When visiting Biscayne National Park, your first goal should be to get out on the water. That’s because 95% of the park is underwater. Without your own boat, the best way to do this is with one of the Biscayne National Park tours operated by the Biscayne National Park Institute. Whether you are taking a boat tour or doing something more active, such as snorkeling at Biscayne National Park, the water is where you really experience all that the park has to offer.
On our most recent visit, we actually took two different tours: the Snorkel & Paddle Eco-Adventure and the Boca Chita Island Experience. On the snorkel and paddle tour, we had a chance to get in the water and really see the underwater plant and animal life. As you’d expect, it was a physically demanding tour. The Boca Chita Island tour, however, was perfect for those looking for something a bit more relaxed.
Whatever your interests, the Biscayne National Park Institute should be your first stop for exploring the park without your own boat.
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About the Biscayne National Park Institute
The Biscayne National Park Institute is a non-profit partnership between Biscayne National Park and the Florida National Parks Association. The Institute provides tours and educational experiences for visitors while also supporting the goals and needs of Biscayne National Park. The proceeds from the various tours and programs are used directly to support Biscayne National Park.
The Biscayne National Park Institute offers a variety of tours, providing visitors to the park a wide range of experiences. Visitors looking for some adventure can take a snorkel and/or paddle tour. Those looking for a more relaxed tour can take one of the daily boat tours to picturesque Boca Chita Key or a once-a-month evening cruise through Biscayne Bay.
On each tour, you’ll learn about the history and natural world of Biscayne National Park, as well as the surrounding area.
Snorkel & Paddle Eco-Adventure at Biscayne National Park
I’ll be honest, the Snorkel and Paddle Eco-Adventure is probably not a tour that we would have chosen for ourselves. When the folks with the Biscayne National Park Institute reached out to us and suggested this tour, however, we were intrigued. We thought this would be a good opportunity to push ourselves a little and try something different, so we accepted.
While parts of the tour were challenging, we really enjoyed it and highly recommend this tour even if you’re not experienced at paddleboarding or snorkeling. Just make sure you can handle the physical aspects of paddleboarding, even if you have to sit or kneel as we did.
On the 6-hour tour, we spent about 45 minutes getting to the paddleboard location in Jones Lagoon and about two hours paddleboarding through the area. From there, we went over to nearby Adams Key for a picnic lunch.
After lunch, we relocated again for the snorkeling portion of the tour. The captain/tour guide will decide the best location based on the weather and visibility. We ended up on the bay side of one of the keys. We had about an hour to snorkel before heading back to the visitor center.
One of the things we loved most about this tour is that the boat is limited to only six people. This made the experience much more personal than many other tours that we’ve done.
Paddleboarding in Biscayne National Park
While we have both been canoeing and kayaking, this was actually our first time paddleboarding. The hardest part of paddleboarding is keeping your balance when standing. Sitting or kneeling on the board, however, really isn’t that difficult. It can be tough on your knees after a while, though.
Grant attempted to stand a couple of times early on but was never successful. Let’s just say that he figured out the water temperature fairly quickly. I didn’t even attempt to stand until we were close to the end of the tour. I made it upright but was very unsteady. I’ll be honest, I stood long enough for Grant to get a picture, then promptly spent the rest of the tour sitting or kneeling.
What I enjoyed most about this part of the tour was getting to see the underwater plant and animal life up close and personal. Our guide did a great job finding unusual sea creatures, telling us about them and letting us see them up close.
During our paddle, we saw a sea cucumber, a spotted sea hare (a type of large sea slug), a few starfish, many Casseopia jellyfish and a couple of small nurse sharks. Of course, we also saw countless fish and birds.
We paddled all around the lagoon and through mangrove tunnels. At times the water level was so low a few people got off and walked their boards through the seagrass. Most of the time, though, the paddling was fairly easy. Staying balanced while sitting or kneeling was, thankfully, much easier than I expected!
Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park
Grant loves to snorkel and dive. I, however, do not. I’m actually not a fan of open water.
I don’t mind being ON the water – in a boat, canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. For whatever reason, I don’t like being IN the water. I am actually a fairly good swimmer when it comes to pools. There is something about the vastness of the ocean that is overwhelming, though. I can handle shallow water, as long as I can stand, the water is clear and the bottom is free of plants; I really don’t like walking on seagrass or other plants that could be home to little (or big) critters.
When the park offered this tour and the opportunity for snorkeling in Biscayne National Park, I knew this was something Grant would love. Snorkeling is definitely not my thing, but I didn’t want Grant to miss out on the opportunity.
As expected, Grant took off with the snorkel and explored all over the area. In the open cove, he found plenty of fish and a few pieces of coral. His favorite part was looking in and under the mangroves and finding all the fish taking shelter among the roots.
I, of course, just hung out at the boat. Thankfully, our guide was very understanding. She got out one of the paddleboards which I used to “snorkel” and still have something to keep me “grounded.”
While I didn’t get very far away from the boat, I was able to see a variety of plants and small fish. The highlight was seeing an eel hanging out and swimming through the grass.
I also learned that breathing through a snorkel really isn’t as difficult as I thought it might be.
What to Expect on the Snorkel and Paddle Eco-Adventure
Throughout the boat ride and the paddling, our captain/tour guide provided a history of the park and the area. We learned many great stories of previous island inhabitants and why Biscayne National Park was created.
As we started out from the dock, our boat had some mechanical difficulties. I really have no idea what was wrong, but the captain handled it very well. She acted quickly, without panicking and got us on our way so we could enjoy the day.
