~ There are dozens of great campgrounds in the Florida Keys, but most are designed for RVs.
Still, there are a few special places where tent campers can get their mojo.
I’ve been camping in the Keys for 30 years, and my first choice for tent camping are a select few oceanfront tent sites at Bahia Honda State Park. But those eight sites (only 8!) are extremely popular, as you might imagine, and a challenge to book, even 11 months in advance.
Expect serious competition for any campsite in the Keys during the peak winter season (January-March), spiny lobster sport season (July 24-25) and the first week of the regular lobster season (August 6-13).
Tent camping in Florida during summer can be miserable. Be prepared by reading 6 hot tips for tent camping in Florida
Best tent camping in the Keys
Bahia Honda State Park (Lower Keys) – There is probably no better tent sites in all of Florida, but there are only a few sites in this state park that are worthy of that lofty praise – sites 64-72 on a spectacular, award-winning beach in the Sandspur Campground. Don’t be confused. The other Sandspur tent sites are stuffed into mosquito-infested underbrush on the opposite side of the campground road with limited beach access. Only tents and small pop-ups (under 14 feet) are allowed in Sandspur. After Sandspur sites 64-72, my next choice would be the eight sites in the Bayside Campground across from the cabins, although they are on the leeward side of the island, sheltered from the ocean breezes. Tenters should avoid the gravel-based sites in the Buttonwood campground on the Gulf side. All sites are $36 per night plus a $6.70 reservation fee per stay. Florida residents over age 65 enjoy a 50% discount.
Bahia Honda State Park, 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, FL 33043. For reservations, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287. For park information, call the ranger station at (305) 872-2353.
Curry Hammock State Park (Middle Keys) – Curry Hammock is a beautiful little campground with access to a picturesque beach and water sports. My nephew loves kite-surfing at this park, and it’s an excellent base for kayaking secluded paddle trails, the open ocean or Florida Bay on the other side of the island. The campground is far enough away from the busy Overseas Highway that traffic noise is minimal. While the gravel pads on all 28 sites are best suited for RVs , most sites have an adjacent sandy tent pad. Tent campers should avoid sites #3, 10-19, 21, 26, and 28. The best sites for tents are on the beach, sites # 6-9 and 22-25. Each site has a picnic table, charcoal grill, water and electric service. There is a central restroom with hot showers. All sites are $36 per night plus a $6.70 reservation fee per stay. Florida residents over age 65 enjoy a 50% discount.
Curry Hammock State Park, 56200 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050.For reservations, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287. For park information, call the ranger station at (305) 289-2690.
Key Largo Kampground and Marina (Upper Keys) – When I last visited this campground, I found that the primitive tent sites were shady and comfortable. While this park is geared towards RV camping with waterfront sites and private dockage, it is not jammed with RV’s in summer and tent campers have space to breath. Probably the most attractive feature for tent campers is the availability of dockage for boats, and water access to fishing and snorkelers, not to mention its proximity to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale urban centers (about an hour or so). Tent sites with a picnic table but no hookups are $38; electric, $41; water view ($42).
Key Largo Kampground and Marina, 101551 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo, FL 33037. Phone: (305) 451-1431 www.keylargokampground.com
Boyd’s Key West Campground (Key West/Stock Island) – The tent sites are close together, separated by a token privacy fence, but they offer spectacular waterfront views, and Key West is a short bike ride away. Two blocks from the campground is the Hogfish Bar and Grill, a popular local hangout with great food. Boyd’s has a boat ramp with docks, a heated swimming pool, four bathhouses with dishwashing stations, free Wi-Fi and a poolside tiki hut with TV. This is far from wilderness camping, and it’s expensive, but you don’t have many choices this close to Key West. Waterfront tent sites in season (Oct 15-April 30) are $75. Slightly less for inland sites. Off-season, sites are $65. Discounts are offered if you book a full week.
