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What to do at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – a full guide to the park
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What to do at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – a full guide to the park 

John Pennekamp Coral Reef Florida State Park is the first underwater coral reef park in the United States, a pretty nice place to stay.

It is located on the Big Key of the Florida Keys, right next to the Biscayne Marine Reserve, and its 240 km2 area extends from the coastal mangrove swamps 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean and stretches 25 miles along its coast.

As its name implies, John Pennekamp Park’s main highlight is Molasses Reef, located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the most accessible in the United States for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts.

The marine life in the coral reefs (if you are lucky, you can see sea turtles and sharks) attracts many tourists. And we came here, rather than to the bustling beaches of Miami Beach, to get a proper break from big cities and get acquainted with the unusual nature of the keys, which reminded us of our vacation in the Maldives.

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Basic Information

  • Name: Florida State Park John Pennekamp Coral Reef
  • Year Established: 1964
  • Address: 102601 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo, FL 33037
  • GPS coordinates: 25°07′12″N, 80°24′18″W
  • Hours of operation: daily from 8:00 a.m. until dusk, Visitor Center closes at 5:00 p.m.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park opened in 1963 and has become quite popular not only with locals but also with tourists. It is considered the most convenient place in the United States to see coral reefs and is one of the main attractions of the Florida Keys. For those traveling around the U.S. by car, this Florida spot is definitely a must see.

Reef Layout

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the most visited park in the Florida State Park System. Each year it draws over 1 million people, which is only 5 times less than the number of visitors to such established U.S. national parks as Yosemite in California and Zion in Utah. We’ve seen for ourselves that it’s definitely worth the trip if you want to see reefs in the U.S. or just love nature.

Fun fact: The most famous underwater attraction on the waters of John Pennekamp Coral Reef is a 2.6-meter statue of Christ of the Abyss with arms outstretched to the sky, set at a depth of 7.6 meters.

How to see coral reefs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

There are many ways to see the coral reefs in the park: snorkeling the inner reefs, diving the barrier reef, or touring the clear-bottom boat.

  • Inland reefs suitable for snorkeling are located in the Atlantic Ocean from 3 to 8 miles off the coast of the Florida Keys in depths of 1.5 to 5 meters. Like Bahia Honda Park, you can get there on your own boat or in an organized group with a life jacket, snorkel, and flippers. You can rent a wetsuit.
  • Scuba diving tours are conducted in depths of 30 to 45 feet.
  • An excursion in a large glass-bottomed boat is arranged to Molasses Reef, which is 6.5 miles offshore. It is not possible to see the underwater statue of Christ on this excursion, as it is in a rather dangerous area for shipping.

Things to do at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Other popular activities for visitors to John Pennekamp State Park include kayaking (can be rented), fishing, swimming, hiking (about 17 miles of nature trails for nature walks and hiking along the coast and over bridges through mangroves), birdwatching (mostly coastal birds can be found here), and wildlife watching.

You can picnic and grill your own food in a designated area and use the fully-equipped campsite.

How to get to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

There are several options for getting from Miami to John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park:


Rent a car in Miami – our experience and tips on how to rent a car at Miami airport
  • The easiest is to rent a car at Miami Airport, as we did.
  • Take a shuttle from Miami airport to your hotel in Key Largo, and from there take a bike (there are bike lanes in town) or walk. There is no public transportation to the beach.
  • Take bus 301 Dade-Monroe Express from Florida City (a southern suburb of Miami) to Key Largo. The ticket costs about $3.
  • You can also drive yourself from Key West.

From Miami, the fastest way is to take the Florida Turnpike south to Exit 4 at Homestead / Key West. In Florida City, take the US 1 freeway toward Florida Keys / Key Largo. As you turn onto Key Largo, watch carefully for the left sign to enter John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at Mile Marker 102.5.

Important to know: Never exceed the speed limit on the Florida Keys. The police there are very vigilant about enforcing the rules on the roads!

Where to Stay

Near John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, Key Largo has some great hotels with cozy rooms. We recommend the proven Hampton Inn (cheaper), the more expensive Marriott Beach Resort, and the cool Largo Resort with a setting similar to our favorite Maldives or Bali.

Good to know: If you’re staying in Big Key for a few days, keep in mind that it’s convenient to walk or bike around town. And there are several good restaurants and a grocery store right near the entrance to John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park.

Ticket Fees

There is a fee to enter John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park.

  • The cost depends on the number of people entering in one car. They charge $8 per car, plus 50 cents for each passenger. The more people in the car with you, the cheaper it is per person.
  • It costs $4.50 to enter alone in a car or motorcycle.
  • If you enter on foot or by bicycle, it’s only $2.50.

