Maybe the image you have of Miami is decades old: a neon art deco sign, thumping music coming from a flashy car, Don Johnson in a white blazer.
Some of those impressions may even be more recent. But there’s more to Miami than nightlife and glamour. Tucked in places many people don’t notice are serene locales for a local resident or a tourist to get away from it all. These urban sanctuaries feature, at no extra cost, South Florida twists in the forms of alligators, top-ranked beaches and mangroves.
Some of these places are huge, others tiny. A few are so seemingly remote that most locals have never heard of them. They require a fair amount of sunscreen, a bicycle or kayak and they either require – or better yet, produce – a relaxed state of mind.
Boats came come in handy, too.
So, let’s get started.
Oleta River State Park
Found under massive condo towers and between two shopping malls in north Miami-Dade, on a piece of land that sits in the middle of Biscayne Bay, is Oleta River State Park. It’s Florida’s biggest urban park, and it’s often experienced on two wheels.
The peaceful sanctuary surrounded by mangroves offers something special for veteran mountain bikers: More than 10 miles of intermediate level mountain bike trails and four miles of trails for beginners. (For true rookies, three additional miles are paved.)
The river also can be experienced by kayak and canoe, making for a relaxing visit surrounded by nature. One of South Florida’s best kept secrets, Oleta River State Park also offers cabins for overnight camping.
If you go: The park is located at 3400 N.E. 163rd Street in North Miami, 33160. It is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. The entrance fee is $6 per car. For more information, call 305-919-1844 or floridastateparks.org/oletariver/.
Biscayne National Park
It’s a stretch to call Biscayne National Park a “park.” That’s because more than 95 percent of it is covered by water. It’s the biggest marine park in the National Park system, and it’s only reachable by boat. You come here to snorkel, dive and fish – and to pretend you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Located in deep south Miami-Dade, the park actually consists of the northernmost islands of the Florida Keys at the southern tip of Biscayne Bay. (Still with us, geography fans?) It has a narrow mangrove forest on the shore and is at the trail head of the third-largest coral reef in the world.
The park is made up of 50 ancient coral reef islands that are largely undeveloped and surrounded by Biscayne Bay on the west and a reef to the east. It was created about 30 years ago by a team of writers, activists and politicians who joined forces to protect it from proposed ports.
The shipwrecks that lay underneath are a testament to what the park’s stewards call a “parade of human history that spans 10,000 years.” They’ll also tell you that if you added up the different kinds of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite, you still wouldn't have the number of fish found in Biscayne National Park.
There’s a visitors’ center at Convoy Point, but seeing the rest of it requires something that floats, like one of the guided boat tours or a rented canoe and kayak.
And that’s the beauty of it. There’s no ferry or bridge and just one single mile of paved road. No facilities or hot dog stands.
Nothing but nature.
If you go: The park is located at 9700 SW 328 Street, Homestead, 33033. Via Florida’s Turnpike: Take the turnpike south to Exit 6 (Speedway Blvd.). Turn left from exit ramp and continue south to S.W. 328th Street (North Canal Drive). Turn left and continue to the end of the road. Call 305-230-7275 or visit nps.gov/bisc.
You can’t talk sanctuary in South Florida without thinking of the Everglades, the astounding 1.5-million-acre “River of Grass.” That means wetlands, swamp, hammocks and mangrove forests.
About an hour west of the city, the Everglades is far enough away that you really are in the middle of nowhere. The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, it has rare and endangered species – and, these days, even some invasive pythons.
The Everglades, a World Heritage Site, is South Florida’s oldest and most-treasured gem. Home to entertaining Native American alligator wrestlers and the Miccosukee Indian Village, the Everglades provides a terrific mix of nature, culture and history.
This is where we keep most of our gators in South Florida, and good number of birds, too. Although the airboat rides are hardly peaceful (earplugs help), the park offers plenty of hiking and biking opportunities that are decidedly quieter.
Shark Valley is popular for its 17-mile bike ride and tram tour.
