~ All the years I’ve been going to the Keys, I have never stopped for any length of time in Key Largo, preferring instead to scoot past the snorkeling hordes for Islamorada, Marathon or Key West.
So when a friend said he was participating in a small-boat race that would end in Key Largo, I thought this would be my opportunity to camp at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo and see what all the fuss was about.
We camped at Pennekamp, but I also discovered a couple of classic Keys motels for a road-trip stopover.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Pennekamp is the first undersea state park in the country, created to protect the only living coral reef in the continental United States. The park extends three miles into the Atlantic Ocean and ranges 21 miles in length, adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
There is ample opportunity to visit offshore reefs from dive boats, snorkel tours or glass-bottom boats. We took the glass-bottom boat to Molasses Reef.
The seas were rough that day, and the sun remained behind clouds, but the boat was stable and the weather barely dulled the bursts of color on the reef or the fish swarming around it.
You can sign up for the glass-bottom boat and snorkeling tours at the park concession at the marina.
Glass-bottom boats are available several times a day and the tour is 2.5 hours. Cost is $24 for adults and $17 under 12. The tour guides are knowledgeable and the trip was fun. (Note: Those prone to sea sickness should inquire about conditions.)
Snorkeling tours leave the dock several times a day. Cost is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 under 18. Bring your own snorkel, mask and fins, or rent them ($2 fins, $2 mask, and you must buy the snorkel for $5. Corrective lens mask are also available.) We were there on a weekday, but two boats went out every trip, and they were packed with snorkelers.
Scuba diving trips leave the Marina at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. for two-location dives for $75 per person. Certification is required, and equipment is additional. The full gear package with the tour is $29. Scuba instruction is also offered. Call (305) 451-6322 for information and rates.
Paddling and boating
There are two kayak landings within the park with access 2.5 miles of mangrove trails through the park.
Sheltered Largo Sound offers excellent open-water paddling, and experienced kayakers may want to venture beyond the protection of the mangroves and out to the reef on nice days with calm seas.
Kayak and canoe rentals are available at the main concession.
A boat ramp at the marina costs $10 for larger boats, and moorings are available for boat camping for $18/night, including trash removal and pump-out. Dockage at a 25-foot slip is $26. Call (305) 451-6325 for more information.
My expectations were not high for this campground, having read many negative reviews, and I add my voice to those who didn’t love camping here.
The sites have recently been refurbished, and they are decent enough, but they are too close together and the “pad” is a new gravel covering that leaves no room to pitch a tent on smooth ground. There is little old-growth vegetation between sites, which are barely two feet apart.
When we visited, college kids in tents were there on Spring Break. They said they used their tents for storage and slept in their vehicles for comfort.
Considering the price of these campsites, $36 per night plus taxes and a $6.70 reservation fee, I’d rather camp in a motel room.
We were in an RV, but space was tight.
If you must camp in a tent, go further south to Long Key State Park or Bahia Honda State Park. There are plenty of private alternatives for RVer’s on Key Largo, and we’d love to get some feedback from our readers about tent camping elsewhere on the island.
Pets are allowed in camping areas, as well as other areas of the park, but not beaches or concession areas.
Convenience stores outside the park entrance don’t carry very much, but there is a Publix Supermarket 1.5 miles south.
Other nearby camping:
KEY LARGO CAMPRGROUND & MARINA, 101551 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; (305) 451-1431. Moon’s Florida Camping says this private campground is the best in the Keys, and it’s only a mile south of Pennekamp. It has 32 primitive tent sites and 171 sites with full hookups, and sites range in price from $35 (tent) to $75 (waterfront with full hookups) per night. I did a quick tour of this campground a few years ago and would have no problem recommending it, especially the shady sites.
KINGS KAMP, 103620 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo; (305) 451-0010. Park has 60 sites, but only 7 are available for RVs and a few for tents. Sites are $40-$50 for two people.
ROCK HARBOR MARINA, MM 97.5 Oceanside, Key Largo; (305) 852-2025. Mostly seasonal residents. Occasionally you can get an RV site for $65 a night.
CALUSA CAMP RESORT, 325 Calusa St., Key Largo; (305)451-0232. Sites range in price from $65 to $105 per night. Weekly and monthly rates available. This RV park is really geared towards seasonal residents and plot ownership.