Important to know: Because this is a Florida state park, there is no annual pass to U.S. National Parks.

After paying, we were given a receipt upon entry, which we were asked to glue to our windshield. It is a pass that is valid for 1 day. You can use it to enter and leave the park during the day at no additional charge.

History of naming the park after John Pennekamp

Where did the park get its name – John Pennekamp Coral Reef?

In the 1950s, tourism in the United States began its heyday. And the locals quickly figured out what they could make money on. They began selling tourists souvenirs – shells (the most valuable was the sand dollar), corals, sea urchins, seahorses and other coral reef inhabitants, barbarically destroying its ecosystem.

Soon the coral reef had active defenders in Dr. Gilbert Voss of the Miami Maritime Institute and John Pennekamp, the editor of the Miami Herald, who had the right connections and great credentials. Mr. Pennekamp was the first chairman of the Florida Parks and Historic Preservation Board and was a consultant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They led the fight against the barbaric treatment of coral reefs and did much to protect them like John Muir, who did much to preserve the pristine nature of the States for posterity (such as protecting against logging of sequoias) and then became the founder of the U.S. National Park Service.

As a result of their efforts, in 1960, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order that granted the coral reefs near Key Largo the status of a marine sanctuary and came under the protection of the federal authorities.

And the coral reef park opened on the shore was named after John Pennekamp a few years later in recognition of his efforts to preserve marine life in the Florida Keys.

Visitor Center

After driving into the park, the first thing we did was leave it in the parking lot and head to the Visitor Center. Inside it we looked at information about the park, its ecosystems, and the biological communities in the area. A movie about the underwater world of coral reefs and its inhabitants had just started in the small movie theater, and we watched it alone.

Aquarium

Unlike nearby Biscayne National Park, the John Pennekamp Park Visitor Center has its own marine aquarium. Sure, it’s not as big as the one in Monterey or San Diego, only 110,000 liters. But nevertheless, you can see some of the smaller coral reef inhabitants up close. There are also 6 smaller aquariums with crustaceans and exotic fish.

Grove Trail Hike

After touring the aquarium, we went to the first hike, the 0.5 mile long Grove Trail. It is interesting because it leads from the parking lot past picnic tables through mangroves (which make up much of the natural shoreline of Key Largo and much of the Florida Keys) and a small rainforest into one of the historic groves on Key Largo. There was an orchard where lemon trees were grown. You can still see them to this day at the end of the trail.

Our recommendation: Before you go on the trail, apply repellent to your exposed skin to prevent mosquitoes from biting you.

The picnic pavilion can be reserved for personal or social events

The trail leads through a mangrove forest. The path is fenced with rocks, and it’s best not to step over them so you don’t get your feet wet or hurt by poisonous plants.

And soon after the “H.J. Shaw’s Farm” turn to a clearing where Mr. Shaw grew lime, lemon oranges and a number of other fruit trees on several acres carved into the rainforest

Take a closer look at the historic citrus grove, which also features avocado trees. The Shaw family sold this grove and the surrounding forest to the state of Florida in 1979, and it was incorporated into John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park

In the opposite direction, you’ll have to follow the same trail most of the way.

Сannon Beach

John Pennekamp Park has three small sandy beaches that are comfortable for sunbathing and swimming. Crabs, fish, and shorebirds live along the shoreline. Sometimes you can even find crocodiles.

However, the beaches themselves are very clean and beautiful. This is the best place to check your snorkeling or diving equipment before taking a boat to the reefs.

Here is a very good vacation with young children, but you should keep in mind that it will not be crystal clear turquoise water, as in resorts in the Maldives.

Cannon Beach is the most popular spot in John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park for snorkeling along the shore and snorkeling. It is very close to the Visitor Center.

It got its name after the cannons from a Spanish shipwreck found 30 meters from the shore and which can also be seen here.

The sand on Cannon Beach is quite heterogeneous, with lots of small stones and coral fragments. So be sure to bring coral slippers to enter the water.

Along the shore we came across mangroves, which feel here just fine. It might be fun to snorkel next to them, looking at the coastal creatures that inhabit their root system. Visibility can be poor there because of the shade and murky water, so it’s best to bring an underwater flashlight.

Wild Tamarind Trail Hike

Wild Tamarind Trail is the second hike in John Pennekamp Park that we hiked after our walk on the beach. The trail itself was shorter than the last one, only 530 meters. It can be easily completed in about 10 minutes, but we read all the information signs carefully, trying to figure out the names of the trees and shrubs growing in the rainforest.

