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Experience The Many Florida Keys Activities At John Pennekamp 

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first underwater State Park in the United States.

On December 10, 2010, this popular destination, with over 1 million visitors annually, celebrated it's 50th anniversary.

Located in Key Largo Florida at 102601 Overseas Highway, 305-451-6300, accessing the Pennekamp Park is easy for anyone traveling to the Florida Keys from the Miami area.

Traveling south on the Dixie Highway, turn south on US Hwy #1 and then turn left (east) at Mile Marker 102.5 into Pennekamp Park.

Open 365 days a year from 8:00 am to sunset, there is a nominal per vehicle charge to enter Pennekamp State Park.

This is also one of the more popular tourist attractions, and is a part of the Florida Keys you won't want to miss visiting.

The combination of history, water, and fun things to do are why there is such a draw to this particular State Park.

Pennekamp State Park History

The history behind the formation of this popular Florida Keys attraction is quite interesting. In the 1930's when the Everglades National Park was proposed, the intent was to include the Key Largo reefs in it's boundaries.

The reasoning was to help protect the Florida Keys coral reefs from further vandalism and damage. However, after vehement opposition from private and local government entities, the idea of including this area into the Everglades National Park was dropped.

A new torch was picked up in the 1950's when local residents realized their coral reefs were being significantly harvested to produce coral treasure. The resulting coral reef damage was becoming extremely extensive, and they knew something had to be done before their reefs were lost.

Several individuals, including John D. Pennekamp, a conservationist and a Miami Herald editor, decided to accept the torch and carry it forward. Through their efforts, the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials designated the state controlled reefs off Key Largo as a permanent preserve.

Four Eye Butterflyfish

Four-Eye Butterfly Fish, FKNMS, Photo Credit Chris Huss

In 1960, President Eisenhower announced the protection of the adjacent federally controlled reefs, and called the area Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve. The end result was a 75 mile offshore sea park created to protect all marine life within it's boundaries. Then on December 10, 1960, Governor Collins changed the preserve's name to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Pennekamp had been born in Ohio in 1897 and had devoted much of his life to one of his greatest passions, conservation. It was fitting that the first underwater State Park be named after this forward thinking environmentalist.

Even though the primary mission had been accomplished, they were left with an aquatic Park that had little to no adjacent land. Through the assistance of local residents who donated property and the subsequent purchase of adjacent land, the Park's entrance was finally constructed and officially opened in 1963.

Entrance to John Pennekamp State Park Before Construction

Pre-Construction Entrance Sign to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Department of Commerce

Recognizing the importance the Park played in safekeeping the marine life and in promoting greater public awareness, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 14, 1972.

Another important safeguard is that the State Park abuts onto the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This added layer of defense benefits the coral reefs and the fish inhabiting the area.

Thanks to these protective conservation measures, the number and variety of fish has risen to impressive numbers, and is another reason why John Pennekamp snorkeling and diving is so popular with those on a Florida Keys vacation.

Pennekamp State Park
Features and Restrictions

The physical makeup of Pennekamp State Park includes considerable variation with only a small portion of it being on land.

You'll first encounter the tropical hammocks that lead to the mangrove lined shores and swampy grass flats. These take you out to the mesmerizing multi-hued water and coral reefs the Park is famous for.

The obvious theme behind this State Park revolves around the beautiful water, the reefs, and the amazing variety of marine life inhabiting it. However, there are numerous activities that can be done on land, or above water, when at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Scuba Divers and Fish

Pennekamp Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Department of Commerce

Since this is a State Park, you need to be aware that certain restrictions do apply. For example, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, picnicking, camping all have designated areas. You need to watch for the signs alerting you to the allowable Florida Keys activities in the different sections of John Pennekamp State Park.

Of course in the case of Florida Keys fishing in the Park, other restrictions apply. You must have a saltwater fishing license, and no spearfishing or tropical fish collecting is permitted in Pennekamp Park.

There are also pet restrictions, but as long as Fido or Fidette are well behaved, they can come to the Pennekamp Park too. They must stay out of public buildings, off the Florida beaches, and be on a hand held leash no longer than 6 feet.

Pennekamp Park has two areas you'll want to familiarize yourself with right away. The John Pennekamp State Park Visitor Center gives you an excellent overview of the Park, along with some history. There's also a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium and a theater that runs a series of nature videos.

Pennekamp Park's Main Concession area is sort of your "go to" place for getting or reserving what you need. This is where you go to reserve space on the glass bottom boat, a John Pennekamp snorkeling tour or to reserve a kayak, canoe and boat.

Beautiful Beach at John Pennekamp

Palms Line the Beach at Pennekamp State Park
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Department of Commerce

John Pennekamp Coral Reef
State Park Activities

To get started, first you'll want to spend some time at either Cannon Beach or Far Beach. Cannon Beach is close to the concession area which is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily.

Cannon Beach is usually busier than Far Beach, but it's also a great place for John Pennekamp snorkeling and swimming. If you decide to go Florida Keys snorkeling or diving, not only will you see some amazingly beautiful tropical fish, there's a good chance you'll encounter an artifact or two from a 1715 Spanish wreck.

Far Beach is aptly name as it's further from the hub. This is more of a lay around, play on land, and have a picnic type area. It's also quieter and can be the perfect spot to hang out under a tree and unwind with a good book.

Key Largo fishing at the Park is another favorite on land activity as long as you're in any of the designated Park areas and have the required Florida fishing license.

For the nature enthusiast, there are also Florida hiking trails you can head out on. The Mangrove Trail is wheelchair accessible and visitors are able to walk through the dense, gnarly vegetation on a boardwalk.

