Campgrounds in the Keys under pressure
Campground reservations at state parks in the Florida Keys have always been a challenge, even in the best of times, but after a destructive Hurricane Irma swept through, campers face even tougher odds for booking sites.
And it’s likely to stay that way for another year or two.
The 47 oceanfront campsites at Long Key State Park were wiped out by Irma, as were 23 tent sites on Sandspur Beach at Bahia Honda State Park, leaving only 115 sites at three state parks with functioning campgrounds.
Adding to the crunch are the loss of private campgrounds at Knight’s Key, which is being redeveloped into a resort hotel, a loss of 192 RV sites and 70 tent sites.
Irma took out another 400+ campsites Sunshine Key RV Resort, which is undergoing major reconstruction and should be completed by next fall.
The Sugarloaf Key KOA, once a popular destination for visitors to the Lower Keys and Key West, is also out of commission, taking another 200 RV campsites out of inventory.
That’s a whopping 932 campsites no longer in inventory, and there may be even more because affordable housing for locals took a big hit, forcing many to stay in private campgrounds or leave the Keys.
So what’s a camper to do?
Private campgrounds will be under extreme pressure during the winter months, but there should be options in the off-season. Just don’t expect the discounts you’ve seen in the past.
At $36 per night (plus tax) for a state park campsite in the Keys, compared to an average $80-$100 at a private campground, you can imagine the demand on state parks.
Even in a normal year, campsites in Keys state parks are in demand year around, and this is far less than a normal year.
Be flexible with your dates
The more flexibility you have, the better your chances of securing a state park campsite for more than a day or two, but be prepared for disappointment.
To secure reservations, you need to know your way around the ReserveAmerica web site. The parks themselves do not accept reservations.
- Go to ReserveAmerica online and type in your choice of the three remaining state park campgrounds — Pennekamp, Curry Hammock or Bahia Honda — then click “Search.”
- In search results, you’ll see the “Find An Adventure” column for your campground. You will be “Interested In” “Camping and Lodging”.
- Filter your selection under the “Looking For” drop-down menu. For “RV sites,” you’ll be asked to enter a length.
- Under “Arrival Date,” select the first date you’ll be available to make a reservation.
- On the next line, you’ll see another drop-down menu on “Flexibility.” Choose your window: No flexibility; Flexible for 2 weeks; Flexible for 4 weeks.
- Enter the number of days you want. (You can always go back later and reduce the number of days to increase the odds.)
In search results, click on “Date Range Availability” tab and you will see a reservation calendar for every campsite for the next two weeks. Open dates are marked with an “A.”
If you don’t see acceptable dates, go to the top of the calendar and click on “Next 2 weeks”. Review the calendar, and keep clicking on “Next 2 weeks” until you see what you want.
Book state park campsites 11 months in advance
The earliest you can book a campsite in any state park is 11 months in advance, and for campsites in the Keys, you want to be ready at 8 a.m. on the first morning they are available.
And you’ll be able to book up to two weeks, the maximum number of consecutive days you can reserve at any state park.
But you’ll have a lot of competition. Everybody does it, and by 8:01, all sites are taken.
Log onto ReserveAmerica at 7:50 a.m. and search for your desired state park (see “Basics” above). Look at the availability calendar for the target date 11 months from now.
You will see the letter “A” on a yellow background for sites that will become available at 8 a.m. Be ready to pounce on that site a few seconds after your computer clock hits 7:59. If you are rejected, go back and keep pouncing.
At the same time, about 7:57 a.m., have someone else in your family call the ReserveAmerica reservation line at (800) 326-3521. When you get an operator at 8 a.m., tell them “Any campsite at John Pennekamp”, or wherever.
This gives you two avenues to a reservation. I’ve done this many times in past years with reasonable success.
Monitor ReserveAmerica for cancellations
Cancellations once occurred often, although they are less likely now that ReserveAmerica is charging a $17.50 cancellation fee.
When cancellations do occur, sites are returned to inventory at various times of the day, even overnight, at least that’s been my experience.
I’ve also seen sites go back into inventory shortly after 8 a.m., and I assume that occurs because people don’t complete their 8 a.m. transactions in time.
Don’t give up. If you wake up in the middle of the night, go to your computer and see if there are cancellations that may interest you. You should also check at random times during the day.
You don’t have to do it every day, but be persistent until you find something.
I am a state-park camper who has snared quite a few desirable dates in the middle of the night.
Consider other South Florida destinations.
There are several terrific public campgrounds in South Florida that are worthy of your attention.
Collier-Seminole State Park near Marco Island — With access to nearby Everglades City and Marco Island, this is a fabulous state park that offers hiking trails, off-road bicycling and kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands. Best of all, you can almost always find campsite availability, even at the last minute. For more information, read: Collier-Seminole State Park
Koreshan State Park near Naples — With a quirky history, this state park campground is an inexpensive way to visit upscale Naples, as well as awesome beaches and conservation areas. For more information, read: Koreshan State Park preserves wacky Florida history
Jonathan Dickinson State Park near Jupiter — On the Loxahatchee River, one of only two nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida, this state park is an amazing destination for kayakers. Plenty of bike and hiking trails, as well. For more information, read: Jonathan Dickinson State Park: A Florida treasure
Everglades National Park — Immerse yourself in the original Florida, where the 100-mile-wide river of grass flows into Florida Bay. There are two mega-campgrounds, only one of which (Flamingo) accepts reservations. This is a wonderland of wildlife, and you’ve never been there, do it. For more information, read: Articles about Everglades National Park
Big Cypress Preserve — The preserve has 5 wild and woolly campgrounds strung out along the Tamiami Trail between Miami and Everglades City. For more information, read: RV, tent and backcountry camping in the Everglades
If your search for a specific state park comes up empty, click on “Search Nearby Parks for Availability” and you’ll get a list of nearby state and national parks, as well as a few private campgrounds with openings on your desired dates.