Make a Stop at These National Parks When Planning Your Trip to Key West
The Keys are a perennial favorite among American vacation spots, primarily because of how relaxed it is. In Key West, in particular, casual dining at places like Eaton Street Seafood Market and Restaurant where the Key West pink shrimp is legendary, informal accommodations at bed and breakfasts across the island, leisurely walks down city streets and along sandy beaches, and the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square represent just some of the reasons why travelers return again and again. But there’s more to the Keys than just Key West, and if you have an extra day or two to spend on your vacation, it’s well worth exploring what lays just beyond the city. You’ll be stunned by the beauty that awaits you at Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park.
Dry Tortugas National Park
This is one of the newest national parks in the U.S. and an especially exciting one because it’s accessible only by water. Book your fare on the commercial ferry that makes daily round trips from Key West to Dry Tortugas, which is only about 70 miles away. The park includes seven tiny islands–one of which has Fort Jefferson on the grounds–plus all of the waters surrounding them. The park was initially created as the Fort Jefferson National Monument nearly 100 years ago; in 1992, its footprint was expanded to include the six additional islands and waters, and it was officially designated a national park.
Activities in Dry Tortugas National Park
Whether you love the water or prefer dry land, this national park has something for everyone to enjoy. Snorkeling and diving are among the most popular reasons that tourists visit but the historic fort offers plenty of opportunities to learn more about the history of the area and take in magnificent views.
There are coral reefs, shipwrecks, and old naval pilings for diving, including the famous Little Africa reef, the Windjammer Wreck, and Texas Rock. Night snorkeling offers a dramatic and rare glimpse into what nocturnal sea life is like. And kayaking around the smaller keys allows you an up-close view of shoreline life, like wading birds and sea turtles. Land-based activities on Garden Key, the largest of the islands that make up the park, include tours of Fort Jefferson, living history programs, and nighttime stargazing. For swimming, head to Garden Key and Loggerhead Key, both of which have public beach access. You can even book a campsite at Garden Key if you’d like to extend your visit, although it’s important to know that campers need to carry in all necessary supplies for your stay, including drinking water.
Other ways to visit Dry Tortugas National Park include chartering a boat. Although there are many regulations, recreational and sport fishing are allowed inside the park. Book your excursion with a charter boat company to make sure you’re compliant with park regulations. The added benefit of going with a charter fishing trip is that all of your equipment and gear needs are taken care of.
Biscayne National Park
This national park is located in the Upper Keys and a great place to stop when driving to or from Key West. It’s less than a two-hour drive along the Overseas Highway and a wonderful way to kick off or conclude your Key West vacation. This marine park was created more than 50 years ago to protect the natural ecosystems of the Florida Keys as the pace of development picked up.
Activities in Biscayne National Park
The visitors center in the park takes tour bookings directly, as do many local tour companies with authorization by the park, so it’s easy to learn more about the natural, maritime, cultural, and historical reasons the park is so important. The waters of Biscayne Bay are quite shallow and you can see lots of marine life in action whether you’re over or under the water; snorkeling and diving are extremely popular in this park, and the Maritime Heritage Trail provides access to reefs and shipwrecks up to 200 years old. The seashore is dotted with mangrove trees and plenty of diverse animals. Paddling around them in kayaks and canoes gives you an up-close view; if you don’t have your own, you can rent them at the park. Boca Chita and Elliott Key offer overnight campsites on a first-come and first-served basis, although facilities are limited.
Fishing is also permitted within Biscayne National Park. The best way to fish here is by booking a fishing charter because of the regulations and limitations to prevent overfishing and harm to the ecosystem. A fishing charter boat’s captain will be well-versed in where you can go, what you can catch, and how much you can keep, and they also tend to know where the fish are biting that season.
Visiting the nearby national parks is a great way to enhance your Key West vacation. In addition to the fine food and drink you’ll enjoy, historical landmarks, and wonderful shopping available in Key West, the region’s natural beauty really stands out at Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park. It’s well-worth adding one or both to your itinerary for one-of-a-kind adventures you won’t find anywhere else in your Florida vacation.