Travel

The Best National Park You’ve Never Heard Of Is Almost Entirely Underwater

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The historical lighthouse at Boca Chita. | Courtesy of Stephen Shelley
The historical lighthouse at Boca Chita. | Courtesy of Stephen Shelley

Biscayne National Park, about 20 miles south of Miami, protects North America’s northernmost living coral reefs and their surrounding ecosystem. Haven’t heard of it? More than 95% of the park is underwater -- meaning, accessible only by boat. You’ll cruise past nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. Hundreds of species of fish. Crocodiles. Alligators. One of the largest coral reefs anywhere in the world.
MORE: We have ranked the national parks

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Take one of these out for a spin. | Sandra Foyt/Shutterstock

Within the park, you can take advantage of paddle boarding trips (ages 12 and up). Sunset cruises around the park. Family-friendly, all-day sailing trips that let you explore the park’s vast forests of giant mangroves. Snorkeling trips (ages 8 and up) that’ll introduce you to manatees and black-nosed sharks. There’s a historical trip that takes you to the island of Boca Chita, which was owned by the guy who invented the thermostat back in the ’30s, during which time he built a number of gorgeous structures on the island including a chapel and a lighthouse. You can also rent a boat and explore the park on your own.
MORE:Ten of America’s most underrated national parks

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Boca Chita Key is one of the most popular destinations within the park. | National Parked/Shutterstock

“We basically cater to whatever people can do,” Hans Bockelman, a captain with Biscayne National Institute, the park’s official nonprofit partner. “And all our trips are education-based -- so if you come out you’re gonna learn something. We’re not just your typical, ‘ooh, look at the pretty bird’ [tour]. That’s the foundation of the Institute, to provide educational tourism.” Biscayne National Institute’s tours are also known for being eco friendly, focused on preserving the health of the reef. 
MORE:Planet-saving travel tips

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Snorkeling and diving tours introduce you to some of Biscayne's 200 species of fish. | Biscayne National Park Institute

Because it’s in Florida, it’s one of the parks that’s best visited in the wintertime; Bockelman says the park gets busiest between Christmas and Easter. We’re hitting the start of peak season right about … now. “People up North are tired of being cold, tired of being locked indoors. They want to get out.”

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Almost all activities are family-friendly. | Sandra Foyt/Shutterstock

Visit in the summertime, though, and you’ll want to take advantage of the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail. Between May and November, Biscayne National Institute offers snorkeling tours of six of the park’s vast collection of shipwrecks; it’s one of the only places in the Keys that has wrecks shallow enough for visitors to explore.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.