tourist attractions in Key West.
If you want to rent a car, use this special offer by AutoEurope to get 15% off on all car rentals in Key West.
Last but not least, if you’re a beach lover, check out our list of the best hidden beaches in California!
Have you ever been to Key West? How do you like these national parks near Key West? Would you visit some of them? Let us know in the comments!
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