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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: The First Underwater Park In The US

john pennekamp coral reef state park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the country’s first underwater park, which spans roughly 70 nautical square miles. The coral reefs and the marine species draw the majority of tourists to the park, despite the fact that the tropical hammocks and mangrove swamps in the park’s upland areas provide a unique experience.

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is unique and provides a breathtaking view of the underwater world. Let’s see what more it has to offer!

The History of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The Florida Keys, which consist of more than 200 distinct islands and islets, are home to the only live coral reef formations in the mainland United States. While researching marine species in the Keys, Dr. Gilbert Voss of the University of Miami’s Marine Institute first became aware of the magnitude of damage to the reef structure.

A biology symposium on safeguarding South Florida’s natural resources was held in Everglades National Park in 1957. In this discussion, Dr. Voss outlined the level of damage occurring to the reef structure he had seen throughout his study.

As tourists collected souvenirs, the coral formations suffered the effects of the tourist industry. Seashells, coral, sponges, sea horses, and other marine life were being pounded, chipped, and dynamited to create tourist trinkets. Vendors swiftly destroyed the coral reefs, which took thousands of years to build. Afterward, Dr. Voss advised that an independent scientific study be launched to safeguard the region.

Commercial interests might easily lead to the extinction of North America’s unique hard coral reef formation if there were no constraints on using the reefs. Dr. Voss was able to enlist conservationists to back up his claims that the reef should be conserved, but his most influential ally later joined the Miami Herald as an assistant editor,  John D. Pennekamp.

Pennekamp was instrumental in creating Everglades National Park as the legislative head of a state panel. In 1954, he participated in a civilian team of consultants that assessed the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the Department of the Interior. He served as the inaugural chairman of the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials. Also, he won numerous national, regional, and local conservation prizes.

When the two men came together, they were able to assemble a coalition of environmentalists that would take on the challenge of safeguarding priceless marine resources by using the science of Dr. Voss and the journalistic effort of John Pennekamp.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated the region as the Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve in the spring of 1960. The United States’ first underwater park was named John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park by Florida Governor Leroy Collins during the dedication ceremony on December 10, 1960. In recognition of Pennekamp’s ongoing editorial support of the Miami Herald, Governor Collins named the park Pennekamp Park.

Today, the park is home to shorebirds, marine life, and various tropical plants. During their stay, tourists can see vast living coral formations, marine life, tropical hammocks, and mangrove swamps. Guests can explore the underwater park through glass-bottom boat tours, scuba diving, and snorkeling excursions led by park guides. 

In addition, visitors can swim, hike the trails, canoe, and kayak on the property. Together with the protected sea area, the location also has a theater, visitor center, campground, store, and aquarium.

Learn more about John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s history.

Park Hours, Admission Fees, and Concession

john pennekamp coral reef state park beach

The park opens at 8 a.m. until dusk every day of the year. The admission fees are as follows:

  • Vehicles with more than one occupant – $8 plus 50 cents per person for up to eight people
  • A vehicle with several occupants – $2.50 per extra occupant (over the eight).
  • $4.50 for a single-occupant vehicle
  • $2.50 per person for bicyclists and pedestrians

 

For pavilions:

  • $53.75 (with taxes) – Large (maximum capacity 60 people)
  • $32.25 (with taxes) – Small (capacity 12 to 15 people)

 

The necessary admission costs are not included in the pavilion fees. If the park’s parking capacity is reached, admission is not guaranteed.

Breakfast and lunch items are prepared and available for purchase at the food counter and snack bar at the concession building. There is a well-stocked gift shop with things from quirky to tasteful for mementos. Furthermore, beach and snorkeling supplies and any last-minute items visitors may have overlooked available.

Discover hidden-gem beaches,  explore the Florida Keys food scene, find the perfect accommodation, experience the Keys’ stunning waters, and much more.

The Manmade Beaches at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park contains two artificial beaches, each with its own distinct characteristic. A variety of canoes and kayaks are lined up on the beach and are available for rental and sightseeing. In the summer, visiting the beach to watch the sunrise is a favorite activity among campers.

