Twenty-one miles east of the Everglades and just north of the island of Key Largo lies Biscayne National Park. It is the largest protected marine national park in the United States. With 95% of the park on the water, we booked a full-day sailing trip to travel across Biscayne Bay and set foot on one of its keys.
Spaniard Juan Ponce de León sailed across Biscayne Bay during his discovery of Florida in 1513. Later, pirates and treasure fleets roamed the area, some meeting disasterous results. There are 44 documented shipwrecks within the park boundaries. As Florida grew, development plans were created to build a new city and port in the location of today’s national park. Calls for protection ensued, and Biscayne became a national monument in 1968. It was elevated to national park status in 1980. Visitation in 2016 was 514,709 people, ranking it 38th among parks.
We booked a full-day guided sailing tour that included a trip across Biscayne Bay, time on one of the keys, and our choice of snorkeling or kayaking activities around the island. When we arrived at Biscayne, we headed to the visitor center to view their museum and watch a short video highlighting the mainland, bay, key, and reef sections of the park. Biscayne is situated on the northernmost portion of the Florida Keys and the Florida Reef, the third largest coral barrier reef in the world. We learned that Biscayne is home to 200 species of fish and marine mammals.
Before boarding the boat, we walked on the half-mile Jetty Trail and peered into the water to see colorful fish, coral, and seaweed. It was windy, and we could see that any snorkeling or kayaking activities might be impacted.
Our boat, the 44 foot long Adventure, was captained by Perry. The maximum number of charter guests was six, so we had four other people on board with us. The boat motored into the channel to prepare for our sail across Biscayne Bay. Then the engine died.
We were towed back to the dock and, once back on shore, we waited to hear the diagnosis of the boat’s condition. It became apparent that it couldn’t easily be fixed, and we were offered the opportunity to join four different people on a small power boat to continue with our tour. But we had our heart set on the sailboat.
After conversation between us and some schedule checking, we realized that we could reschedule later in the week, when the sailboat motor would be operational. We confirmed the date with the charter staff, while also hoping for calmer weather in a few days time.
When we drove back to Biscayne several days later it was not only windier than before, but there were ominous black clouds in the sky. We were told that it might rain, but since there was no lightening in the forecast, we were safe to proceed. The motor was fixed and Perry was again our captain. No one else had booked the day, so we had a private tour.
We motored off to the bay and raised the sails to begin sailing to Boca Chita Key, about eight miles away. It is the most popular island in the park, as it contains a 65 foot tall ornamental lighthouse built in the late 1930s by a businessman who once owned the island. It rained a little on the trip over, but we made good time with the wind at our back.
Just as we docked at Boca Chita, another rain cell moved through, bringing even darker clouds and gusty winds. We stood behind the bathroom on shore to shield us from the strong gusts. After about 30 minutes the storm abated, and we walked over to the lighthouse to climb its winding staircase to the top.
We so wanted to snorkel or kayak but one look at the white cap waves hitting the shore told us that it was not going to happen. We discovered a short half-mile path looping to the end of the key and back, so we set off to explore. When we arrived at the end of the key, the wind stopped, and we were immediately attacked by mosquitoes. Breaking into a jog, we quickly completed the hike, emerging on the other side of the island and back into the wind. The mosquitoes quickly dissipated.
Since we were going to be sailing back to the mainland against the wind, we asked Perry if we could leave a little early. Moving our charter to a new day meant that we still had to keep to our schedule for that night, and it was a three hour drive to our reserved campsite. The sun finally came out as we sailed back, turning the bay water to a brilliant turquoise color.
Perry, who is a sailboat instructor, used the return trip to give a willing Darren a sailing lesson of sorts, and they practiced tacking the boat several times to change course into the headwind hitting us. It did take quite a bit longer to get back, and we arrived almost an hour later than scheduled. So we quickly said our goodbyes and thanks and headed to the car as soon as we docked.
Even though our boat tour did not go as exactly as we had hoped, we so enjoyed the feeling of sailing through Biscayne National Park, as so many ships had for hundreds of years before us. Having the opportunity to explore three of the four park environments, on the mainland, bay, and keys, allowed us to better appreciate the 173,000 acre park, even if the weather did not fully cooperate.
We hope to have better luck in the water as we travel to one of the United States’ most remote national parks: Dry Tortugas.