Biscayne National Park is the only US National Park in the lower 48 states that is mostly underwater. When you go to Biscayne National Park there is a visitor center and a jetty you can walk out on but if you want to do and see any more than that you’ll have to hop on a boat and go snorkeling at Biscayne or take the boat tour out to the Boca Chita Key with the Boca Chita Lighthouse, campground and beach. The boat tour to Boca Chita Key is the same boat that takes the snorkeling tours out to the reef at Biscayne and is nothing like the Yankee Freedom III that goes out to Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park from Key West.
The boat that goes out to Boca Chita Key is more like a dive boat and can be crowded when at capacity. Ticket prices to go out to Boca Chita Key at Biscayne National park are $35.00 plus tax, whereas the tickets to go out to Dry Tortugas on the Yankee Freedom III are about $170.00. The boat ride out to Boca Chita Key takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get out there and the same to get back so you will have at least an hour to walk around Boca Chita to explore the lighthouse and the rest of this island key. Nothing is included except the boat ride out there and back. If you want anything to eat or drink you’ll need to bring it with you. There is a toilet on the boat but the crew will encourage you to use the “head” only if absolutely necessary.
The boat ride at Biscayne National Park out to Boca Chita Key is a scenic ride and very affordably priced. In fact it is probably the cheapest boat ride you will be able to take anywhere around Miami or the Florida Keys to any significant landmark or US National Park with the exception of the 9am snorkeling trip at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. Once the boat gets out to Boca Chita you will be able to go up inside the lighthouse to take a look around and take some photos from the top of the lighthouse. This will take about 15 minutes and you’ll have the rest of the time to explore the beach and the rest of Boca Chita Key. When I took the boat out there, the crew gave no indication of what time the boat would be back that I was aware of. As a result I didn’t get to explore as much of the island as I would have liked because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the boat back to the Biscayne National Park Visitor Center.
Unlike most places in the national parks all across the country, Boca Chita Key does not seem like anything in a national park. You might even call it a disgrace to the US National Park system. Instead of a nice peaceful and tranquil island like Dry Tortugas or Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Boca Chita Key is more like a fraternity party. It is close enough to Miami that lots of large private boats go out and dock there. The island is crowded, music is often blaring from the boats as if you are standing next to the speakers in a dance club in Miami and there is a fair amount of garbage scattered around Boca Chita Key.
When out at Boca Chita Key you can get away from this party atmosphere to some extent. There is a nice sandy beach on the other side of the boat dock and marina area that is a little more peaceful than the boat dock area. There is also a trail that goes back into the woods on the island that offers a chance to get away from the noisy party scene where the private and national park tour boats dock. For $35.00 it is worth the trip out there but it is a shame that the US National Park service does not do more to make Boca Chita Key seem more like a national park. There are bathrooms out on Boca Chita key but they smell like shit and the floors are often covered with urine.
After you have about an hour out at Boca Chita Key, the boat will come back to pick you up and you’ll head back to the main dock at the visitor center for Biscayne National Park in Homestead Florida. Once you get back to the dock, the visitor center will be closed or closing shortly and you’ll have to leave the park before sunset.
Overall the boat ride out to Boca Chita at Biscayne National Park is just OK. The boat and the folks that run it pretty good but the park service needs to do something to get rid of the party atmosphere and turn Boca Chita into what one would expect at a US National Park. Unlike most boats that take people places in the US National Park system, the boat out to Boca Chita may not run even if it is scheduled to run, you have a reservation and the weather is beautiful. If the tour operator decides that they don’t have as many people as they would like the boat will not go out and you will have wasted your day despite having a reservation. When I was there, there was supposed to be a 10:00am tour and a 1:00pm tour but they were only running the 1:00pm tour.
Eco Tours USA also states on the ticketing portion of their website that “Once purchased, tickets cannot be refunded and cannot be rescheduled because your space is being guaranteed at the event.” If the boat tour is canceled due to weather, the policy states that “If the seller cancels the event, ticket-holders will be allowed to reschedule tickets or receive credit for a future event.” The bottom line seems to be that once Eco-Tours has your money you will not get it back no matter what! In light of this you may want to avoid making any advanced reservations and instead get to Biscayne National Park 30-60 minutes before the boat is scheduled to depart and only buy tickets if Eco Tours will guarantee that your trip will go out as planned.