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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, 1-3 days September - April  More Pictures  |  More Info

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was America’s first undersea park in1960. Key Largo is the first key you come to when driving to the Florida Keys; and that is where all the fun in the water and under the sun begins. Well, unless you don’t wear sun block. The visitors’ center has some fabulous salt water aquariums and an ongoing nature video in the theatre; you could easily spend over an hour there. The two best beaches for snorkeling are Cannon Beach and Far Beach. They are in a tropical lagoon so you might feel more comfortable swimming and snorkeling here than being five miles out at sea in open water. The lagoons have some natural ledges and sea grass areas where you can see colorful fish and other marine life. And at Cannon Beach there are remnants of a Spanish shipwreck.


picture of cannon on cannon beach in key largo

Miles of ancient old shallow chains of coral reefs in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico is what makes the beautiful colors of John Pennekamp park and the Florida Keys. If you study maps pretty closely you might notice that most of the diving and snorkeling reefs and shipwrecks are just outside the boundaries of the park’s 70 nautical square miles. However, all reefs and waters are still protected within the Florida Keys by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. If you are real adventurous take the boat trip to the Dry Tortugas which takes you 70 miles south from Key West. Twenty miles more and you could be in Cuba.

picture taken at entrance to john pennekamp park

Above: This sign is at the entrance of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Although the park opens up around the water it is surrounded by tall pines and other Florida native trees and shrubs.

Although we opted to snorkel, John Pennekamp State Park also offers scuba diving trips that go out to deeper reefs. Our snorkeling trip took us five miles out to a 1/2 mile long reef named Grecian Rocks. We were at sea for almost three hours. We were snorkeling around the reef for about an hour and a half. And by then I was ready to go when the captain was calling us back to board the catamaran. Time goes by so quickly when you’re having fun. Jason and I saw so many beautiful fish, really large barracuda, the very protected queen conch, schools of fish, strange looking fish and brilliantly colored fish all swimming around doing their fishy thing.

picture of van parked at cannon beach early morning

Above: Picture shows Vanabode parked at Cannon Beach. We like to be early birds and got into the park right as it opened and was able to get this great parking spot. The beaches at John Pennekamp park are not at all large and sandy like you see at Miami South Beach, however the water colors are still breathtaking. We had shade, a breeze and a view from the van overlooking the lagoon. Cannon Beach quickly became the park's hot spot with swimmers and snorklers and picnickers.

The captain and crew that ran the snorkeling catamaran from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park were extremely nice and knowledgeable. They took their time showing us how to attach and use the mandatory snorkeling vest which I found pretty bothersome once in the water. But I understand that it’s for insurance purposes. When we paid for our excursion we also opted for wet suits and flippers. You absolutely need a wet suit, well unless you’re from one of the poles I guess. Otherwise 76 degree water might sound doable especially if it’s like 90 degrees outside, but not really when you are just floating, expending minimal calories breathing and pointing. Grecian Rocks is only 4 to 6 feet deep and the water is as clear as a swimming pool. There are enough coral beds dotted around this reef within the sandy and sea grass plateaus that when you swim from one coral cluster to the next there are different kinds of fish circling around each coral island. They had mentioned that sometimes they see sharks but we didn’t see any. Actually there were a couple of people who heard the word shark and stayed on the boat the entire time. They paid and everything and never got in the water once. Now if it really were dangerous the state park and every other snorkeling outfitter wouldn’t allow snorkeling there.

picture of spirit of pennekamp glass bottom boat

Above: Picture of John Pennekamp's glass bottom boat is a high speed catamaran and can carry up to 130 people at one time. Because this boat is so fast you get to experience many reefs during your tour. It goes to one of the prettiest and most fish abundant reefs, Molasses Reef. This is the place to see grouper, brain coral, turtles, lobsters and rays.

Taking a tour on the glass bottom boat at John Pennekamp park is an awesome way to see the reefs without getting wet. The tour goes to a few different shallow reefs during the 2 ½ hour excursion. There are mangrove wilderness trails to paddle a canoe or kayak through. The clear and calm waters allow you to see what’s swimming beneath and around your boat as well as viewing the resident birds and other natural habitats in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. However, if you want to remain on terra firma then you are in luck also. There are three walking trails here that take you near mangroves and around tropical hardwood hammock species as well as some tropical fruit trees that were planted many years ago by the early pioneers.

Away from day use facilitates this state park has rv and tent camping available. If you are desperate for a hot shower or just a place to stay put for a couple of days remember this. A Florida Keys Vacation is a destination that could be had year round making it difficult to just show up and expect an opening at this campground. Otherwise, outdoor cold showers are available to all day use guests. And even though we just spent hours swimming and snorkeling in the ocean water, there is nothing like fresh water even if it’s cold. After our snorkeling excursion and cold shower we went back to ye olde Vanabode for food and a little nap. Because we parked so that our slider was facing the lagoon of Cannon Beach there was a steady cool breeze keeping us comfortable all day at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

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