Boyd’s Key West Campground, 6401 Maloney Avenue, Key West, FL 33040. (305) 294-1465. boydscampground.com
Jolly Roger Travel Park (Middle Keys) – This RV campground may seem like an odd choice for tent camping, but the tent sites on the “island” at the marina are actually quite cool, comfortable and on the water where the bayside sunsets are amazing. If the “island” is booked, there are shady tent sites with water and electric along the east side of the campground. Easy access to the boat ramp and docks, two swimming pools, showers and restrooms round out the amenities. Tent sites are $59 per night for 4 people. Discounts available for week-long stays.
Jolly Roger Travel Park, 59275 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050. (305) 289-0404. http://jrtp.com/
Dry Tortugas National Park (Key West) – This is wilderness camping at its best, and while it’s not actually in the Keys, you can only get there by ferry from Key West. You have to bring everything, including water, and you have to bring everything back, including your garbage. The primitive campground (no amenities) is adjacent to the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson. This is bird-watching paradise and surrounding islands are bird sanctuaries, off-limits to humans, although you can paddle out and observe from your kayak. Kayaks must be transported aboard the ferry ($20) with your other gear. Basic passage aboard the Yankee Freedom is $195 per person (2016 rate). The campsites themselves are first-come, first-serve (no reservations) and cost $15 per person per night plus the park entrance fee of $10 per person, which is included in your passage.
For a more detailed description of camping at Fort Jefferson, read Bonnie’s article at http://www.floridarambler.com/florida-best-camping/camping-the-dry-tortugas-national-park/
For ferry information: Yankee Freedom, 240 Margaret Street, Key West, FL 33040. (800) 634-0939. www.yankeefreedom.com
Honorable mention for tent camping in the Keys
There are several other campgrounds in the Florida Keys worth mentioning for tent campers:
Long Key State Park (Middle Keys) – I love camping in Long Key State Park, but not in a tent. All of the campsites are on the beach, but the park is too close to Overseas Highway traffic to enjoy the tenting experience. RVs are better here because they shut out the noise. 67400 Overseas Highway, Long Key, Florida 33001. Phone: (305) 664-4815. www.floridastateparks.org/park/Long-Key
Fiesta Key KOA Resort and Kampground (Middle Keys) – There is a shady section of this island camping resort that accommodate 50 tents, but you are surrounded by a crush of 300 RV sites. Nevertheless, this resort has a lot of amenities that could make up for camping in a crowd. 70001 Overseas Hwy, Long Key, FL 33001. Phone (305) 664-4922. floridakeys.net/koafiesta/
Big Pine Fishing Lodge (Lower Keys) – I have mixed feelings about this campground located on the approach to Big Pine Key, just past Bahia Honda State Park. I always found it a bit sparse, particularly for tent campers. But if snorkeling or fishing are your pleasures and you have a boat, then this may be for you. 33000 Overseas Hwy Big Pine Key, FL 33043 (305) 872-2351 bpkfl.com/
Odds and ends
I don’t recommend tent camping at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, although the park itself is worth visiting. All of the campsite pads are gravel, which is OK for RVs but hardly a good experience for tent campers. If you must camp on Key Largo, try the Key Largo Kampground and Marina.
As mentioned above, aside from the eight spectacular oceanfront tent sites in the Sandspur Campground at Bahia Honda State Park, I’d avoid tent camping at this park. The other tent sites are either buried in mosquito-infested mangroves, or they have a gravel base that, like Pennekamp, would be extremely uncomfortable for tenters.
Frankly, there’s not a lot of love for tent campers in the Keys, although the campgrounds I list above make an attempt.
There are several offshore islands in the Keys where you can camp, but I really don’t have a good grip on locations. Obviously, if they are offshore, they can only be reached by boat, kayak or canoe.
We’d love to hear from boat campers who have pitched a tent or hammock on any of these islands. And we’d also love to hear from tent campers who have had good experiences at other campgrounds in the Keys.