Observation Tower at John Pennekamp

Pennekamp Park Observation Tower
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Department of Commerce

For much of the way, the hiking trail follows a creek, and during the non-winter months, mosquitoes will be quite thick. At about the halfway point you break through the mangrove cover and come upon the Observation Tower. This provides a good view of the overall area before you continue on the boardwalk back to the parking lot.

The quarter mile Wild Tamarind Trail is near the Pennekamp State Park Visitor Center and the camp sites. This gives you a chance to view the more upland section of Pennekamp Park which is densely vegetated with tropical hardwood trees. Small signs will help you identify the various plants that line the way.

On both trails, seasonal guided ranger walks are available, or they can be arranged for a group upon special request.

Kayaking Florida Keys is a very popular pastime and here you can enjoy the 2.5 mile system of kayak or canoe trails. These meander and wind along the mangrove lined shores, and are a lot of fun to explore.

Kayaking the Channels at John Pennekamp

Florida Keys Kayaking the Pennekamp Trails
Photo Courtesy of Teresa Smith

Arrangements for kayak and canoe rentals are through the Main Concession and then they are picked up at the Pennekamp marina. Rentals are available from 8:00 am to 3:45 pm for an hourly rate. You can fish for snook hiding out in the roots of the mangroves or paddle along enjoying the wildlife that lives along the banks and in the water.

If you'd rather be on a water craft that is powered by anything other than your own sweat and sore muscles, then power boats are great. You can pleasure cruise out on the Atlantic, plan Key Largo fishing trips, or visit the different reefs for scuba diving or snorkeling. Power boats are available from the Main Concession for 4 hour or full day rentals.

Marina at John Pennekamp

Marina at the Park
Photo Courtesy of pdxjeff, Flickr

Plus, if you've brought your own boat, the marina has overnight dock slips. They also have docks and a boat ramp capable of handling up to 36 feet in length. You'll also need to bring your own fuel as there are no pumps available at the Park.

Of course the reason millions of people flock to John Pennekamp is for the amazing Florida Keys diving and snorkeling opportunities. Key Largo is the diving capital of the world and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the perfect place to kick-start your snorkeling and scuba diving vacation.

The coral reefs start about 3 miles out, and are found in shallow water, with a depth averaging from just a few feet to about 35 feet. The colorful coral reefs are densely populated with a vast selection of brightly hued tropical fish and game fish schooling and darting about.

Glass Bottom Boat Tour at Pennekamp

Glass Bottom Boat Tour at Pennekamp State Park
Courtesy of alans1948, Flickr

The 2.5 hour John Pennekamp snorkeling tours leave at 9:00 am, 12:00 pm, and 3:00 pm daily for a fee, with about 1.5 hours of scuba time. If you want, you can even opt to have your own guide for an additional fee. This will give you a better understanding of the fabulous marine life you're encountering while on your Florida Keys snorkeling tour.

A popular stop off for snorkelers and divers as well is the famous 8.5 foot tall bronze Christ of the Abyss statue at Dry Rocks. The ultra clear water allows snorkelers a great view of the beautiful statue below, while anyone diving Key Largo can get close for fantastic underwater photo opportunities.

For a fee, those who prefer to get up close and personal with the marine life can get acclimated with one of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park's scuba diving tours. The Park's PADI 5-Star Gold Palm facility leaves from the marina and they offer two tank dive trips aboard the Reef Adventures boat. On weekends you can choose from the 9:30 am or 1:30 pm dives and on weekdays they have the 1:30 pm dive trips only.

Coral and Sergeant Major Fish

Sergeant Major Fish Swim Around the Coral, FKNMS

It's also very worthwhile to have dive maps for the various coral reefs and other Florida Keys scuba diving sites you'll be wanting to explore.

Not only do dive cards like these below help you plan your dive trip better, they also can give you valuable safety information, especially if you're planning on scuba diving large artificial reefs like the Spiegel Grove.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park also has another way for visitors of all ages to enjoy the abundant, kaleidoscopic marine life. The Spirit of Pennekamp takes 2.5 hour trips, three times daily out to perhaps the lushest coral reef in the area.

Molasses Reef has over 600 species of flora and fauna, and onboard this 65 foot glass bottom catamaran, visitors will thrill to the marine species seen below. There is a fee for the trips that run at 9:15, 12:15, and 3:15 and reservations are recommended.

John Pennekamp State Park Camping

At State Parks throughout the United States, camping is a favorite past time. At Pennekamp State Park this is no exception, and the Park has 47 water and electric sites for tenters and RV'ers.

If you've been Florida Keys camping you'll know that many campgrounds have smaller sites. This is no exception here, so if you're traveling with a large RV with multiple slideouts, you may want to reconsider this Key Largo campground.

Also, there is no sewer at the sites, but a dump station is available for RV's that are staying more than a few days.

This Florida Keys campground also has proper restrooms which include hot showers, handicapped accessibility and laundry facilities at the main restroom.

Tents in Campground

Tenting at Pennekamp State Park
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Department of Commerce

Pennekamp State Park also provides a group camping area for organized groups but it does have a chaperone/youth ratio. This area is designed to accommodate people being together so there's a fire circle, benches, large grill and picnic tables. Anyone staying at this Key Largo camping site needs to be ready to rough it, as electricity is not provided. Restrooms and hot showers are available however.

Since this is one of the more popular State Parks, campground reservations are strongly recommended. Usually they need to be made as much as 3 - 11 months in advance, especially if you're traveling to Pennekamp Park during peak season or on a public holiday.

Welcome Sign at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Welcome Sign At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

When you come to visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park you'll see why it's the anchor to the whole Key Largo area. It provides a chance for everyone to get acquainted with the amazing Florida Keys activities that are available, both onshore and off.

Don't miss visiting this historic State Park on your next Florida Keys vacation.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040