S. Florida parks are a magnet for millions

Side by side by side with natural wonders

Snorkeling on a beautiful coral reef. Visiting a 19th century fort. Exploring the habitats of hundreds of species of animals. Relaxing on a picturesque beach.

With four national and 14 state parks clustered in a fairly small area, South Florida is a magnet for people interested in the environment. Here is a sampling of some of the best in the area:

Everglades National Park draws people from all over the world, attracting about a million visitors a year.  It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the third largest national park in the country.

“Everglades National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list,” said Don Finefrock, the executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust. He calls it “the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side.”

With a rich variety of wildlife, some of which are endangered,   Everglades National Park stretches over 1.5 million acres, half a million of them underwater at times during the year. So boating is a key ingredient to getting the most out of a visit to the Everglades. Park rangers lead tours. There are birds everywhere.  A word of caution: There are plenty of alligators. And the rangers say vultures that fly around the Everglades sometimes like to nip at the rubber tires on cars.  To them, the tires look like a potential meal.

Biscayne National Park, another must-see with unique types of animals and plants, encompasses four ecosystems with 95 percent of the park covered by water. To get around, plan on going out on a boat – whether it be with island excursions, snorkeling around a coral reef or canoeing.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a cluster of islands 70 miles west of Key West that is known for its birds and marine life in addition to its military past and pirate legends. Visitors need to take a boat or seaplane to reach it. Dry Tortugas is home to thriving coral and sea grass communities and sea turtles and is the only nesting site in the United States of the sooty tern. The South Florida National Parks Trust’s Finefrock particularly recommends snorkeling, saying that “getting wet is the only way to experience the underwater world these parks protect.”

Big Cypress National Preserve is a freshwater swamp just north of Everglades National Park. The best ways around its 729,000 acres are canoeing, hiking or driving off-road vehicles. The preserve has a vast array of wildlife including the Florida Panther.

In 2010, the national parks had more than 2 million visitors, with other figures being 665,523 at Big Cypress, 467,612 at Biscayne and 53,890 at Dry Tortugas.

The region’s 14 state parks also were big draws.

Visitors can fish, canoe, swim and boat at John U. Lloyd Beach State Park in Dania Beach, just north of the Greater Miami area.

Oleta River State Park, in North Miami, is Florida’s largest urban park. There is a beautiful mangrove forest at the north of the park along the river. Visitors can rent cabins for overnight stays.

The Barnacle Historic State Park in Coconut Grove is a beautiful house that was built in 1891 on the shore of Biscayne Bay. It was home to Ralph Middleton Munroe, an avid naturalist. The park preserves the original Miami landscape and contains the remnants of the Miami Hammock.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is home to a historic lighthouse on Key Biscayne. Built in 1825, it is the oldest structure in Miami-Dade County. It is listed among the top 10 beaches in the country by “Dr. Beach,” Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. Tours of the lighthouse are available twice daily.

State parks in the Florida Keys, a series of barrier islands south and west of Miami, make that area particularly appealing.

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals. There are six miles of nature trails. Visitors can see one of the largest areas of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the country.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, also at Key Largo, was the first undersea park in the United States and encompasses 70 nautical square miles. Glass-bottom boat tours are a popular way to see coral reefs and marine life, but those who want to get closer can snorkel or scuba dive.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park is a quarry of Key Largo limestone. It was used to build the overseas railroad to Key West in the early 1900s.Visitors can walk along the quarry walls, viewing sections of ancient coral.

Indian Key Historic State Park, where people can beach or hike, is a small island accessible only by boat. In the 1800s, the business of salvaging cargo from shipwrecks was centered around Indian Key.

Key Botanical State Park is one of the last remaining bastions of virgin tropical hardwood hammock. It also is accessible only by boat. It is home to a small house and windmill, built in 1919 by chemist William J. Matheson.

San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park is submerged under 18 feet of water south of Indian Key. Thus, diving and snorkeling are big there. The San Pedro was part of a Spanish flotilla and sank in a hurricane in 1733. The wreck was discovered in 1960 and, after the salvage effort, was enhanced with replica cannons, an anchor and a plaque.

Long Key State Park once was home to a fishing resort, but that was destroyed in a hurricane in 1935. Now visitors can canoe through lagoons, hike the park’s two land-based trails or try their luck at bone fishing.

Curry Hammock State Park is a group of islands in the Middle Keys. Thatch palms are plentiful. Swimming and picnicking are popular.

Bahia Honda State Park was turned into a tropical destination by Henry Flagler’s overseas railroad and is known for its beaches. There are fishing opportunities, both from shore and from boats. Visitors can rent kayaks and snorkeling gear, and campsites and vacation cabins are available.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is Florida’s southernmost state park and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Construction on the fort was completed in 1866. It played a part in both the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars.

“South Florida’s national parks are incredibly important to the region,” Finefrock said. “Environmentally, culturally and in terms of quality of life.”

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