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Biscayne National Park
When the warmth of the holiday season is past, and the chill winds of winter begin to grate on people’s nerves and chap their lips, Biscayne National Park starts to see more visitors. The park’s rangers know the look: folks whose pale skin thirsts for a dose of the vitamin D that pure Florida sunshine can provide and those who repeatedly open and close their hands as they slowly acclimate to the 70 degree temperature and work the stiffness from their fingers. It takes some people awhile to make it to the rangers inside the Dante Fascell Visitor Center – the pull of the rocking chairs on its front porch overlooking beautiful Biscayne Bay is just too great a temptation.
Although summer is generally best for visiting the park’s reefs, the weather that sends northerners scurrying south each winter offers a different set of opportunities. Rain is rare during South Florida’s dry season, so cloudless sapphire skies melt into aquamarine water dappled with diamonds of sunlight. Winds blow the mosquitoes away, making boat trips to the park’s islands possible…a rarity during summer months.
Wildlife watching can be great in winter, especially for some of the park’s endangered species. Canoeing along the park’s mangrove shoreline is great for spotting crocodiles, and guided canoe trips are offered monthly. Manatees tend to come closer to shore in the winter, and the harbor in front of the visitor center and the jetty trail are both great places to watch for them. Birders can enjoy spotting a variety of terns, pelicans, and even the occasional magnificent frigatebird or peregrine falcon.
If camping is your thing, winter is definitely prime time! Cooler temperatures and breezy conditions make it pure pleasure to camp on a subtropical island with no roads or bridges, no tiki bars or t-shirt shops. Access to campsites is by boat only, but if you don’t have one of your own, the park’s concessioner can provide transportation for you with advance notice.
Boat trips are available daily, as long as the weather allows and passenger minimums are met. Snorkeling trips typically go out in the afternoon, and afford great opportunities to see some of the park’s underwater wildlife either on the reef (on calm days) or on a shipwreck or seagrass bed in the sheltered bay when the weather is rougher. Daily ranger talks and walks provide an in-depth look into a variety of topics, from popular wildlife like sharks and manatees to the myriad things that wash onto the park’s shorelines every day. Special events like Family Fun Fest (celebrating its 10th anniversary this year) offer kids — and the adults they hang with — an occasion to learn together about the national park system’s largest marine park in a fun, hands-on way.
For most winter visitors, the best chance to experience Biscayne National Park is on a guided trip to one of the park’s keys. These ancient coral reefs, left exposed when sea level dropped during the last ice age, are now islands covered with dense forests of mahogany, gumbo limbo, pigeon plum, and scores of other plants typically found only in the tropics. History also abounds here. Boca Chita Key, once the hangout of the rich and famous, is today the park’s most popular island. The lovely little lighthouse built by former owner Mark Honeywell (the thermostat guy) is also quite a draw for many visitors, and the view from the top is fabulous on a clear day.
All in all, Biscayne National Park is pretty much the ideal winter getaway. The toughest part will be returning home to all that cold weather!