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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: Snorkel, dive, camp, kayak


Last updated on July 5th, 2024 at 01:35 pm

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was 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, which protects the continuation of coral reefs within its 2,900 square nautical miles of waters from the Keys to the Dry Tortugas.

Explore the reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  Can Stock Photo / offaxisproductions
Explore the reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. (CanStock Photo/offaxisproductions)

The big draw: Snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

There is ample opportunity to visit offshore reefs aboard dive boats, snorkel tours or glass-bottom boats.

The day we went out on a glass-bottom boat to Molasses Reef, the seas were rough 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 in the marina.

Snorkelers head out to the reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Snorkelers head out to the reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Glass-bottom boats are available several times a day and the tour is 2.5 hours. Cost is $32 for adults. 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 five times a day for 1 to 1.5 hours water time. Cost is $39 for adults. Bring your own snorkel, mask and fins, or rent them ($4 fins, $4 mask, and you must buy the snorkel for $9. Corrective lens mask available.)

Scuba diving trips leave the Marina at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. for two-location dives for $90 per person. Certification is required, and equipment is additional. The full gear package with the tour is $35. Scuba instruction offered. Call (305) 451-6322 for information and rates.

There are numerous private outfitters throughout Key Largo offering glass bottom boat and snorkeling tours, as well as diving expeditions. We list a few in our Visitors Guide to Key Largo.

Kayak, boating at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Kayak landing at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Kayak landing at Snorkelers head out to the reef at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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.

Camping at Pennekamp State Park

Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.

Campsite at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Campsite at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

I was not impressed on my first camping experience at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The are decent enough, but they are too close together and the gravel pad leaves no room to pitch a tent on smooth ground. 

While we were comfortable in my travel trailer, a group of college kids in the neighboring site slept in their cars because their tents were uncomfortable. 

On my second visit to the campground in 2019, we shuffled between a couple of sites and found them a little more spacious, but still not up to the standards of other state parks.

Considering the affordable price of these campsites, $36 per night plus taxes and a $6.70 reservation fee, you can be sure they stay booked year around. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance, and I highly recommend that you book your site the first day they become available.

While Pennekamp allows bookings up to 14 days, the only way you’ll get those two weeks is to make your reservation on the first day it’s available. Otherwise, you’ll be picking up the scraps from cancellations.

Tent campers should look elsewhere: Best Tent Camping in the Florida Keys

Pets are allowed in camping areas, as well as other areas of the park, but not on beaches or concession areas.

Convenience stores outside the park entrance don’t carry very much, but there is a Publix Supermarket 2 miles south and a Winn-Dixie is 4 miles north on U.S. 1. 

Other campgrounds near John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

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.

Beaches, hiking and biking at Pennekamp State Park

Visitors relax on Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Cannon Beach at Pennekamp State Park

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 three short nature trails, the Wild Tamarind Trail, Grove 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.

The visitor center at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

In addition to being the center for booking snorkeling and boat tours, the visitor center is worth visiting to view the 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium filled with local reef fish. There are severak smaller aquariums with fish, invertebrates and other marine creatures, including live coral.

Map of John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo
Map of John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Mile Marker 102.5

Key Largo, FL 33037

(305) 451-1202

Day use admission is $8 per vehicle.

FAQs on John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Is the Christ of the Deep statue here? Yes, the 9-foot-tall bronze statue was installed in 1965 in an area called Dry Rocks. It is located about 8 or 10 feet below the surface and thus is best seen by scuba divers. Snorkelers can see it, but will be viewing it from above. Snorkel or scuba trips can be arranged here, although if it’s important to you to see it, make sure to determine if it’s included as not all boat tours go here. Glass bottom boat tours do not go to the statue.

How warm is the water in winter? Water temperatures in the winter are in the low 70s.

Can I swim to or snorkel to the reefs? No. The reefs are located between 3 and 8 miles off the coast, too far to reach by anything but powerboat.

Who was John Pennekamp? The park is named after an editor with the Miami Herald who led a fight to protect the reefs.

Related articles

Florida Keys Mile-Marker Guide

Visitors Guide to Key Largo

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  • Edd Tomczak says:

    Can any one tell us if there is any thing special going in May of 2023 , we will be there for two weeks attending a key largo wedding this is our first time visiting the keys . We will be staying at the John pennekamp sp,

    • Bonnie Gross says:

      We have a calendar of annual events and the one event that happens in the Keys in May is the Key West Singers and Songwriters Festival, which is described this way: “Musical performances and conversations with major artists. Most shows are free and occur at beaches, boats, bars, resorts and theaters. Shows start early afternoon and play into the late night.”

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