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Pennekamp State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, located at MM 102.5 in Key Largo, was established in 1963 as the first undersea park in the United States. It was named for John D. Pennekamp, a newspaper editor in Miami, who was instrumental in preserving the land for nearby Everglades National Park. When you add the area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, adjacent to the park, you get a combined 178 nautical square miles of mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and the only living coral reef in the continental United States.

Things to do at Pennekamp State Park

Over a million people come from around the world to enjoy the water, trails and camping facilities. Activities around the park include camping, fishing, swimming, picnicking, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and glass bottom boat tours.

Beach at Pennekamp State Park

The park sponsors environmental programs, along with a wide range of natural and cultural history programs, all year round. Just check at the ranger station for schedules. Guided nature walks along the mangrove and wild tamarind trails are offered seasonally, for individuals or groups.

Camping at Pennekamp State Park

The campgrounds have 47 sites to accommodate both RV and tent campers. Group camping facilities are also available. Amenities include restrooms with hot showers, grills, electric hook-ups and a dumping station. Picnic areas, pavilion rentals, concession stands, and a campground host are provided. There are three swimming areas with beaches. Canon Beach is one of the most popular, because of the remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet offshore which makes this a great place to snorkel.

Divers checking out their gear

The park has a dock, boat ramps and a boat trailer parking lot. If you’re going to spend a week or so, you can rent a boat slip. They also provide a place for you to clean the fish you’ve caught. Fishing is in designated areas, and a saltwater fishing license is required. When diving, remember: spear fishing and collecting tropical fish are not allowed in the park.

Nature buffs will enjoy hiking trails, or water trails to explore by canoe or kayak. Rentals are available.

Crystal clear water along shoreline

Diving and Snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park

Now the thing John Pennekamp is known for – the living coral reef. If you’re interested in a diving trip, several options are available. A full service PADI dive shop, across the marina from the main concession building, runs reef trips on the Reef Adventures, a custom-built 35-passenger catamaran.

Reef Adventures makes two stops along the reef line, taking you to sites such as Molasses and French Reefs and the Benwood shipwreck. Advanced divers can experience deeper dives and wreck dives in the outer reef, seeing the famous USCG Duane and the USS Speigel Grove. If you have never done a reef dive before, or if you just want to find the best spots, you can hire a guide. They also offer gear rental and several certification classes.

Spirit of Pennekamp

There are three main snorkel boats in the park. Each runs three 2 1/2-hour trips a day, depending on the weather, to several of the better shallow reefs, from 3 to 5 miles offshore. These reefs range from 20 feet deep to right at the surface. There are many types of fishes and sponges along the reef, but one of the major draws is the Christ of the Deep, a nine-foot bronze sculpture with outstretched arms. It’s cool--we’ve touched it. Snorkeling gear is available for rent.

Glass Bottom Boats

Glass bottom boats are another draw to John Pennekamp. The flagship, the Spirit of Pennekamp, is a 65-foot-long high-speed catamaran with a capacity of 130 people. Tours head out for approximately 2 1/2 hours, generally three times a day, visiting many places in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and a number of shallow reefs, swarming with all kinds of fish and other wildlife.

Florida state parks are generally open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. Entrance fees or fees for tours and rentals are posted, or you can ask the rangers and guides. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a must-see when you visit the Keys, even if it’s just to get out and walk around. Once you’ve seen the water and all the fun it holds, chances are you’ll be back with all your gear to jump in and enjoy it for yourself.

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