A few miles south of downtown Miami you'll find an island oasis, beckoning to paddlers.
On weekends, Biscayne National Park gets crowded with pleasure boaters trying to escape the hustle and bustle of one of Florida's largest cities. But if you venture out there on a weekday, you might have the park’s two main keys, Boca Chita and Elliott, all to yourself.
Biscayne National Park is one of the few areas in Florida where paddlers can experience the state’s marine subsurface wonders first hand. Kayakers exploring the shallow areas of this park's 173,000 acres of watery wilderness should bring a mask, snorkel, fins and a “diver down” flag.
The water in Biscayne Bay, while not deep, is exceptionally clear. On a sunny day, you can see sponges and a variety of subtropical fish as they dart among the sea grasses. If the weather is good, paddlers can even venture offshore on the Atlantic side of the islands to one of the park’s shallow coral reefs.
Biscayne Bay, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a series of small islands, has provided a safe refuge to mariners for thousands of years. The very thing that made the area attractive to the region’s first inhabitants -- easy access to both bay and ocean waters -- still draws in the boaters, sailors and paddlers today.
Visitors can dock and/or camp at both Boca Chita and Elliott keys, fish the relatively sheltered waters of the bay when it is rough elsewhere or venture to the offshore reefs when it is calm. You can set up camp for a week, and as long as you pack enough food and water, never run out of places to explore.
While the waters in Biscayne National Park are indeed inviting, they can turn treacherous without much warning. Over the years, dozens of ships have sunk on nearby reefs, which made the barrier islands a popular staging area for "wreckers," or salvage crews, that made their living off others' misfortune.
The lighthouse on Boca Chita, built in the 1930s by one of the island's former owners, is featured on the front of the national park's brochure. The 65-foot tall structure was strictly ornamental and was never formally permitted or listed on any of the federally approved nautical charts. On a clear day it still offers an excellent view of Key Biscayne and South Beach.
You can camp in the shadow of the lighthouse, but because Boca Chita is the closest point of land to Miami, space fills up quickly. The campground on Elliott Key, roughly 2 miles south from the lighthouse, was empty when we arrived. With bathrooms, cold showers, freshwater and picnic tables, this island oasis offers seemingly five-star luxury accommodations to grizzled kayakers used to sleeping in the sand.
There's a primitive camp on the windward, or ocean, side of the island. To get there you have to hike about a quarter mile through the woods, a journey made nearly unbearable by the millions of biting insects that call this place home, so pack bug repellant.
Remember, it's a 7- to 9-mile paddle out to both keys. This open-water crossing should be attempted only by experienced paddlers. Another option: have the ferry service transport you boat and gear out to the islands.
But however you go, go. You'll be glad you did.