Last updated on August 17th, 2022 at 12:15 pm
Natural beaches are rare in the Florida Keys.
The shoreline is craggy coral, coral being the foundation of this string of scenic islands, and offshore reefs interrupt the natural flow of sand to shore.
Resort hotels create their own beaches by trucking in sand. Others hope you’ll be happy with their swimming pools. In either case, those beaches and pools are off-limits to the public unless you’re a guest.
There are a few public beaches if you look hard enough. You just have to know where to go. Here are our 14 favorite public beaches in the Florida Keys.
Best beaches in the Upper Keys
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at Mile Marker 102.8 is about what’s underwater, and most of the snorkeling and diving takes place offshore from a boat.
The main beach is Cannon Beach, the busier of the two, near the concession buildings with plenty of parking. 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.
Park admission is $4.50 for a single-occupant vehicle; $8 per vehicle plus 50 cents per person up to 8 people; $2.50 per person after 8 people; $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Related Story: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Harry Harris Park, Key Largo
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 Overseas Highway in a residential neighborhood and makes a great stop for a picnic or swim. The park is also prized for its boat ramp.
Admission is free for local residents. $5 for non-residents on weekends and holidays. $10 to launch a boat.
Harry Harris Park, East Beach Road off Burton Drive from Mile Marker 92.6 on U.S. 1
Best beaches in the Middle Keys
Long Key State Park, Long Key
Long Key’s beach is shallow with pockets of deeper water that rarely exceed shoulder-height. 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.
Launch your own kayak from the beach (or rent one) and paddle around the island. Seas are usually quite calm because of the shallow water, so it’s excellent for both paddlers and swimmers. The beach day-use area has picnic tables, a rest room and outdoor showers.
The oceanfront campground was wiped out by Hurricane Irma, but the day-use area beach is open. (The campground is being rebuilt.)
Admission to the park is $4.50 per vehicle (one person) or $5 per vehicle (plus 50 cents per person, 2+ people). Pedestrians and bicyclists, $2.50. Kayak rentals are $17.50 for a single and $21.50 for a double for 2 hours.
Long Key State Park is at Mile Marker 67.5, 67400 Overseas Highway, Layton.
Related Story: Long Key State Park: Florida Keys gem but camping limited
Curry Hammock State Park, Marathon
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 has an excellent beach launch for kayaks that allows paddlers to explore offshore islands or paddle sheltered coves and a shady mangrove trail.
The kayak trail is a nice 90-minute paddle through beautiful mangroves and over shallows where there are thousands of upside down jellyfish that look like big snowflakes in the water. A popular destination for kayakers is an off-shore sandbar that emerges at low tide.
The beach’s steady breezes are a draw for kite-boarders, especially on weekends, decorating the beach with their colorful kites and daring acrobatics.
The day use area has four large picnic pavilions, rest rooms and showers for swimmers, and a playground. There’s a 1.5-mile nature trail for hiking,
Admission to the park is $4.50 per vehicle (one person) or $5 per vehicle (plus 50 cents per person, 2+ people). Pedestrians and bicyclists, $2.50. Kayak rentals are available.
Curry Hammock State Park is at Mile Marker 56, and the address is 56200 Overseas Highway, Marathon
Related Story: Curry Hammock State Park: Great beach camping, kayaking
Sombrero Beach, Marathon
Sombrero Beach in Marathon is a “real” beach, and after restoration from Hurricane Irma, it’s better than ever. Sombrero ranks at the top of the list of best beaches in the Florida Keys.
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, two miles off the Overseas Highway, is a favorite with locals because many visitors don’t know it’s there.
Sombrero Beach: Turn south at Mile Marker 50 at the light (between Kmart and the Publix shopping centers) and follow Sombrero Beach Road for about two miles to the end. There is plenty of parking.
Related Story: Things to do in Marathon: Seagoing heart of the Florida Keys
Coco Plum Beach
Here’s one you probably didn’t know existed.
Near Mile Marker 54, before you get to Key Colony Beach and Marathon, there’s a traffic light at Coco Plum Drive. Head toward the ocean and follow Coco Plum Drive around the curve to the end, where there’s a fenced public parking area in the sand.
This beach is popular with kite surfers, but there’s room for everyone. You can also launch a kayak or paddle board to explore Deer Key, or paddle around Deer Key to the paddle trails in Curry Hammock State Park and beyond.
The fact that this beach is hard to find and known only to locals, you are practically guaranteed a peaceful beach experience. I love to set my chair up in the shade of overhanging branches and chill out.