Beaches, hiking and biking
There are two beaches at Pennekamp, both great places to relax, swim and snorkel. With almost everybody in the park heading out to the reefs, you pretty much have the beaches yourselves.
The main beach is “Cannon Beach,” the busier of the two, near the concession buildings. My choice is the more remote “Far Beach,” a short walk or bike ride on a paved trail.
Snorkeling off Cannon Beach will uncover artifacts from a 1715 Spanish ship wreck, and can make a good snorkeling experience, especially for children. Considerable marine life may be observed off both beaches in the seagrass beds.
There are two nature trails, the Wild Tamarind Trail and the Mangrove Trail, which takes you out to an observation tower where you can view the park from a slight elevation.
Bicycles are good for transportation around the park from the campground with access to the paved bike trail alongside the Overseas Highway. This section of the trail is not picturesque. You would be better off racking your bikes further south.
What else is nearby?
There are many first-class resorts, and if that’s your bag, you can find them here. Personally, I like a place with character, clean but with an “old Keys” flavor at a reasonable price. And I found three such motels with cabins nestled together on Sunset Bay.
Bay Cove Motel, Mile Marker 99.5, Key Largo. Nothing fancy, but there was lots of shade and the sandy drive led to the bayside beach, where you could launch a boat. Parking was tight, but we made do. There was a long dock and several picnic tables under tiki huts on the beach. Rooms in duplex cabins were under $100 per night, and there was a house overlooking the beach where the upstairs efficiency rented for slightly more. The downstairs with two bedrooms was more expensive. I checked out the rooms while they were being cleaned. Definitely rustic, but the queen beds were new and the rooms were clean. Each room had small refrigerator. I liked the place. It was laid back and casual. Book it.
Next door were two similar lodgings, the Sunset Cove Beach Resort and The Pelican. I didn’t see the rooms there, but Sunset Cove looks like it had recently undergone renovations, and a friend who stayed at The Pelican thought it a notch better than the Bay Cove. He paid $85 for a queen, but rates range from $60 for a double all the way up to $220 for waterfront with a king, two doubles and a full kitchen. Both Sunset Cove and the Pelican had small beaches and docks (but no boat ramps).
Also worth noting is the Bayside Inn, which is in the same cluster. It was a typical multi-level motel, but looked comfortable and clean. I met the manager and found him polite and helpful.
All of these lodgings had kayaks on site for their guests and plenty of area to paddle along the shore and out across Sunset Bay to mangrove islands.
Key Largo restaurants
Bayside Grill, Mile Marker 99.5, Key Largo. (3 miles south of Pennekamp) Great place to watch the sunset. We had a couple of beers and some appetizers. Outdoor dining and bar downstairs, and enclosed dining upstairs. Prices were reasonable: Particularly noteworthy were little-neck clams for 40 cents each. Reviews on Yelp!
Hobo’s Cafe, Mile Marker 101.5, Key Largo (1.3 miles south of Pennekamp) My favorite eatery on Key Largo. I opted for the broiled dolphin (mahi-mahi) with lemon sauce on a bed of creamed spinach called “The Godfather.” Fish portion was huge, and it was cooked perfectly. My friends took advantage of BBQ Night and ordered barbecue chicken and pork. Reviews on Yelp!
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Mile Marker 99.3, Key Largo (3 miles south of Pennekamp). I didn’t eat here, but it seems like everybody else did, and locals insist Mrs. Mac’s has the best home-cooked meals on Key Largo. Reviews on Yelp!
Harriette’s Restaurant, Mile Marker 95.5, Key Largo. (7 miles south of Pennekamp). Harriette’s is a funky little place, but everybody I talked to was raving about it as a breakfast stop, so we stopped there for breakfast. Omelets were outstanding. Reviews on Yelp!
The Fish House, Mile Marker 102, Key Largo (less than a mile south of Pennekamp). This may be the top tourist destination for dining on Key Largo, and the reviews are very good, but we thought it was expensive. Reviews on Yelp!
Senor Frijoles, Mile Marker 103.9, Key Largo (1.4 miles north of Pennekamp). I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of food you get for the money. I had chicken Tacos Al Cabon for $10.59. The portions were huge and the food was very good. I was unable to finish my lunch, and I never say that. Reviews on Yelp!
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Mile Marker 102.5, Key Largo, FL 33037; (305) 451-1202. Day use admission is $8 per vehicle.