The Florida Keys are known for three national parks, Dry Tortugas National Park off Key West, and Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Reserve on the mainland.
The Dry Tortugas is known for its historical past, while the other two are known for their environmental importance. Whichever you visit, you are sure to get a true taste of the real Florida, as related here, with information taken directly from the National Park Service Web site.
Almost 70 miles west of Key West lay a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand, called the Dry Tortugas. Along with the surrounding shoals and waters, they make up Dry Tortugas National Park.
The area is known for its famous bird and marine life, and its legends of pirates and sunken gold. Fort Jefferson, one of the largest coastal forts ever built, is the central feature.
The Tortugas were first discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. Abundant sea turtles, or tortugas, provisioned his ships with fresh meat, but there was no fresh water the Tortugas were dry. Since the days of Spanish exploration, the reefs and shoals of the Dry Tortugas have been a serious hazard to navigation and the site of hundreds of shipwrecks.
U.S. military attention was drawn to the Keys in the early 1800s due to their strategic location in the Florida Straits. Plans were made for a massive fortress and construction began in 1846, but the fort was never completed the invention of the rifled cannon made it obsolete. As the military value of Fort Jefferson waned, its pristine reefs, abundant sea life and impressive numbers of birds grew in value. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt set aside Fort Jefferson and the surrounding waters as a national monument.
The area was redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992 to protect both the historical and natural features. It can be reached only by boat or seaplane. Also, call before going to check on hurricane damage.
Where: Seventy miles off Key West.
Call: (305) 242-7700.
The first national preserve in the national park system, the 729,000-acre Big Cypress has a mixture of pines, hardwoods, prairies, mangrove forests, cypress strands and domes.
White-tailed deer, bear, the Florida panther and rare bird species can be found here, along with the more tropical liguus tree snail, royal palm and cigar orchid. This meeting place of temperate and tropical species is a hotbed of biological diversity. And hydrologically, the preserve serves as a supply of fresh, clean water for the vital estuaries of the 10,000 Islands area near Everglades City.
The preserve includes 31 miles of the Florida Trail, which can be very wet in the rainy season. The Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail is a short, self-guided trail located on Loop Road. Two scenic drives through the preserve provide leisurely wildlife viewing. Loop Road is a 26-mile, single-lane, unimproved road beginning and ending on U.S. 41. Turner River Road and Birdon Road form a U-shaped, 17-mile graded-dirt drive.
Where: 33100 Tamiami Trail East.
Call: (239) 695-2000.
Spanning the southern tip of the Florida peninsula and most of Florida Bay, Everglades National Park is the only subtropical preserve in North America. It contains both temperate and tropical plant communities, including sawgrass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, pinelands and hardwood hammocks, as well as marine and estuarine environments.
The park is known for its rich bird life, particularly large wading birds, such as the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and a variety of egrets.
It is also the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side.
Everglades National Park has been designated a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance.
Where: Visitors driving north from the Florida Keys should turn left on Palm Drive in Florida City and follow the signs to the park. Call: (305) 242-7711.