The beach is the beginning point for kayaking, canoeing, and boat tours. Tourists may spot white ibises, egrets, catbirds, warblers, and other water birds among the shallows. Picnics and exploration of the rock’s wildlife life can be had there.

If you really want to stay dry while touring the Florida Keys, self-guided audio tours are available.

Cannon Beach

The park’s main snorkeling site, Cannon Beach, is where tourists may see the remains of an old Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet offshore. Kayaking, glass-bottom boating, and shore snorkeling are popular at Cannon Beach in Key Largo. It is well-known for an old Spanish shipwreck with genuine cannons from the 17th century positioned along Cannon Beach’s sandy dunes, giving a glimpse into Florida’s past.

The calm, warm water at Cannon Beach, a portion of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is ideal for both swimmers and non-swimmers. Admire marine life like tropical fish as you stroll along the modest shoreline. If deep diving is your thing, venture further into the center of the beach and feast your eyes on a historic Spanish shipwreck that will enthrall you when you get to the ocean below.

Far Beach

Far Beach, which is a little beach, is the other popular beach in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Next to it, there is a different parking lot and a few picnic sites. 

Far Beach has a smaller parking lot and fewer visitors. You should visit this location if you want to take some beautiful images of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park without using a boat. This beach is ideal for swimming, sitting, and enjoying the sun under palm trees.

Popular Activities at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Many people like seeing the reef from a glass-bottom boat tour, but scuba divers and snorkelers may get a closer look.

Popular activities in the park’s waters include canoeing and kayaking, and there are places where you may fish. Short trails are available for strolling, picnics, and swimming at the beach. 

A 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and ecological documentaries are shown at the visitor center. There are full-service and youth/group campsites available. Wheelchairs for the beach are free to use.

Glass Bottom Boat Tours

The option of taking a glass-bottom boat tour is available to visitors. After stopping at Molasses Reef, the boat travels six miles offshore into the open sea. Looking through the bottom of the boat at the aquatic life in the reef, guests can see colorful fish, stingrays, turtles, sharks, and the coral reef itself.

Many people like seeing the reef from a glass-bottom boat cruise, but scuba divers and snorkelers may get a closer look. Snorkeling and scuba diving tours allow water sports enthusiasts to view the vibrant coral reef and the well-known Christ of the Deep undersea statue, while glass-bottom boat cruises are available for those who want to stay dry.

Snorkeling

At the park, the snorkeling tours are a well-liked activity. If an individual still needs to get their own snorkeling gear, they can rent it, or they are provided one depending on the snorkeling tour package they booked. 

Depending on the trip you bought and the length of the trip, the teacher may opt to visit one to three different locations throughout the tour. A snorkel boat often departs three times every day, however, this depends on the weather. The groups may view jellyfish, lobsters, spotfin butterflyfish, barracudas, and other marine life while snorkeling. If you want an intimate experience with family and friends, private snorkeling tours are also offered.

A crucial component of the Florida Keys ecology, mangrove and seagrass habitats can be found in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Several species depend on them as habitats; they remove extra nutrients from the water and stabilize the sediments that keep creeks and shorelines together during storms. On windy days or for novice snorkelers, seagrass, and mangrove areas are excellent snorkeling locations because they are frequently shallow and protected.

Watch this video of Sprill Elite to get a glimpse of the underwater ecosystem at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Scuba Diving

Boat tours to the reef are advised to take advantage of the park’s diving opportunities properly. The waters off Cannon Beach are a fantastic site for a diver just starting or wanting a refresher.

A PADI Five-Star Gold Palm dive shop with a comprehensive list of scuba training, from open water to instructor, is located within the park. In one day, the Resort Course introduces the beginning diver to both diving and the coral reef. 

Divers can participate in two-location, two-tank dives on the four-hour scuba diving tours. There are options for air fills and equipment rentals.

Canoeing & Kayaking

The park features 2 ½ miles of designated mangrove wilderness trails. Various birds and marine creatures can find a home in the mangroves and the pristine waterways surrounding them. 

The park concession offers canoe and single- or double-person kayak rentals at the ticket booth. There is a launch for privately owned kayaks and canoes on the main road over the bridge.