This trail runs through the completely shaded rainforest that once covered most of the highlands of this island, and is not very popular with park visitors. Still, people come here for the beach and the coral reefs.

The only people who would like to get to know the nature and scare from the poisonous plants would be school scouts and tourists, who came to warm Florida Keys from faraway places. It’s explorers like us, or hikers in unusual places.

The wild tamarind is one of dozens of different trees and shrubs of this rainforest that were originally in the Caribbean islands and only later appeared on the Florida Keys.

We also saw other unusual trees on the trail, such as the gumbo limbo with its peeling red bark, the ironwood, the Jamaican caper, the mastic tree, and the carapa guiana (or crab tree). There was information about each one on the information board.

As in the Everglades, there turned out to be a lot of midges, so we tried not to linger, and walked pretty briskly, trying to remember to take pictures along the way.

Apparently we were the first ones on this trail that day, because we got caught in the cobwebs stretched across the trail a few times. All in all, we managed in about 15 minutes, but were thoroughly bitten by mosquitoes.

Recommendation: Before you go to the wild tamarind hike, be sure to apply repellent to exposed skin or change into clothing that covers your entire body.

Far Beach

After hiking, we walked back to the Visitor Center, got in the car, and drove across the narrow canal on a wooden bridge past the pier, where boats depart and where there is also a kayak rental. Beyond the bridge, we again left the car in the parking lot and went to explore Far Beach.

Far Beach is the most beautiful spot for outdoor recreation in Key Largo. It was especially nice here on weekday mornings when there are very few visitors. You can take a seat under a palm tree, sit on a bench on the shore and look out over the water in silent solitude, filled with the power of nature.

Mangrove Trail Hike

We also wanted to hike the Mangrove Trail, but it was closed. It starts at the far edge of the parking lot next to Far Beach.

Camping

To our surprise, the relatively small John Pennekamp Park turned out to be a quiet and peaceful 46-bed campsite with full hookups (water + electricity + sewer at each site), well isolated from highway noise and the boat dock.

This is an ideal overnight spot in the Keys for those traveling in a motorhome. The only downside is that the sites are rather small (though both long trailers and buses fit on them). Each site has a picnic table and campfire, and a place for secluded gatherings separated by vegetation from the neighbors.

The campsite has toilets and showers, drinking water taps, laundry facilities, and even a bookshelf for book swapping (bookcrossing). There’s a bike path along the highway, so if you’re going to hang out there for a few days, don’t forget to bring a friend. There’s plenty to do in a 5-mile radius, including dining and shopping.

But the main advantage of camping at John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park in our opinion is its location in the heart of the Florida Keys Marine Reserve, right by the water on the big island of Key Largo, with the most convenient access to all the underwater beauty. Because of this, it’s very popular, so it’s best to book a spot there well in advance, especially on weekends when the entire park can get very crowded.

Renting 1 campsite in John Pennekamp Park costs $36 per day plus taxes, and there is an additional $6.70 fee if you book online.

Our review

After visiting John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, we never left feeling like we had too little time to see the marine part of it, take a boat tour and snorkel like we did on our trip to the Maldives.

We really enjoyed walking in the rainforest and along the shoreline, taking pictures of the iguana that was basking in the sun right next to the walkway near Main Concession.

We included John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in our itinerary of Florida beaches, but underestimated the time required. And were forced to leave as it was getting very hot.

And now we should totally go back there to meet the sunset and spend the night camping on the Florida Keys, then swim in the ocean first thing in the morning.

John Pennekamp Park is good for a quiet family vacation on a small beach for those who do not like too big resorts like Cancun or do not like crowded Key West.

However, you need to keep in mind that you will have to prepare for the trip and buy all the necessary food in advance, because there are no cafes and restaurants in the park. But you are guaranteed a quiet and relaxed beach atmosphere, especially in the morning and closer to the evening. During the day, however, it is best to go snorkeling or boating in the sea.

The best thing about John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is its location on the Florida Keys just outside of Miami and close to a marine reserve, but away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

While the sand is not as soft as Sombrero Beach in Marathon, where we went next, we liked the beautiful palm-fringed beach with clear water and no waves or too much seaweed.

Among the disadvantages of the park are difficulty with parking on weekends, a large number of mosquitoes on the trails and some of the wildness of the beach because of the large number of coral debris and lack of sand. But its naturalness attracts those who want to meet the inhabitants of the coral reef, not swimming far from the shore.

We think John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park is a pretty nice place to go for a weekend or vacation. It’s the perfect place in the Florida Keys for a tropical getaway in nature for those who have their own motorhome or trailer, as well as a bicycle.

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