With Miami’s art deco architecture and golden stretches of sand, it’s easy to forget that the city is surrounded by some of the United States’ most distinctive subtropical landscapes. It’s well worth escaping the sultry temptations of South Beach for a day or two to see alligators in the swamps of the Florida Everglades, or paddle and snorkel in Biscayne Bay. Few ecosystems on Earth can rival the Florida Peninsula’s diversity, as you’ll find out on the reef-lined island chain of the Florida Keys and the mangrove creeks of Oleta River State Park.
Explore lighthouses and shipwrecks in Biscayne Bay
Bordered by the northernmost Florida Keys and the mangrove forests south of Miami, Biscayne Bay is the gateway to the Florida Reef, the world’s third largest barrier coral reef. For the best snorkeling this side of Hawaii, join an eco-tour at Biscayne National Park’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center, 35 miles south of town, and gaze upon the shipwrecks found on the Maritime Heritage Trail. Scuba diving is also a popular activity, as are boat tours to paddleboard among the mangroves around the ornamental 1930s Boca Chita Key lighthouse.
Just outside the park, and easily reached from Miami via the bridges of the Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne has some of the finest beaches in the metropolitan area. Crandon Park Beach is nestled among more than 800 acres of hardwood hammock forest, mangrove swamps, and nature trails, while the road ends at the 19th century Cape Florida Lighthouse among the beaches and boardwalks of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.
Insider tip: En route to Key Biscayne, you can rent kayaks, paddleboards, kiteboards, and mountain bikes to enjoy Virginia Key’s city views.
Spot gators in the swamps of Everglades National Park
Covering 1.5 million acres of wetland, the country’s largest subtropical wilderness offers an experience of the swamps that South Florida is famous for. The watery Everglades region is the world’s only ecosystem where alligators and crocodiles coexist, and you can spot some of the park’s 200,000+ gators on the Anhinga Trail, which winds 0.8 miles through Taylor Slough, one of the area’s two main sawgrass marshes.
For a bird’s-eye view of this UNESCO-protected landscape of freshwater prairies, mangrove forests, dune complexes, and placid waterways, climb the Shark Valley observation tower. In the same area, a naturalist-guided tram tour is an easy day trip option, or you can cycle a paved 15 mile loop. Alternatively, you could explore the diverse terrain by airboat or kayak, gliding across Florida Bay to Flamingo, the state’s southernmost point and the end of the Wilderness Waterway canoe route.
Insider tip: Access the park via the Shark Valley Visitor Center, 40 miles west of Miami, the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, 45 miles southwest of town, or the Flamingo Visitor Center, 80 miles southwest.
Join the Conch Republic at the Florida Keys
Staying at the tip of the Florida Peninsula, this 113 mile string of 45 islands arcs towards Cuba on about the same latitude as The Bahamas and is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The archipelago hosts a famously colorful and eccentric community of outsiders, runaways, artists and, during the Hemingway Days festival in July, bearded impersonators of the great writer. Key West, where Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not, marks the end of the Overseas Highway, 160 miles south of Miami. The southernmost American city’s Mallory Square hosts a daily sunset celebration and Duval Street’s several dozen cafes and bars run between the island’s ocean and gulf shores.
You may feel drawn along the 40-plus bridges to tiny tropical islands on the broad horizon, but you don’t have to travel all the way to Hemingway’s old house for a day out. Just off the mainland, Key Largo is the largest island, with incredible scuba diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottomed boat tours at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, as well as nature trails in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.
Insider tip: Fans of the Netflix series Bloodline—and sportfishing—should continue south to Islamorada, where you can put in beach time and wander through Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park’s hardwood hammock forest.
Go paddling and splashing at Miami’s northern beaches
With so many appealing spots south of town, it’s easy to forget that two of the area’s most appealing stretches of sand are north of Miami Beach. Follow the seafront A1A some 10 miles from South Beach to reach Haulover Beach. The 177-acre beach park is backed by the Intracoastal Waterway, with the mangrove-lined channels of Oleta River State Park across the water.
Cross the NE 163rd Street drawbridge to reach Florida’s largest urban park, which offers an outdoorsy escape from the city on its 14 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. To get the measure of this 1,000-acre river-mouth playground, take to the water for kayaking, canoeing, or paddleboarding, looking out for hermit crabs, egrets, blue herons, and even manatees or dolphins. There’s a wheelchair-friendly sandy beach with restrooms and showers, from where strong swimmers and snorkelers can explore the sheltered saltwater lagoon adjoining Biscayne Bay.
Insider tip: Visit the butterfly garden at parking lot six —ideally when the sun comes out after a light rain—to see zebra longwings, gulf fritillaries, atalas, and clouded and orange sulphurs flit among the indigenous plants.