Last updated on January 29th, 2020 at 05:05 am
Key Largo — Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a park with distinction.
The world’s first undersea preserve, Pennekamp protects a critical segment of the third largest living coral reef system in the world — the Great Florida Reef — a 170-mile barrier reef that curves around the ocean side of the Florida Keys all the way to the Dry Tortugas.
This amazing and colorful underwater park bristles with life, attracting divers and snorkelers from all over the world. According to tourism officials, 650,000 visitors pour into Pennekamp each year — almost a third of all visitors to the Florida Keys (including Key West).
Pennekamp extends three miles into the Atlantic Ocean, protecting a section of the reef that is 25 miles long, offering opportunities for visitors to explore these colorful living reefs from dive boats, snorkel tours or glass-bottom boats.
You can sign up for the glass-bottom boat, snorkeling and diving tours at the park concession, or you can patronize any of dozens of private outfitters outside the park that cater to small groups and large.
At the park concession:
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.
Outside the park, there are dozens of diving and snorkeling outfitters.
Read more: Visitors Guide to Key Largo for listings.
Paddling and boating at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
There are two kayak landings within the park with access to 2.5 miles of mangrove trails.
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 campers for $18/night, including trash removal and pump-out. Dockage at a 25-foot slip is $26. Call (305) 451-6325 for more information.
Read more: 11 great kayak outings in the Florida Keys
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 ride on a paved road.
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. As of October 2019, the Mangrove Trail was closed as repairs continue on the boardwalk.
Bicycles are good for transportation around the park from the campground with access to a 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.
Read more: Our favorite beaches in the Florida Keys
Camping at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Fair warning: Pennekamp is one of the most difficult parks in Florida to reserve a campsite, often booked solid for the 11-month advance reservation period, even in summer.
I piece my nights together from the gaps — a couple of days here and there — and then follow up diligently with an eye on openings to add more days.
My most recent stay was four days, three of which I booked more than six months in advance and a fourth night I added the week before my trip with an opening likely caused by a cancellation.
The sites at Pennekamp have been refurbished in recent years, and they are decent enough with water, electric and sewer hookups, but they are close together and the “pad” is gravel covering with no room to pitch a tent on smooth ground.
On one of my visits, a group of college kids in tents said they used their tents for storage and slept in their vehicles for comfort.
With little old-growth vegetation between sites that are barely two feet apart, privacy is afforded only by what you bring: your RV, canopies and tents.
Pets are allowed in camping areas, as well as other areas of the park, but not on the park’s two beaches or the concession areas.
The campground has 42 back-in sites of varying lengths (32 feet to 52 feet) available for reservations, plus three more sites that are set aside for campground hosts or walkups. Each site has water, sewer and electric (20-30-50 amp) hookups and a picnic table. Three sites have concrete pads; the rest have gravel. It’s not likely you’ll have much choice. Sites are $36 per night, plus taxes and $6.70 one-time booking fee; $18 for Florida Residents over 65, plus taxes and fees. Discount also available for active-duty military and disabled campers with documentation. Reservations can be made online at ReserveAmerica.com.
Other nearby camping:
Camping Supplies and RV Services
There is a Publix south of the state park (MM 101.4) and a Winn-Dixie north of the park (MM 105.3). There’s a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Homestead, on the west side of the southernmost entrance to Florida’s Turnpike, about 30 miles from Pennekamp.
Holiday RV and Marine, (MM 100) Full service repair, parts and sales. 10099 Overseas Highway. 305-451-4555
Larry’s RV Service. (MM 95.2) Mobile service that will go to your campground, 95231 Overseas Hwy. 630-460-7676
Other nearby lodging
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,. Parking was tight, but we made do. There was a long dock and several picnic tables under tiki huts on the beach. Rustic, laid back and casual.
For a comprehensive listing of hotels, motels and cottages, check out our Visitors Guide to Key Largo.
What else is nearby?
Key Largo Fisheries,1313 Ocean Bay Drive. Old Florida wholesale and retail fish market with piles of fresh stone crabs and Florida lobster (in season), beautiful pink shrimp and fresh-caught snapper, mahi and more. Check out display cases for conch salad, smoked fish dip, lobster chowder and bisque. Fab seafood market, and they have a cafe serving seafood on the dock.
The African Queen, the 100-year-old steamboat from the 1951 Humphrey Bogart-Katherine Hepburn film, is moored next to the Holiday Inn Key Largo at Mile Marker 99.7. Take a 90-minute cruise or a two-hour dinner trip. Buy your tickets in the hotel gift shop or book online.
Key Largo Restaurants & Tiki Bars We Like
Hobo’s Cafe, Mile Marker 101.5, Key Largo (1.3 miles south of Pennekamp) Long one of my favorite eateries 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 cooked perfectly. 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Mile Marker 99.3, Key Largo (3 miles south of Pennekamp). I enjoyed a breakfast of Fish and Grits. Locals insist Mrs. Mac’s has the best home-cooked meals on Key Largo. Open only for breakfast and lunch. Try Mrs. Mac’s II, just down the road, for dinner. 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor
Skippers Dockside, Laguna Ave. to 528 Caribbean Drive (3 miles south of Pennekamp). Dockside tiki bar and spacious, covered outdoor dining area. Happy Hour (3-6, M-F) appetizers were fabulous with hearty portions. Staff friendly. Read more in our best tiki bar guide. You may see the African Queen steam past. 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor
The Fish House, Mile Marker 102, Key Largo (less than a mile south of Pennekamp). This may be the top restaurant destination for dining on Key Largo, and the reviews are very good. A little pricey but not outrageous. 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor
For a comprehensive listing of restaurants and tiki bars, go to Visitors Guide to 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.