Don’t forget your insect repellent, and a few bottles of water!
If you go: To get to the Everglades, take Tamiami Trail west until you see the gators. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is at 36000 SW 8th St., Miami, 33194. Operating hours are 9:15 a.m. - 5:15 p.m. For more information, call 305-221-8776 or visit nps.gov/ever. Some nature guide tour operators are listed here: florida-everglades.com/active.htm.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
Another local favorite sport for peace and quiet is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.
This sanctuary on the southernmost tip of Key Biscayne was listed as No. 10 on Florida International University Prof. Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman’s 2011 list of top 10 beaches in America.
Named for a former editor of the now-defunct Miami News, the park serves as home to a historic lighthouse built in 1825, the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County. Visitors sunbathe, swim and picnic on this mile-long stretch of Atlantic beachfront. Bikes (iincluding four-seaters), hydro bikes and kayaks can be rented, while anglers throw their lines from the seawall along Biscayne Bay.
Its port is so secluded that it’s called No Name Harbor.
There are two restaurants surrounded by all that nature and water, and places to fire up your own grill.
If you go: The park is located at 1200 S Crandon Boulevard, Key Biscayne, 33149. From downtown Miami, take the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne, and follow the signs. More information is available by calling 305-361-5811 or visiting floridastateparks.org/capeflorida.
Visitors are allowed to anchor overnight in No Name Harbor for a fee of $20 per boat per night. For information about youth camping programs, call the park administration office at 305-361-8779.
There is no more urban a refuge than Simpson Park in Miami, an eight-acre slice of undeveloped land that illustrates what large swaths of Miami used to be: thick forest where Florida panthers once roamed.
The park is near The Roads neighborhood and is used by locals who need wilderness and a place to think, without driving across town.
The park was founded in 1914 as a metropolitan preserve for the stately mansions along Brickell Avenue, then home to the privileged city power-brokers. It once was part of Brickell Hammock, the thick, rough land that stretched south from the Miami River to Coconut Grove.
Most Miamians have never heard of the place. Nor do they know who it was named after: naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson, who retired to Miami after studying shells at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
The park long suffered from urban blight, homeless intruders and the occasional, merciless storm. It recently reopened with the blessing of city historians who sought to preserve its backwoods charm.
The wooden hammock above and roots below from its 15 endangered plant species are so dense that there are signs warning visitors to look down: “Beware of trip hazards.”
If you go: The park is located at 55 SW 17th Road, Miami, 33129. It's open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. To learn more, call 305-856-6801.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Not far from Simpson Park is Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a stately mansion that once served as the winter home of American industrialist James Deering.
Built in the early 1900s, it took more than 1,000 people to create it. The house on the shores of Biscayne Bay was deliberately designed to look like a 400-year-old Italian villa.
Daily tours are offered of the elegant rooms and its art collections. But most visitors go there to enjoy the grand gardens overlooking the water, a mix of Renaissance Italian and French designs that took seven years to design.
Best enjoyed under the moonlight and with soft jazz playing, the regularly scheduled moonlight garden tours are a particularl delight.
If you go: Vizcaya is located at 3251 South Miami Avenue, Miami, 33129. It is open daily, except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults and $6 for children 6 to 12. Learn more at vizcayamuseum.org.
The Deering Estate
While we’re on the topic of the Deerings, another member of the clan that made its fortune on agricultural machinery, Charles Deering, built a home in south Miami-Dade that’s now a nature preserve.
The Deering Estate at Cutler is located along the edge of Biscayne Bay on a 444-acre site. Found here are canoe tours, butterfly walks and guided nature hikes.
It is home to 150 acres of endangered pine rock-land, as well as 115 acres of coastal tropical hardwood hammocks that allow you to forget, for just a moment, that you’re in the middle of a major metropolis.
If you go: The estate is located at 16701 SW 72 Ave., Miami, 33157. General admission is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-14. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. For more information, call 305-235-1668 or visit deeringestate.com.