Beauty is one cornerstone on which Miami was built. And we’re not talking about attractive bodies or cars, or even stunning art. All of those wonderful elements came later (and we love them), but in the beginning, it was Miami’s abundance of pure natural beauty that made millions of people fall in love with the place. Tropical flowers, white sand beaches, the shimmering blue Atlantic and the mysterious inland wetlands—these natural attributes may be intermingled with manmade wonders now, but they’re never far away.
Anyone truly Miami-savvy has a few pockets of natural paradise programmed into their favorite places, and if you don’t, here’s a list you should keep, for the next time you have a day to explore.
Everglades National Park
Whenever you start to get that urban-jungle claustrophobia, just remember, the largest tropical wilderness in the country spans part of Miami-Dade County. Plenty of people explore the park with rental airboats, kayaks, or charter a fishing boat from Flamingo. However, you might want to go with a tour guide to fully experience this vast International Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses coastal saltwater marshes, live oak hammocks, bird and turtle breeding grounds, and the largest mangrove system in the hemisphere. The Park Service runs many ranger-led activities including hikes, canoe paddles and “slough slogs,” (the latter is only suggested if you truly want to get your feet wet). Park concessionaires offer Tram Tours and the famous airboat rides.
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne Bay is the big, shimmering, backyard aquatic playground for any and all Miami people lucky enough to have a watercraft for the day. It’s protected within this U.S. National Park, but that protection leaves plenty of leeway for visitors to sail, motor, windsurf, fish, SCUBA dive, swim and otherwise enjoy the water. The protected area also includes the Florida Reef and several islands including Elliott Key. If you’re sightseeing, notable features include the shoreline mangrove system, Elliott Key, Adams Key, the colorful amphibious shacks of Stiltsville, and the Boca Chita lighthouse on Boca Chita Key. Underwater landmarks include the numerous shipwrecks along the Maritime Heritage Trail.
Photo Credit: Haulover Beach Park
Haulover Beach Park
The phrase “au naturel” has double meanings when applied to this north county beach park. A beautiful stretch of nearly 1.5 miles of white sand and clear turquoise water, this beach isn’t as famous for its beautiful landscape or soft sand so much as for the nudist area it contains. A Google search brings up countless images of this part of Haulover, however, the park is hardly just a place to sun your bare bits. It’s also dog-friendly, great for kite-flying, a perfect picnic spot, and quite handicap-friendly (beach wheelchairs are available to rent). If you want to avoid the clothing-optional part, just stay south of the entrance.
Photo Credit: Miami and the Beaches
Matheson Hammock Park
A county park offering access to the north end of Biscayne National Park, Matheson Hamock is a sizeable (630 acres) urban park—a marina, boat launch, beach and manmade atoll pool fed by Biscayne Bay waters. It’s popular with kitesurfers, standup paddle boarders and kayakers. The beach is great for families, while the green part of the park is a picturesque and romantic place to explore. Coral Gables, which is located just north of the park, feels very proprietary toward it. If you’re visiting Miracle Mile, go to the Gables for shopping in the a.m., and spend the warm afternoon at Matheson to get a feeling for this historic, picture-perfect and self-contained piece of the Miami metropolis.
Bonus—if you don’t feel like swimming, spend the extra time exploring Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, which borders the park on the south. It contains an amazing collection of exotic, colorful, fragile flowers and tropical plants.
Photo Credit: Jungle Island
Got little kids? You’ll thrill them to bits with a trip to this interactive zoological theme park. Major areas include the Jungle Theater, Lion’s Den, the Playground encompassing the petting barn and the Serpentarium (a misleading name, as many other animals including penguins reside here). After taking the little ones to at least two, maybe three of the shows, head to Parrot Cove Beach. There, parents can trade off beach relaxation time with supervising the kids in the aquatic playground. One element of the park that adults and children will 100 percent agree on is the not-to-be-missed real-life liger (lion-tiger hybrid). Vulcan lives right in the center of the park.