Like all beaches in the Keys on the ocean side, Coco Plum Beach can accumulate seaweed — nobody’s favorite thing, but it’s good for the shoreline to let it accumulate and decompose.
Free admission to the beach or to park.
Anne’s Beach, Islamorada
A long-time roadside favorite, Anne’s beach, was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017 but has been restored with a new boardwalk.
Anne’s is a lovely, sandy beach and delightful for wading. The beach is shallow for quite a ways — it’s hard to get water deep enough to swim in. Most people just sit down in the shallows and relax.
The shore is lined with mangroves, through which the new boardwalk weaves dotted with picnic tables. Anne’s Beach has two small parking lots. It’s free and worth a stop on your travels along the Overseas Highway.
Anne’s Beach is at Mile Marker 73.4 in Islamorada.
Best beaches in the Lower Keys
Veterans Memorial Park, Little Duck Key
Veterans Memorial Park is a small, free oceanside park just south of the Seven Mile Bridge with a nice little beach and a great place to stop for a picnic or use the restroom on a drive to Key West.
Five 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.
In summer 2021, the restrooms had not reopened since Hurricane Irma in 2017 and portapotties are there instead.
Veterans Memorial Park at Mile Marker 39.9.
Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key
For years, there has been widespread agreement that the best beaches in the Florida Keys are the beaches at Bahia Honda State Park at MM 36.8.
Hurricane Irma savaged this area, but after 4 1/2 years, the 2.5 mile-long Sandspur Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island finally re-opened in spring of 2022.
With white sand and water so shallow that you can wade far out before you even get your swimsuit wet, It was once named the best beach in America by Dr. Beach, the professor who rates beaches and releases a 10-best list each year. He called Sandspur Beach “a piece of the Caribbean” because of its “crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms.”
The smaller of the three beaches, Calusa Beach, is the most popular. Calusa Beach is the best beach for swimming and 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 it is where the old bridge and new bridge converge in the background.
Bahia Honda has natural beaches, not manmade ones.
Admission is $8.50 per vehicle (2-8 people). $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers; $4 single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle. On busy weekends, parking near Calusa Beach fills up.
Bahia Honda State Park is at Mile Marker 37, 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, Florida 33043, (305) 872-2353
Related Story: Florida Rambler guide to Bahia Honda State Park
Best beaches in Key West
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and 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.
Admission: $6 per vehicle (2-8 people) plus 50 cents per person. $2 Pedestrians, bicyclists, and passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. $4.50 single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach, 601 Howard England Way, Key West, Florida 33040
Related Story: Florida Rambler guide to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
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 find Smather’s Beach, bear left as you enter Key West on South Roosevelt Boulevard. Admission: Free
Related Story: Key West shopping for authentic Florida Keys souvenirs
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.)
Higgs Beach is also the site of a monument marking what is thought to be the burial site of Africans rescued from the slave trade who were brought to the island by the U.S. Navy. During the Civil War, Key West remained under Union control and was a refuge for victims of the slave trade.
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 ruins entwined with tropical plants is particularly picturesque.
The downside to Higgs Beach? One part of the park — its concrete picnic tables and shelters — is often occupied by unhoused people.
Higgs Beach, 1000 Atlantic Blvd., Key West, FL 33040
Simonton Street Beach
This small pocket beach at the west end of Simonton Street is in the middle of the heavily visited tourist area near Mallory Square, but you would hardly know it’s there unless you stumbled upon it by taking a wrong turn.
Wedged between the Pier House and the Hyatt Key West, the beach is a popular destination for locals and hotel guests, and it is often crowded.
There’s a small parking area and a fabulous little beach bar, called Lagerheads, serving craft beers and seafood treats like fish tacos, fish sandwiches, smoked fish dip and fresh ceviche, as well as hot dogs and burgers. They also serve breakfast.
This beach is an alternative to Mallory Square for sunsets. Beach admission is free.
Simonton Street Beach, 0 Simonton Street, Key West, FL 33040
In any other town in Florida, this beach wouldn’t be mentioned, but this is Key West, where beaches are scarce.
Located where Duval Street meets the Atlantic, this little patch of sand attracts lots of visitors because it is close to the Southernmost Point, which draws selfie-seekers from around the world.
It’s a well-groomed 200-foot stretch of beach, but there is very little nearby parking, so come by foot or bike.
Overlooking this beach is the Southernmost Beach Cafe, which offers pleasant seaside dining. It’s popular for happy hour and gets good ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Planning your trip to the Florida Keys
- The essential Florida Keys Mile Marker guide: Print it out!
- Florida Rambler’s channel devoted to the Florida Keys
- 11 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Legendary road food on the Overseas Highway
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.