John Pennecamp Coral Reef Park, Key Largo
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John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park is one of the first parks you come to in the Florida Keys, in the town of Key Largo. It is a swampy place with dark water and very sharp small rocks along the shore. The beach by the parking lot is quite pretty, with trees that provide shade, two cannons that kids can climb on, and views out to the mangrove islands off shore. Swimming is ok but not the best because the water is brownish and unappealing, the rocks are very uncomfortable on your feet, and there are all kinds of creepy crawlies in the water. Plenty of kids have fun in the water here on the weekend though. The dumpster is right by the beach, unfortunately, and creates some stinky whiffs of air. There are clean restrooms and a nice shower area.
The visitor center and aquarium is not as nice as some I've seen in Florida. The layout is unattractive and claustrophobic and you won't want to stay very long.
There is a gift shop with some nice souvenirs. Behind it is a little house where kids can play, and stepping stones shaped like sand dollars. Trees and picnic tables look out on the serene water. There are mosquitoes though.
Most people come to John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park to go on a boat ride. This is a good idea because it will take you out past the swampy water to some clear ocean water. You can choose a snorkel boat tour or a glass bottom boat tour. The boats are very modern and comfortable, and there is some shade on the boat. The coral is not spectacular but you will see tropical fish, and possibly some other fun creatures like sharks, barracuda, rays, or an octopus. Buy some seasickness medicine or armbands at the gift shop before departing. You can rent snorkel equipment (mask, snorkel, and fins) or bring your own. The day we came, we were told my daughter was too young (four years old) to go out in the rough water on the snorkel tour so I had to stay behind with her. I wish I had gone on the glass bottom boat tour though, because the people getting off the boat looked very happy about their trip, plus hanging around the park is not the greatest. If you have one younger child and an older child, I recommend you split up and one parent go with the younger child on the glass bottom boat tour rather than visit the dull visitor center and swim at the swampy beach. The snorkel tours leave and return at the same time as the glass bottom boat tours so this can work well (tours last for 2 1/2 hours). Times are 9, 12, and 3, but you must arrive an hour early or you will lose your reservation. You can chance it and arrive later or without a reservation, but it's on a first come first served basis at that point. The 9am tours are the least crowded.
You can also rent kayaks or canoes in the park, or take a scuba tour. One man I spoke to saw two manatees in June while kayaking around the mangrove islands.
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Snorkel tours cost $30 for adults and $25 for children under 18. Masks and fins can be rented for $2 each, and snorkels can be purchased for $5.
Glass bottom boat tours cost $25 per adult and $17 per child under 12. See hours and reservation procedures above.
Visitor center, ticket counter, and gift shop open 8-5. Cost to enter the park is $8 per car, $4 per single-driver car or motorcycle, $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist.
John Pennecamp Coral Reef Park is located at 102601 Overseas Hwy, Key Largo, FL 33037, call (305) 451-6300.
From the Turnpike, take Highway 821, the Turnpike extension toward Homestead. Follow it for 46 miles to the end. Follow the signs to U.S. Highway 1 South. Continue 22 miles into the Florida Keys. You are in the town of Key Largo. Turn left at the sign for the park. There are two large parking lots, one by the beach, gift shop/ticket counter and visitor center, and one by the boat docking area.
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Overall Visitor Rating: Unrated.