As America's first ever underwater state park, there is a lot to see, and even more to love at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This stunning state park is located in Key Largo in the famous Florida Keys and directly adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This underwater park stretches for a dozen nautical miles and offers up-close views of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Additionally, the park is open year-round, so it's just as good for a summer RV vacation as it is for a holiday getaway.
After you park your RV at one of the 42 campsites with full hookups, you can explore the two man-made beaches that make up the park. However, the real fun lies beneath the water. Visitors love the guided snorkel tours and the deeper scuba adventures. The park also features glass bottom boat tours, mangroves that you can kayak, canoe, or paddle board through. You can enjoy hammocks, swimming areas, miles of sandy beach to explore, nature trails, grills, picnic tables, and pavilions that may be reserved in advance. Whether you’re on the land or in the water, you'll also be able to see an abundance of birds, marine life, and vegetation. The only downside is the park stays pretty busy year-round, but that's hardly a complaint considering it speaks to how fantastic the park is.
RV Rentals in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Transportation in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is very RV-friendly, with every single one of their campsites able to accommodate your big rig. Getting there is also easy since there are several large signs along US-1 that are hard to miss. Most of the park's campsites are large enough for RVs and trailers up to 50 ft and the roads are designed with RVs in mind.
You shouldn't have any problem getting into the park and to your campsite, but you might want to leave the RV behind when you go down to the beach. Bringing an extra car will make it easier to get down to the beach and find a good parking spot. However, if you don't want to tow a whole other car with you, you can take a short bike ride and be at the beach. There are six parking lots dotted around the park so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding parking. These lots are at the Point, Marina, by the beaches, and trail heads. v
Campgrounds and parking in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Campsites in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Campground
There are 42 pet-friendly campsites that accommodate tents or RVs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Once you arrive at the campsite check-in is quick and easy and then you can pull right into your site. The smooth paved roads seem almost too luxurious, especially when you're used to bumpy dirt paths. The campgrounds are perfect with full hookups at every site, flushing toilets, laundry areas, and even hot showers available.
Reservations must be made at least a day in advance and can be made up to 11 months in advance. The owners of the park recommend reserving your spot as early as possible especially during the winter months and holidays, as it's a very popular holiday spot and one of the few parks that is exceptional year-round. The maximum length for RVs and trailers is 62 feet.
There are no first-come, first-served campgrounds at this state park.
Seasonal activities in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Taking a Glass Bottom Boat Tour
One of the most popular activities at the John Pennekamp coral reef State Park is their glass bottom boat tours. Visitors love how you can get an up-close look at the fish swimming right beneath you without ever having to get wet or hot. It's also a great option for families and gives kids an opportunity to learn and see more than they would just sitting on the beach, since younger kids may not be able to snorkel or scuba dive. Through the bottom of the boat you'll be able to see Molasses Reef, with all different kinds of sponges, crabs, shrimps, and more species of fish than you could count.
You can't leave John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park without taking one of the famous guided snorkeling tours. Luckily, several snorkeling tours are available throughout the day. You can get out of the camper and choose from a two-and-a-half-hour tour or an extended four-and-a-half hour tour. On the snorkeling tour the boat will take you out to one of the inner reefs, moor, and let you explore. Weather permitting, you may also be able to see the famous sunken "Christ of the Deep" statue. The water is only five to 15 feet deep so it's not too intimidating and a quick snorkeling lesson is given before the class. Keep in mind, all participants must be at least 15-years-old and able to swim.
If you want to go a little bit deeper than the snorkel tour will take you, there are also scuba tours offered twice daily which allow you to dive a little bit deeper and explore even more. In addition to the marine life all around you, if you go when the weather is good, you may be able to see a World War II era Spanish shipwreck, complete with cannons and an anchor. You'll be able to dive down 30 to 45 feet while scuba diving, although you do have to be certified. For both scuba diving and snorkeling you can rent all of your equipment at the park or bring your own.
Relaxing at the Beach
Closer inland, you can swim and play in the water. Although you won't be able to see any coral reefs, as they are located a few miles offshore, the beach is perfect for families with children or for just relaxing. You can lay down under a palm tree with your favorite book and soak up the sun or venture out to the tidal area where you'll likely find many small fish, seashells, and clams.
Various types of boat rentals are available to you during your RV trip to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. You can rent kayaks or canoes to explore the large area of mangroves for a self guided tour. Many visitors love the casual yet exotic experience this offers. You can also rent motor boats and take them out onto the ocean. This is great for just relaxing or for fishing, although a saltwater license is required and there are specific rules you must follow if you decide to fish. Mooring balls are also available, so as to not damage the fragile coral reefs by anchoring boats.
Exploring the Visitor Center
The Visitor Center is open year-round and is a great place for visitors of all ages to learn something new. They have a theater where they play nature films and a huge 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium that lets you get an up-close look at some of the local marine life. The Visitor Center also includes a full-blown dive shop and gift shop, so you can purchase practically everything you need there.