Once we reached the paddleboarding location, our guide gave us the basics of how to paddleboard. You certainly do NOT have to have any experience before this tour. In fact, only 2 of the 6 people on the tour had prior paddleboard experience. We spent about 2 hours paddling with little to no shade, so I’d also suggest reef-safe sunscreen and perhaps a long sleeve sun shirt. You can get both of these in the Biscayne National Park gift shop when you check-in for your tour.
You’ll need to bring your own lunch and a water bottle. There was a cooler on board and plenty of water to refill your bottle as needed.
In terms of snorkeling, our guide helped us all to get situated and in the water. We were free to explore on our own, as long as we stayed within sight of the boat. In addition to me not being comfortable snorkeling, there was another couple who I don’t think could even swim. They did not speak English well, so we weren’t sure. The guide did a great job of working with us all to help ensure we still enjoyed the snorkeling portion of the tour.
Boca Chita Island Experience
The three-hour Boca Chita tour is perfect for visitors of all ages. On the 45-minute ride to the key, the tour guide will tell you some of the history of Boca Chita Key and the other keys in Biscayne National Park. Once we arrived, we had about an hour and twenty minutes to explore on our own before returning to the visitor center.
Boca Chita Key is a small island in Biscayne Bay, once owned by Mark Honeywell. In the 1930s, he developed half of the island to include an ornamental lighthouse, a small chapel and a garage. The other half of the island was left natural and today includes a short walking trail.
The Honeywells often hosted parties, with guests making the trek from Miami Beach aboard luxury yachts. Many of the structures still stand today, including the cannon that was fired to announce guests when they arrived at the island! Visitors can climb the 65-foot lighthouse for an impressive view of the island and the surrounding water.
What to Do on Boca Chita Key
We started our Boca Chita Key tour by checking out the view from the lighthouse. Yes, you have to climb the narrow, winding staircase to the top, but it really was not a difficult climb. The view from the top was well worth the small effort to get up there. The blue water of Biscayne Bay provided a picture-perfect sight in all directions.
From the lighthouse, we could also easily see all the private boats, both big and small, tied up in the harbor. When we were there, we spotted what looked like a tugboat converted into a “yacht.” I suppose it is the RVers in us that were fascinated by this.
There is a small man-made beach if you’re interested in sitting out in the sun or swimming.
Next, we headed over to the short trail that runs across the undeveloped side of the island. On the trail, you’ll find plenty of shade from the surrounding trees. Unfortunately, you’ll also likely find more mosquitoes.
The trail used to wrap all the way around the island, but Hurricane Irma destroyed the footbridge, For now, you’ll have to just turn around then retrace your steps back. In all, it took us 15-20 minutes to walk the trail. That was with a few stops for pictures.
There are also plenty of picnic tables if you want to bring lunch with you. We actually brought our lunch but didn’t have time to eat before we had to get back on the boat. By this time, the wind had picked up and clouds had moved in, so the timing ended up being pretty good.
What to Expect on the Boat Ride
The high-speed boat that takes you to Boca Chita Key is mostly covered, with seating around the perimeter. As we boarded, the captain warned us that we may get a little wet, especially if seated towards the front. As predicted, those sitting in the front did get splashed, some more than others.
While a few people did get fairly wet, overall the trip wasn’t that bad and everyone dried out quickly. For the most part, it was a smooth and easy 45-minute trip.
By the time we left Boca Chita Key, the wind had picked up and gray clouds covered the sky. It was obvious to us all that the return trip would be a little rough. Indeed, the winds blew water just about everywhere. Everyone in the first half of the boat was pretty much soaked by the time we returned to dock at the visitor center.
A lot of folks did squeeze in towards the back of the boat for the return trip, but there just wasn’t enough room for everyone to get out of the “splash zone.”
Pro tip: wear lightweight clothing that will dry quickly.
I’d certainly suggest sandals or some sort of shoes that can get wet. How wet you get will depend on where you are sitting and how big the waves are. Just know that you might want a change of clothes by the time you get back.
Other Things to Do at Biscayne National Park
Both of our tours with the Biscayne National Park Institute included great information from the tour guides on the history of the park and its purpose. I would also suggest at least a quick stop at the visitor center, where you’ll find a view exhibits and a park film. The film has a few different parts that provide more information about the underwater life and history of the area.
There is also a short walking trail just off the visitor center. If you don’t have time for a tour or snorkeling in Biscayne National Park, I definitely suggest that you at least walk the trail. The trail should only take you about 10-15 minutes unless you want to spend more time enjoying the fabulous Florida weather or fishing.
If you have your own boat, you can camp on Boca Chita Key or Elliott Key. Both have bathrooms, but no showers.
Final Thoughts on Biscayne National Park Tours
When we first visited Biscayne National Park in 2012, we just stopped at the visitor center and walked the short trail. We did not get out into the water at all. While we were happy to “check it off” as a visit, we knew we didn’t really get to experience what the park is all about.
Getting to do a couple of tours with the Biscayne National Park Institute really was the best way to experience what this park has to offer. We truly enjoyed snorkeling at Biscayne National Park. Since the vast majority of the park is underwater, that really is the best way to see all the plants and animals that make a home there.
If you’re more like me and prefer to stay above water, the boat tours offer much of the same history with a lot less physical activity. Boca Chita Key may not be big but we had a great time exploring. And, it really is one of the most picturesque places we visited in the park.
We enjoyed everything about our tours with the Biscayne National Park Institute and highly recommend them both.
A special thanks to the Biscayne National Park Institute for sponsoring our Snorkel and Paddle Eco-Adventure tour. To clarify, we paid for the Boca Chita Key tour ourselves. As always, all opinions are our own.
Looking for more on the Florida National Parks? Check out our article on Visiting Florida’s Northeast Parks and stay tuned for an upcoming article on Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.