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Just a few miles from downtown Miami, Biscayne National Park is one of America's most accessible playgrounds, a place where you can boat, snorkel, camp, watch wildlife, and explore a bit of history. There are four primary ecosystems here, the mangrove forest along the shoreline, the shallow southern portion of Biscayne Bay, the northernmost Florida Keys and a portion of the world's third-longest living coral reef. The park encompasses 172,000 acres (about 207 square miles), and because it is 95% water, a boat is the best way to see most of the area. Otherwise, you get here by driving US 1 (or the Florida Turnpike) south from Miami.

The park began as a National Monument in 1968, and almost didn't happen as local developers were planning to turn the area into a big new seaport/industrial park during the post World War II years. Evidence of their plans includes a wide "Spite Highway" (six lanes wide and seven miles long) on one of the park islands, and some say opponents of the park idea even poisoned an environmental leader's dog in the spat. The monument became a national park in 1980.

Highlights

If you are traveling by car, stop in the Visitor Center, open daily from 9am to 5pm, located nine miles east of Homestead. There's a neat little museum, where films are presented, and the Gallery highlights work by local artists. There are a Touch Table for kids to play with, a bookstore and a gift shop, too. The park's only concessionaire is at Convoy Point, where you can arrange for guided snorkeling or glass bottom boat trips, an excursion to one of the park's islands, or renting a canoe/kayak.

Boca Chita Key has a campground, picnic facilities, restrooms and a short trail, but the highlight is the 65-foot ornamental (i.e., non-working) lighthouse built in the 1930s by a former owner of the island. The observation deck on top is open occasionally (when a park ranger is on the island), providing great views of Miami skylines, the bay, the ocean, and other islands.

There's a campground on Elliott Key, too, with another hiking trail, picnic facilities and a restroom, as well as swimming in the bay. Fishing is available, but you may need a Florida fishing license (the rules are amazingly complicated, so check ahead). Elliott Key is considered the first (farthest north) of the Florida Keys.

On Adams Key is the former home of the Cocolobo Club, where such poobahs as Carl Fisher (a founder of Miami Beach, no relation), and presidents Harding, Hoover, Johnson, and Nixon went on retreat. Facilities today include a picnic area and restrooms.

A favorite with many boating visitors is Stiltsville, a collection of battered shacks in the shallows at the northern end of the park. Started in the Great Depression by squatters, these buildings from the 1930s were used until the 1990s, and are now closed to the public pending development as an educational resource in the future. You can, of course, see them from the water but cannot get onto them.

Activities

This is the International Year of the Reef, so consider going for a dive, for snorkeling or boating, fishing, or just camping and picnicking along the shoreline. From December through May there are special activities such as the Family Fun Fest, with guided canoe tours and a series of Discovery Lectures, for instance. Convoy Point, where the Visitors Center is located, is considered one of South Florida's best windsurfing locations, by the way, and is said to be one of the country's top scuba diving areas.

Flora and Fauna

There are more than 500 species of fish to see while snorkeling, as well as bird and coral to look at, and manatees. Ask a ranger about good places to spot birds, fish, manatees, crocodiles and other critters. Among birds abounding are the brown pelican, white ibis, blue heron and the snowy egret. As for flora, check out the mangrove swamps, and look for the gumbo limbo, Jamaican dogwood and mahogany. The few animals in the swamps and on firm ground include the rare Key Largo wood rat and raccoons.

Number of Visitors

There were 517,442 visitors in 2007. (The first European to visit was Juan Ponce de Leon, who touched here in 1512, naming the island he hit Santa Marta and claiming it for the King of Spain.)

Fees

There is no entrance fee to the park, but you do have to pay for camping.

Contacts

The official site of the park is www.nps.gov/bisc. The Visitor Information phone is 305/230-7275.

A helpful commercial site is www.biscayne.national-park.com.

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