An underwater state park? You don’t come across those every day…
Founded in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the FIRST underwater state park in existence. The coral reef has had plenty of time under the protection of the state to grow into a bubbling habitat of underwater wildlife.
I can sit here and go on and on about how amazing Pennekamp park is, but you seriously have to come see it for yourself to get the full experience. If you come to the Florida Keys and only go down to Key West to party, you deserve a swift backhand to the face.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo should be at the top of your Florida Keys checklist. And speaking of lists, I’ve compiled one for you right here. It features some of the great activities Pennekamp has to offer. Everyone loves a good list…
As stated before, the coral reef is the primary reason most tourists visit the Florida Keys. Pennekamp offers a variety of snorkeling tours, including the standard 2.5 hour tour. If you have extra money to blow, you can pay for an extended 4.5 hour private tour, and even hire a private guide, you rich a-hole.
If you want to see more critters a bit deeper, you can always do a scuba diving tour. Pennekamp has a fully equipped dive shop, and dive boats leave on scuba tours twice a day. The scuba tours frequent a variety of different dive sites, including the Christ Statue, Carysfort and Molasses Reef. They also offer certification and refresher courses.
Take the Glass-Bottom Boat Tour
If you want to check out the reef but stay dry, you can head out on the Spirit of the Pennekamp, a 65-foot long catamaran with a glass bottom, allowing visitors to view stunning reef life from the calm dry conditions of an enclosed boat. The glass bottom boat tour runs 2.5 hours and visits numerous shallow reef sites around the park.
Chill at the Beach
You can find a small beach when you enter the park, where you can snorkel and swim. Don’t confuse this small area with the true coral reef of the Florida Keys. The actual barrier reef is located several miles offshore, and deserves a visit. Get on a boat and go check it out. This beach is best for relaxing and soaking’ up some sun.
Rent a Power Boat
This is a great way to go if you want ultimate freedom. My friends and I often rent power boats from Pennekamp, and it can be pretty reasonable when you split the price amongst friends. The park offers half and full day rentals of 21’ Release power boats. You can rent scuba and snorkeling gear from the dive shop to bring along with you.
Visit Molasses Reef
A hulking reef with more than 30 mooring buoys, this area is a wonderful place to view what the Florida Keys has to offer. Molasses is a site where you can snorkel, scuba dive deep and shallow sites, and even run across remnants of old shipwrecks such as the Windlass near mooring buoy #8.
Kayak, Canoe and Paddleboard through Mangroves
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located on Key Largo, which is an island surrounded by thick mangroves. The park rents kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, which all provide a unique method of exploring the surrounding mangrove habitat.
Explore a WWII Era Shipwreck
If you have your Open Water scuba certification and you plan your visit correctly, you can score a visit out to the wreck of the Benwood, a WWII era wreck exploding with wildlife. Check the dive charter schedule on Pennekamp’s website to see what days of the week the boat visits the Benwood wreck.
See the Christ of the Abyss Statue
A common image of the Florida Keys, the Christ of the Abyss Statue is located right here, in the heart of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The statue is located on the Key Largo Dry Rocks dive site, which is open to both snorkelers and scuba divers. The statue is shallow enough for snorkelers to swim down and touch.