First things first. There are now 61 designated National Parks. Last time we visited a National Park, there were 59. The March signing of the public lands bill added 2 national park sites—one of which we’ve been to and the other we’ll need to add to our list. Just needed to update my numbers and put it on the record!
Purposely planned, we spent much of April in National Parks, so prepare for a picture-heavy recap that I promise won’t hurt your eyes.
Our park tour started with the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was part of our Eastern Caribbean Cruise. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, the U.S. Virgin Islands is still devastated from the 2 back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes (Irma & Maria) they experienced in 2017. Our cruise stopped in St. Thomas, so we hopped on a smaller boat that would take us the hour over to St. John (yes, we hand-picked a cruise that could selfishly take us to St. John National Park!).
We opted to do a bus tour, which turned out to be the best way to see the open areas of the park within a limited timeframe. We would have liked to do more hiking, but many of the trails are still closed! What we did see were beautiful beaches, sugar factory ruins and so many vibrant fruit trees/plants (bananas, coconut, pineapple, noni). St. John is the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, so there’s a lot of wild in the plant and bird life.
This island life theme continued with our exploration of the three Florida National Parks: Biscayne, Dry Tortugas and Everglades.
Biscayne National Park is on the southeast edge of Florida and consists of small “keys.” Keys distinguish from islands in that they form on top of a coral reef and there is no fresh water available.
We took a boat ride from Dante Fascell Visitor Center and enjoyed the dominating landscape of blue-green water and sunny skies for a few hours. The boat dropped us on Boca Chita Key, the most visited spot in Biscayne. Mark Honeywell (yes the Honeywell name you know well for your heating system and other energy products) bought and developed the island in 1937 as a luxurious resort getaway. When Honeywell’s first wife died unexpectedly, he lost interest and sold the island. Then the National Park Service acquired it as part of Biscayne in 1980. The history of this key was just really fascinating, thinking how early inhabitants lived and how things have changed with the nearby booming metropolis of Miami.
Next up: Dry Tortugas. Due to the park’s remote location (70 miles west of Key West) and limited transportation modes (boat or seaplane), Dry Tortugas National Park receives little visitation (averages 68,000 people per year). And, most visitors only go for the day. Which is why we decided to get a permit to camp! Camping permits are sparse and need to be secured well in advance of the trip, but we felt like it would be worthwhile it to experience the island solitude. It was!
The park’s centerpiece is the 19th century Fort Jefferson, which remains unfinished after 30 years of building in the late 1800s. It is massive with 16 million bricks, but kind of unbelievable to think about its 30-year building process on a hot tropical island 70 miles from the mainland and no fresh water.
Besides the fort, the main attraction is the underwater life. Justin thought he could get over his sea creeps given the shallow water’s clarity, but alas, he couldn’t. I found another activity that where I excel beyond Justin! I could have spent hours drifting above the reefs and following the sea’s most brilliantly colored inhabitants in the Gulf of Mexico … if it didn’t make my husband so nervous. We even got to experience some bioluminescence!!
Lucky for me, the above-water life was just as exciting as the sea life! If the pelicans diving to catch prey weren’t enough, there were also the cacophonous sooty terns and brown noddies, as well as quieter sea turtles, using the island as a breeding ground.
It was certainly a hot camping trip, but again, well worth it to have the island to ourselves!
After departing Dry Tortugas, we desperately needed a break from boating (been on more boats in April than the last 3 years combined). But guess what? The best way for us to get deep into Everglade National Park was … via motorized boat. We weaved through Buttonwood Canal’s maze of brackish waters and mangrove shorelines about 8 miles in. Along the way, we lost track of the gators and anhingas sunning themselves. Fun fact: the anhingas are birds that submerge in the water to catch prey, but then have to dry out their heavy wings before flying again.
Besides boating, we hiked as much as our sweat glands could handle (about 6 miles) on various trails and were very much rewarded by the birdlife, wildlife and plantlife in the Everglades! We saw 22 crocs & alligators!
So while sun & sand are not typically our thang, we definitely had a blast touring Florida’s National Parks and would enjoy a revisit to explore some more.