Beaches / Florida Keys

Best Florida Keys beaches; even some you don’t know

Calusa Beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Calusa Beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

People expect the Florida Keys to be an endless stretch of sandy beach. They’re wrong. In fact, nearly every stretch of coastal Florida has better beaches than the Florida Keys.

Instead of beaches, the Florida Keys have coral reefs, and those reefs, so wonderful for snorkelers and scuba divers, prevent the erosion and sand build-up that creates beaches.

We once stayed in a motel in the Middle Keys that boasted it had a beach. When we ventured out, though, we discovered it was essentially a clearing in the mangroves, with squishy mud sprinkled with white sand like jimmies on a cupcake. As we entered the water, our feet sunk up to our ankles in the muck, and we were soon enjoying a lovely swim at the hotel pool. That doesn’t mean ALL hotel beaches in the Keys are like that (some are wonderful) but it does illustrate the Keys’ plight: The shoreline is either rocky or mucky or thick with vegetation.

Nevertheless, you can find a few great beaches in the Florida Keys, including one that has been named the best beach in the country by Dr. Beach. You just have to know where to go.

Beaches in the Lower Keys

Calusa Beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Calusa Beach at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Bahia Honda State Park

For a start, that award-winning beach, and the best beach in the Florida Keys, is Bahia Honda State Park at MM 36.8.  The Bahia Honda beach is long – 2.5 miles – with white sand and water so shallow that you can wade far out before you even get your swimsuit wet. This beach was named the best in America in 1992, when Dr. Beach, the professor who rates beaches and releases a 10-best list each year, called it “a piece of the Caribbean” because of its “crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms.” It’s a natural beach, not a manmade one, as are several other Florida Keys beaches.

There are three beaches in the park. Calusa Beach is the smaller of the three but the most popular because it’s the best beach for swimming. That’s where all the concessions, the nature center, picnic shelters and the souvenir shop are located, adjacent to the marina. It is also the most photographed beach because of the old bridge and new bridge converge in the background.

Directly across from Calusa Beach — on the south side of the island — is the much narrower, longer and shallower Loggerhead Beach, a short walk from Calusa. This beach is home to the kayak concession, which is in the parking lot.

Sandspur Beach is farther down on the southeast end of the island — almost two miles — past the beachfront Sandspur campground. Sandspur is distinguished by its lack of amenities, other than a restroom and a few picnic shelters. It’s the more natural beach and is less traveled. The ocean floor has ridges of rock formations that are great for snorkeling.

The only downside?  To help build up the dunes, sea grass that accumulates on the beach is left in place. Heaps of grass isn’t pretty and can get smelly, but it’s good for the beach.

Florida Rambler guide to Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park official website
36850 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, Florida 33043
(305) 872-2353

Admission: $8 per vehicle for two to eight people per vehicle.$2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4 single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.

Veterans Memorial Park

Veterans Memorial Park at 39.9 is a small, free oceanside park just south of the Seven Mile Bridge. It has a nice little beach and it’s a great place to stop for a picnic or to use the restroom on a drive to Key West..  Fuve picnic tables are under chickee huts with grills, there’s a beach where you can wade or swim and showers. The palm trees here lean like they are waiting to be captured in a postcard. It’s also an easy kayak launch. If it’s crowded, there’s also a large parking area and a small boat ramp bayside.

Veterans Memorial Park
39900 Overseas Highway
Little Duck Key, FL 33043

Admission: Free

Beaches in the Middle Keys

Long Key State Park

A favorite among campers, Long Key also has an appealing beach for day-use visitors. Long Key’s beach can be shallow for about 100 yards, depending on the tide, and it has pockets of deeper water that rarely are over your head. It’s a perfect beach for kids. Once caution is the occasional coral rock outcroppings, but they can be easily avoided because the water is crystal clear.

You can launch your own kayak from the beach and paddle around the island. Seas are usually quite calm because of the shallow water, so it’s excellent for both paddlers and swimmers. Canoe rentals are available at the ranger station to paddle the Lake Trail through the interior of the park. The beach day-use area has picnic tables, a rest room and outdoor showers.

Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park official website guide to Long Key State Park
67400 Overseas Highway
Long Key, Florida 33001
(305) 664-4815

Admission: $5 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle. $2 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. $4 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.

Curry Hammock State Park

Curry Hammock State Park

Curry Hammock State Park has 1,200 feet of beach. Although shallow, it has more of a slope than most Keys beaches, so you can get into deeper water faster. Curry Hammock also has an excellent beach launch for kayaks that allows paddler to go out to sea or back into a few coves and a mangrove trail to the Gulf side of the island. Kayak rent for $17.20 a single for two hours, $21.50 for a tandem. The day-use area has picnic pavilions, rest rooms and showers for swimmers.

Curry Hammock
Curry Hammock official website guide to Curry Hammock
56200 Overseas Highway
Marathon, Florida 33050
(305) 289-2690

Admission: $5 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle. $2 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. $4 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.

Sombrero Beach in Marathon in the Florida Keys.

Sombrero Beach in Marathon in the Florida Keys. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Sombrero Beach

This city beach in Marathon is also a “real” beach and it’s also free. The beach is a white sand arc with lots of amenities: grassy lawns shaded with palm trees, changing rooms, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, grills, a playground. This is a good place to do a little snorkeling from shore, particularly in several areas where the shore is lined with rocks. Sometimes you must contend with piles of sea grass. The beach, which is two miles off the main road, is a favorite with locals because many visitors don’t know it’s there. To us, this seemed like a typical municipal beach: It wouldn’t be considered special except sandy beaches are so rare in the Florida Keys.

Sombrero Beach: Turn south at MM 50 at the light (Publix Shopping Center) and follow Sombrero Beach Road for about two miles to the end. There is plenty of parking.
Admission: Free
Marathon parks and beaches website

Anne’s Beach

Anne's Beach in Islamorada

Anne’s Beach

Anne’s Beach at MM 73.4 is a lovely, sandy beach, shallow for a long ways out. The shore is lined with mangroves, through which a boardwalk, with periodic picnic tables, weaves. Anne’s Beach has two small parking lots. It’s free and very popular. If you can get a space, Anne’s Beach makes a nice short stop in a Florida Keys roadtrip. Keep an eye on the sea life underfoot. This is the only place I’ve ever had to be careful to avoid stepping on an octopus — a small, nonthreatening and adorable creature.

Anne’s Beach
MM 73.4 Islamorada
Admission: Free

Beaches in the Upper Keys

Key Largo features two man-made beaches, each with distinct charms.

 John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park Cannon Beach

A school of snapper take shelter under a cannon at Pennekamp. Photo by PMC 1stPix via Flickr.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at MM 102.8 is all about what’s underwater, not on the beach. The park is Dive Central, and that’s true of its beach too. The park’s Cannon Beach is quite small, but if you bring your snorkeling gear, it’s a great place to snorkel from shore. The park has placed remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet off the beach. Fish congregate under and round the sea-life encrusted cannons and anchor. Snorkelers have seen a variety of creatures, including large barracuda and tarpon. There is a second beach in the park, Far Beach.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Mile Marker 102.5, Key Largo, FL 33037
(305) 451-1202 guide to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Official Park Web Site
Park Concessions:

Admission: $8 per vehicle for two to eight people per vehicle.$2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4 single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.

Harry Harris Park

In Tavernier off of MM 92.6 on Burton Drive is Harry Harris Park. This small park has a man-made beach with a shallow protected lagoon that is good for kids, picnic tables, a picnic shelter and a playground.  The park is located off the main road in a residential neighborhood and makes a great stop for a picnic or swim. The park is also prized for its boat ramp.

Harry Harris Park
Follow the signs Oceanside at MM 92.6
Admission: Free weekdays; $5 for those over 16 on Saturday, Sunday and federal holidays.

