John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: Is A Short Visit Worth It?
If you hop in the car and head south from the Miami airport, John Pennekamp State Park is one of the first places you’ll hit in the Florida Keys. When I was planning my Florida Keys roadtrip, this park kept coming up as a must-visit, so it was definitely on my list.
Renowned as the county’s first undersea park (established in 1963), it encompasses 70 nautical square miles of well-reserved marine life—on Key Largo and about 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. People rave about the beaches, wildlife, snorkeling, and boat tours.
In particular I’d hoped to stop by some of the beaches and do a boat tour. But I had to play some itinerary things by ear on my first day and couldn’t commit to a boat tour time, so just showed up at the park mid-morning, with no concrete plans and needing to still make it down to Key West later in the afternoon.
I’ll share more about my visit below, but my overall experience begged the question—is a short visit to John Pennekamp State Park worth it??
The short answer is…mostly I don’t think so, unless you have a SOLID plan. For example, if you have a boat tour reservation already, or plan to rent a kayak and explore the mangroves. But otherwise, I don’t think Pennekamp is the kind of park that lends itself to a “drop by”. I’ll share more about this below, and sum up my thoughts at the very end.
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What should you do at John Pennekamp State Park?
The mostly-underwater nature of the park makes it really unique, and so the best way to experience it is by boat. One of the most popular things to do at the park is a boat tour, and there are a few types to look into.
You can take a boat trip with snorkeling offered, or with scuba diving if you’re certified. They also have the famous glass-bottom boats, which are very popular for viewing the beautiful coral reef. The boat tour routes will vary somewhat depending on weather.
The glass-bottom boats depart three times a day, 365 days a year, as long as weather permits. This lets everyone have a panoramic view of the colors and wildlife in the coral reef without needing to be in the water. Another option is Keys Diver, which is allowed to offer boat trip and snorkeling trips into John Pennekamp State Park.
I had hoped to catch the glass-bottom boat (because I planned to do a snorkeling trip later in the week…that didn’t work out either). Unfortunately when I arrived, the sailing time I needed was already booked up, and the next one would have been too late for me to make my Key West sunset sail reservation. So that was a bust for me.
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Finding the park is super easy, and I paid $4.50 at the entrance for one person. The park is open daily from 8am until sunset, except for campers who stay overnight (there are 47 campsites). All park buildings including the Concession Building and Visitor Center are open 8am to 5pm (wifi is 24 hours for those camping).
The Visitor Center may not look like much from outside, but make sure to check out the interior…it has an impressive 30,000-gallon aquarium, and a theater that shows films about the Keys’ unique ecosystem.
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The main parking lot by the Visitor Center is large and wasn’t super crowded, but it was just before the spring break crowds hit. I suggest visiting Monday through Thursday if possible, to avoid the worst crowds. Once I realized my boat trip time was full, I walked just a few steps away to Cannon Beach.
Many people will say that Cannon Beach is one of the most chill beaches in the northern Keys, and particularly on Key Largo. They’re probably right, though “best beach” designations in the Keys are all kind of relative since the Keys aren’t really known for amazing beaches in the traditional sense (amazing *water and activities* is another story).
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Cannon Beach gets its name from…drumroll…cannons! These 17th-century (I think) dudes stand guard at the water’s edge and add a cool vibe to the chill and scenic beach. The water is crystal-clear, shallow, and calm, so a good choice for families (though the omnipresent “watch out for crocodiles” sign should be heeded).
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The other main beach you’ll hear about in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is Far Beach, which is quite tiny. There’s another parking lot right next to it, as well as some picnic areas.
I saw some people doing some beach snorkeling (as opposed to boat snorkeling). As the park was established to protect and preserve a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental United States, this makes sense. But the beach snorkeling isn’t particularly great so I’d definitely recommend taking a boat trip if that’s of interest.
Before my trip quite a few people had mentioned that if you’ve done a lot of snorkeling in other parts of the world, the snorkeling in the Keys might be a bit disappointing, so I had appropriate expectations for my visit. Still, if you’re killing an hour or two and want to get in the water, bring your snorkel mask! (Or rent one at the concession stand)
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One of the other very popular things to do in Pennekamp State Park is rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard and explore the 50-or-so miles of mangrove trails spread throughout the park.
I had trouble finding any hiking trails, but I think there are a couple (though even the internet isn’t sure). If you’re wanting to do that, you should definitely check in at the Visitor Center, because they’re not easy to find if they exist.
This park is also known for its wide variety of tropical vegetation, shore birds, and marine life. Fishing is something many people enjoy here as well, though make sure you know what permits are needed.
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So we return to my original question…is a really short visit worth it? For me, I know my visit didn’t really do the park justice AT ALL, and probably wasn’t the most logical use of an hour on my Keys roadtrip.
But please don’t think that it’s a knock on the park itself! From the underwater coral reefs to the mangrove swamps, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park gives visitors a glimpse of one of the most diverse and beautiful ecosystems.
It just takes a little planning to make sure you really *see* the things you want to see, particularly the snorkeling or the glass-bottom boat (book ahead!). Activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, fishing, or camping require time. But if all you want is to hang out at the beach for a bit or have a quiet picnic next to the water, then you can’t go wrong here.
I’d love to know if you’ve visited John Pennekamp State Park as more of a “drop by” and found fun things to do…hit me up in the comments!
It really is a unique and beautiful park, and if things like kayaking, fishing, camping, or the boat tours are an interest of yours, definitely worth a visit. For me, Bahia Honda State Park (further south, closer to Key West) was a better fit for a short visit.
Where to base yourself in the Keys: I spent a few nights at the amazing Grassy Flats Resort, and HIGHLY recommend it! You can see my super detailed review here. In Key West I spent one night at the Kimpton Ella’s Cottages and one night at H2O Suites…loved the latter for a bit of a splurge stay (have your own private pool!!).
Other state park adventures you’ll love:
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- Hiking In Starved Rock State Park, A Perfect Chicago Day Trip
- Exploring Nevada’s Valley Of Fire State Park
- A Road Trip To South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore & Custer State Park
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