John Pennekamp State Park
John Pennecamp was one of Florida’s most passionate nature advocates, and went from making a living as a newspaper editor to co-creator of Everglades National Park and main defender of the underwater world off the coast of Key Largo. This State Park was formed in the 1960s and named after Pennekamp, and has the honor of being this country’s first underwater state park. It’s a big stretch of protected water, twenty one miles from Carysfort Reef to Molasses Reef.
It abuts the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and together they cover 178 square miles. The land entrance to the Park is off the Overseas Highway, oceanside. After paying your entrance fee, you can choose to park near the tiny beach on a cove-like structure, or near the main service building where you sign up for tours and rentals. There entrance also forks off to the right as you get to the main area, where the marina and entrance to the campground are located. Here at the park you can sign up for kayak rentals, glass-bottom boat tours, and snorkelling and diving trips.
Choose any of these methods for viewing the reef, but you cannot see it from the beach. It’s a couple of miles out from shore so a boat is required. If you’re never done scuba before, then the park has a special day-long program where you can train and get temporarily certified in the morning and then go see the reef in the afternoon. They also have a four-day course which cost a bit more. You can get certified this way. If you want to rent a boat, well, they have that too. There are also catamaran tours where you go sailing on a double-hulled giant sailboat, and go snorkelling too.
The Dive shop has everything you need to explore the reef as well as the mangroves surrounding the coastline. There are some great mangrove trails around Pennecamp. If you are a land-lubber, make use of the two nature trails, one of which winds through the mangroves. There’s a great lookout point on one of the trails, from which you can gaze out over the mangrove treetops and watch for birds or look into the distance down the mangroves for kayakers coming up the stream (the tower sits right on a mangrove water trail through which most of the kayak renters usually paddle at some point).