Best Key West beaches

The beach is rocky but beautiful with good snorkeling. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is rocky but beautiful with good snorkeling. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

This is the best beach in Key West, located where Gulf waters meet the Atlantic. The water is clear and the bottom is rocky, which makes this a good place to snorkel and see tropical fish and live coral. Because of those rocks, it’s smart to bring water shoes. The state park offers shady areas to relax and the historic fort is worth exploring. Parking is hard to find in Key West, and so it’s good to know you CAN park here. The beachfront Cayo Hueso Café offers reasonably priced sandwiches, snacks, cold beverages and beach sundries served on a patio overlooking the beach.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach official website
Florida Rambler guide to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
601 Howard England Way
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 292-6713
Admission: $6 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle. $2 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. $4 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.

Smathers Beach, Key West (Photo by Marc Averette)

Smathers Beach, Key West (Photo by Marc Averette)

Smathers Beach

Smathers Beach is a rare stretch of sand in Key West, even though the sand has to be imported. The beach, the longest in Key West, is free. It’s lined with palm trees and has restrooms, volleyball courts and picnic areas. It’s a shallow beach and the water is sometimes lacking in clarity. Sunset Watersports offers parasailing, wind surfing, paddle boards, kayaks and Hobie Cat rentals. Smather’s has a reputation as a Spring Break/party beach. At the same time, it is also a popular location for beachfront weddings.

Smathers Beach
South Roosevelt Boulevard, Key West, FL 33040
To reach Smather’s Beach, as you enter Key West, bear left. The beach stretches along South Roosevelt Boulevard.
Admission: Free

Higgs Beach

As you continue south along the Atlantic from Smather’s, you come to Higgs Beach, which is south of the White Street Fishing Pier and adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria’s Casa Marina Resort. This urban beach offers shade from a grove of palm trees and a number of picnic tables as well as a dog park and free parking.

The adjacent free fishing pier is worth a visit. The large concrete structure offers a spectacular walk out over the Atlantic, surrounding you with many shades of blue. (Some call it the unfinished road to Havana.)

Also next to the beach is another free attraction that’s great to explore: the West Martello Tower, the remains of a Civil War-era fort, which is now home to a botanic garden cultivated by the Key West Garden Club. Some areas of the garden overlook the ocean and the crumbling runis entwined with tropical plants is particularly picturesque.

The downside to Higgs Beach? One part of the park — its concrete picnic tables and shelters –is generally occupied by homeless.

Planning your trip to the Florida Keys

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:

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  3. Elaine Williams in Baltimore, Maryland says:

    Thanks for the beach suggestions. We (6 adults) are looking to get the Florida Keys sometime in 2017 using Aire B&B. In your opinion what are the best months weather wise to visit? While we don’t mind partying which beaches are less prone to 20 somethings? Also what are the alcohol policies. We live in Maryland and beer on the beach or at any state park is a big no no and subject to a high fine.

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      Florida Keys weather is pretty steamy from May to October. While you can get a cold snap in winter (and by cold I mean weather in the high 50s or 60s), you generally have great weather from November to April. (May and October can be nice but they also can be hot; October also continues to have the risk of hurricanes.) As for 20 somethings, frankly, the Keys are pretty expensive and that has priced out a lot of the 20-something crowd. You might find Spring Breakers in March and April, but they do not dominate the scene.

      Regarding alcohol at beaches: Alcoholic beverages are prohibited in public areas of state parks. I have never seen this enforced; but then I have never been in a state park beach where this appeared to be a problem. Several of the parks in the Keys are NOT state parks, and I cannot find information on their alcohol policies.

  4. traveled to key west last year and stayed at the Casa Marina. Had three families with older teens. Want to have another options that has more beach maybe…..want to snorkel etc again. Rented pontoon boat in marathon I think and kids had a ball. what hotel has the most water options for teens?

  5. You forgot Veterans Memorial Park at the very west end of the 7 mile bridge AND Geiger Key just off the top of my head…

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      Thanks! I love Veterans Park and I have never thought of it as a beach destination, but you’re absolutely right. I am going to add it.

      I have to check out Geiger Key. I know it has a reputution as a clothing optional beach. If you have additional impressions, would love to have them here, as I have not yet visited.

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