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.
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.
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 five times a day for 1 to 1.5 hours water time. 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 available.) Extended snorkel tours (4.5 hours) are $38.95.
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 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
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
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
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.
Mile Marker 102.5
Key Largo, FL 33037
Day use admission is $8 per vehicle.
Notes from the editor:
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.