The launch is situated next to the classroom for instruction over the bridge. Vehicles can be left in the lot across the street for the day and dropped off in the driveway. Rentals are launched directly behind the concession’s wheelchair-accessible Snorkel Shed.

Hiking

Many people also visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for its parking trails. The park maintains three nature paths in two different habitats. 

Visitors can leisurely observe mangroves and the estuaries that thrive on the Mangrove Trail, a circular boardwalk trail. A greater view of this crucial environment can also be obtained from an observation tower. 

Visitors can witness many local hardwood species on the Wild Tamarind Trail, another circle walk that winds through the park’s stunning tropical hardwood hammock. Although it, too, traverses the hardwood hammock, the Grove Trail comes to an end there. Tropical fruit trees have been transplanted into this cultural treasure, much like in Key Largo’s early settlements. 

At the Visitor Center parking lot, one must return to where they first started. Hikers can book nature walks led by rangers in advance.

Campsites & Boat Slips at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The park campground offers 47 sites with water and electricity (30, 50, and 110 volts) for tent and RV campers. Each campsite also has a grill and picnic table. There is a disposal station for wastewater needs. 

The Main Restroom features ADA-compliant hot showers and toilets. The private family bathroom in the Pond Restroom, which is close to the Group Campsite, is ADA accessible. 

Three sites are paved, and the pathways lead to the Main Restroom, which is in the middle of the campground. Coin-operated washers and dryers are also located in the Main Restroom. 

Pets are permitted. Reservations are recommended three to eleven (winter season) months in advance. Campers must register at the park entrance.

The park’s campground is accessible all year long. Both group and youth campsites are offered, and the facility is well-furnished. Beach wheelchairs can be used as needed and are not rentable. 

There must be at least one adult chaperone for every ten youths when using the group camping area, which is available for organized groups of all ages. Chaperones need to be older than 21. The group camping area will accommodate up to 24 people. 

A primitive group camp can be found at the end of the campground drive. It has a big grill, a circle for the campfire, a picnic table, and a water faucet. Although there is no electricity at the location, the Pond restroom is nearby.

The park has a boat ramp. Dock slips in the marina and mooring buoys in Largo Sound are available for overnight stays on privately owned boats. Visitors must contact the dockmaster at the dive shop.

Learn more about the park’s experiences and amenities here. For more helpful travel information at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, watch this YouTube video from Hipfig Travel-Channel.

Discover Endless Activities at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first underwater park in the US, which is located in Key Largo, Florida. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and is categorized as a Florida State Park. The park, which covers an area of 240 km² in the Atlantic Ocean, includes a visitor center, a beach, trails, mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs.

It is highly recommended that you call the attractions and restaurants at the park before your Florida Keys tour to confirm current opening times.

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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park FAQs

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the country’s first underwater park, which spans roughly 70 nautical square miles. The coral reefs and the marine species draw the majority of tourists to the park, despite the fact that the tropical hammocks and mangrove swamps in the park’s upland areas provide a unique experience.

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is unique and provides a breathtaking view of the underwater world.

Yes, it’s safe to snorkel in Key Largo. There are numerous snorkeling tours available for large and small groups. 

At the park, the snorkeling tours are a well-liked activity. If an individual still needs to get their own snorkeling gear, they can rent it, or they are provided one depending on the snorkeling tour package they booked.

Without taking a tour, you can go snorkeling on your own at John Pennekamp State Park. Beginners may also enjoy shore snorkeling from the beach in John Pennekamp State Park.

A crucial component of the Florida Keys ecology, mangrove and seagrass habitats can be found in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. On windy days or for novice snorkelers, seagrass, and mangrove areas are excellent snorkeling locations because they are frequently shallow and protected.

Yes, there are sharks in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The most common shark encountered is the peaceful nurse shark, which poses no threat to humans. Several shark species are frequent in the Florida Keys waters and are occasionally seen near the reefs.

Other species are present at the park, such as jellyfish, lobsters, spotfin butterflyfish, and barracudas.

Janelle
Author: Janelle

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