Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock

Miami Is a Gateway to Outdoor Adventure on Water, Wheels, or Foot

Miami National Parks Hiking Cycling
by William McGough Jan 12, 2021

Even though the Everglades is one of the country’s best-known national parks, nearby Miami still flies under the radar as an outdoor destination. Sure, folks spend plenty of time outdoors at Miami’s beaches and open-air bars, but it’s time for adventure-based travelers to take notice of The Magic City.

Miami sits on the doorstep to many unique, rugged opportunities — in terrain sure to fascinate (and humble) even the most experienced outdoorsmen. Although underwater activities at Biscayne National Park are well-known at this point, much of Miami’s inland hiking, kayaking, and cycling remain underappreciated. Try one of these four outdoor adventures on your next trip.

1. Camp on a chickee over the water along the Wilderness Waterway.

Florida Everglades along the Wilderness Waterway

Photo: Matt A. Claiborne/Shutterstock

If you’re looking to get away from the heavily trafficked trails in the Everglades, look no further than the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. It’s a kayak and small boat “trail” that connects the two major hubs of the Everglades, Flamingo and Everglades City, via a series of coastal waterways, interconnecting creeks, and calm bays. To make the full journey between the two would take about eight days of paddling, but there are also opportunities for day, overnight, and weekend trips that will get you out into the middle of nowhere in a hurry.

There are approximately 40 backcountry camping sites along the Wilderness Waterway, including sites on remote beaches. But the most unique option are the chickee camping sites: raised, open-aired camping platforms built over the water and covered by a protective roof.

This style of lodging was used by the Seminoles, who once inhabited these flooded marshlands. In Seminole language, the word chickee means house, and traditionally, the roof would have been made of thatched palmetto palm.

Rent a kayak or canoe from the Flamingo Visitor Center, about 90-miles south of Miami. For overnight or weekend adventures, consider starting with the Hell’s Bay Chickee, Shark Point Chickee, or any of the beach sites along the Florida Bay, such as East Clubhouse, Clubhouse Beach, or East Cape campsites. For those with more time and experience the options are endless. If you prefer to walk, the 7.5-mile Coastal Prairie Trail leaves from Flamingo and takes you directly to Clubhouse Beach. Peak time for the Wilderness Waterway is Florida’s dry season, mid-November through late April. Permits are required at all backcountry sites and can be reserved online.

2. Kayak or hike in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Kayaking the Turner River, Big Cypress National Preserve

Photo: William Silver/Shutterstock

Just north of the Everglades National Park boundary is another federally protected piece of land, Big Cypress National Preserve. Within its boundaries, you’ll find many opportunities to adventure without the fanfare or entry fee of the national park. Depending on where you’re headed, the drive from Miami is 60 to 90 minutes.

The Turner River Kayak Trail in Big Cypress is a must-do for any enthusiastic kayaker, famous for its tunnel of mangrove trees. The 10-mile trail will take the average person five to seven hours to paddle. It’s recommended to call a local outfitter to inquire about water levels before launching. You can rent a kayak from them or join one of their tours.

Hikers will be pleased to know that the Florida Trail — which runs the entire length of the state north to south — cuts right through Big Cypress. From Mile Marker 63 along I-75 (Alligator Alley), hike north and camp at the Carpenter, Panther, or Nobles backcountry sites.

There’s plenty of convenient car-camping within the preserve, too. Check out Monument Lake and Midway campgrounds, among others. If you’re looking for a scenic drive and simple hike, hop down to Loop Road. The Gator Hook Trail, Tree Snail Hammock Trail, and the Robert Lakes Trail (part of the Florida Trail) offer the chance to stretch your legs.

Lastly, consider hunting down a sinkhole or two in Big Cypress. Deep Lake is reached easily by a two-mile round-trip trail, and others, like Tarpon Lake, require off-trail hiking and backcountry experience.

3. Take a nighttime airboat tour at Sawgrass Recreational Park.

Everglades airboat

Photo: Stanislaw Bozek/Shutterstock

Everglades National Park is popular for its airboat tours, attracting visitors from all over the world, with three companies operating there. A similar yet offbeat experience can be found at Sawgrass Recreational Park, a former fishing camp turned ecological center just 45 minutes north of Miami. Here, you can avoid the crowds of the national park and enjoy a quick getaway from the city. The park also offers other exclusive opportunities, like guided fishing, boat rentals, and primitive camping.

Experiencing an airboat ride through the wetlands is a must in Florida, as it gives you the best access to an otherwise inaccessible, flooded ecosystem. If you’ve been there, done that during the day, try a tour at night, which adds the ambiance of the stars as well as the chance to search for gators by flashlight.

If you do an evening tour, consider spending the night. Primitive tent camping is available for $15/night, and groups can even rent out an entire private island in the surrounding wetlands — although you’ll need to call to inquire about that option. Sawgrass is also known for its fishing, particularly large-mouth bass. Fishermen can rent a boat for just $79 a day (seven hours, capacity for three adults) or jump on a private guided fishing tour of the area.

4. Cycle from South Beach to Key West.

Key West island, Florida Keys

Photo: Mia2you/Shutterstock

For an epic, warm-weather cycling trip, the 160-mile ride from Miami to Key West is like no other. Start from South Pointe Park in South Beach and cruise south through Homestead’s farmland, then cross over the wetlands of the Southern Glades on Route 1 until it changes to the Overseas Highway. At that point, you’ll leave the mainland and cross a bridge over to Key Largo.

From there, it’s a straight shot of about 100 miles to Key West on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, crossing many bridges (including the infamous Seven Mile Bridge) and passing through the towns on various small islands. Ocean views are in abundance, as are opportunities to cool off with a swim. Depending on your preferences, you can make reservations to camp along the way at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park or Bahia Honda State Park. Or, you can arrange a stay at one of the many hotels along the route — since the Keys have no shortage of lodging.

Outfitters in the Keys, like Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours, offer support with rides, including bike rentals, luggage transfer, trip planning, and shuttle services. Those who just want to ride one-way should consider starting the journey in Key Largo and taking advantage of the return shuttle service.

Buses and other shuttles are abundant from Key West back to Miami, but you’ll need to ensure they can fit your bike before booking. Of course, we recommend simply adding a few extra days and pedaling your way back to Miami for the full experience.

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