Miami might have the clubs and celebrities and seafront cocktails, but any visit would be incomplete without an exploration of Florida’s fabulous natural world. Within easy reach of the city, travelers can discover undeveloped white sand shorelines, warm lagoons, mangroves, swamps, hardwood forests, and an archipelago of coral-ringed islands. These contain some of America's best snorkelling and diving, a handful of historic sites, and sprawling wilderness hiking trails. This wild world, inhabited by crocodiles, eagles, and the elusive Florida panther, may seem tranquil at first sight, but in fact it is as lively, vicious and eventful as Miami itself.
Canaveral National Seashore preserves Florida’s shoreline in the form it has been for centuries. Spread across a barrier island east of Orlando, its gorgeous, 24-mile beach is the longest undeveloped stretch of sand in east Florida, and a key habitat for nesting sea turtles. Just inland, a warm, pristine lagoon is perfect for fishing and swimming, enclosed by strips of forest strung through with rough walking trails. The seashore is a huge draw for birdwatchers, who come to catch a glimpse of its 310 bird species, including such unusual sights as wood storks and the reddish egret.
Just beyond the bounds of Miami, Biscayne National Park swaps that sprawling urban environment for a fluid mosaic of four different ecosystems.The shoreline is spread with mangrove swamps, giving way to the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay and the colorful coral of the limestone keys, while a little further from land lies the northernmost stretch of the Florida Reef, among the world’s largest coral reefs. Living across these terrains is an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, from kaleidoscopic shoals of fish to pelicans, manatees and turtles. Visitors can immerse themselves in some of the best snorkelling and diving the US coastline has to offer, investigating coral-wreathed shipwrecks, or they can glide over the surface of the water on kayaks and boats.
Situated in the same expanse of wetland wilderness as the Everglades, Big Cypress is a dense, humid, lushly vegetated swampland whose waters are crucial to the health of its more famous neighbor. The preserve covers over 1100 square miles, criss-crossed by a complex network of boardwalks and hiking trails, while more intrepid explorers can follow their own compass into the marshy backcountry. As Florida developed, areas such as Big Cypress and the Everglades became essential refuges for the state’s wildlife, and so Big Cypress is home to an exceptionally dense concentration of bird and animal species. You can learn about this natural world, along with the forces that have shaped it, on frequent guided walks, educational talks and campfire programs.
Flung out 68 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses an archipelago of small islands, a swath of blue ocean and, on one of the islands, the vast stone bulk of Fort Jefferson, the biggest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. Began in 1846, the Fort was designed to guard over America’s gateway to Gulf of Mexico, but the Civil War delayed construction and it was never completed. Now its 2000 arches stand desolate and abandoned amid a thriving natural world, surrounded by iridescent coral and marine life and inhabited by a raucous population of migratory birds.
At Florida’s southernmost point, the state’s hyper-developed human world dissolves into the vast subtropical wilderness of Everglades National Park. Here, a patchwork of mangrove, marsh and swamp encloses small forests of oak and palm, inhabited by panthers, crocodiles, and a wide variety of wading birds. Visitors can follow hiking trails and boardwalks through the Ten Thousand Islands National Park, or take an intensely atmospheric canoe trip into the eery, watery terrain of the Everglades Interior.