Go Beyond Key West: Visit Florida’s State Parks in the Keys
The city of Key West offers plenty for visitors to see and do, from quaint shops and galleries that line Duval Street to world-class restaurants, and fascinating museums and cultural landmarks. But sometimes travelers seek experiences off the beaten path. When visitors to Key West want to break free of the usual tourist stops, the state parks located throughout the Florida Keys can provide the ideal respite.
State Parks in the Keys
There are several state parks that dot the Florida Keys from Biscayne Bay to Key West. Three of the most popular include Bahia Honda State Park, Long Key State Park, and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. All are well-known for their beauty and accessibility to nature, especially fragile marine life like corals.
Bahia Honda State Park began as a stop on Henry Flagler’s train to Key West. Today, it’s a scenic spot where swimmers can enjoy the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the island and Florida Bay on the other.
Long Key State Park was once a favored fishing spot of the rich and famous; today, it’s a popular sports fishing spot that welcomes everyone.
And John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park holds the distinction of being the first underwater park of its kind in America. My kids loved this park and experienced great snorkeling here. They even got to see a special underwater statue!
State parks make great vacation stops because they are budget-friendly and highly accessible to all. Whether you’re interested in relaxation and sitting on a beach all day or undertaking a strenuous, adventurous paddle around an island, state parks can fulfill vacation dreams.
If you are traveling to other parts of Florida, you might be interested in these 10 Best Family Vacations Spots!
Guided Tours and Walks
One of the best ways to start a state park visit is by signing up for a guided tour. In many cases, park rangers lead these tours several times per day. Themed tours can include nature walks, living history tours, cultural talks, land or sea tours, and bird watching walks, among others. There really is something for everyone!
These tours provide visitors with interesting facts and historical/cultural context to more fully appreciate the cultural, geographic or scientific significance of the park. It’s a good place to ask questions and get a feel for the park before heading off on your own.
Snorkeling, Fishing, and More
While Florida’s state parks, like most others, offers plenty of opportunities for nature walks along trails, swimming in designated areas, and bird watching, these parks also allow unusually close access to marine life through snorkeling and diving.
Visitors who don’t have their own equipment can often rent it from the park on-site. Guided tours via boat to snorkeling areas brings folks to coral reefs and shipwrecks where sea life is abundant. These tours typically include a brief lesson on how to snorkel before visitors are allowed into the water. Tours can last about an hour and a half to two hours.
Fishing is another popular activity here. Although minor access restrictions may apply to certain areas protected for historical, ecological or research purposes, and all fishing is generally by permit only, these are some of the most well-known spots for fish such as tarpon and bonefish.
Private and charter fishing boat tours provide the perfect mix of sightseeing and fishing to make for a memorable experience. An experienced charter boat captain will have a good understanding of what areas are open to fishing; he’ll also typically provide all necessary permits and fishing gear.
A Natural Wonderland
Between birds, fish, coral, flowers, and trees, it’s hard to know where to look first! Florida’s state parks along the Keys have an overabundance of natural beauty. If you’ve already visited the botanical gardens in Key West, this is your chance to see some of those blooms in the wild! Be sure to pack the binoculars so that you can view shorebirds and wading birds in their natural habitat.
Take a glass-bottomed boat ride for an overhead view of seagrass, coral, and colorful fish. Get into the water and up close by snorkeling on shipwrecks and reefs. Or, paddle through mangrove-edged shallows to explore the inner workings of ecosystems that flourish here.
Camping at Florida Keys’ State Parks
Extend the fun by staying overnight at one of Florida’s state parks. Campsites are generally offered on a first come, first served basis, although some can be reserved online through Reserve America’s website.
These campsites offer little in terms of amenities. The most comfortable ones offer restrooms and showers; the most basic offer nothing but the campsites themselves. Campers typically carry in everything they need and carry it all out again upon leaving.
The Florida Keys are a tropical playground unlike any other. The state parks in the area are easily accessible from Key West and provide a chance to go beyond the usual touristy areas and see the natural beauty of southern Florida up close.
Have you visited any state parks in Florida? Which one was your favorite? Please share your thoughts in a comment below. I would love to read about the exciting things you experienced.
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I’ve been to Keys twice but haven’t done even half of all those things I planned to do. It is one of my favorite places in Florida and can’t wait to return. Biscayne Bay was simply amazing!
Yes, Anya, I hope you can go back to Florida soon and maybe check out one of the state parks in the Keys. THey are pretty sweet!!
I’ve never been to Florida, but visiting a state park sounds like a fun experience. I would love to try snorkeling and camping in one of those parks sounds like a great adventure.
Yes! It’s great fun down here in the Florida Keys.
I was in Key West for a long weekend late last year and I am so sad I didn’t have time for the state parks! There is just so much to see. I did visit the National Park of Dry Tortugas and it was pure magic! I will definitely need to revisit to see the state parks especially because I love a good snorkel spot!
John Pennekamp State Park is where the statue is and I highly recommend a visit!
Oh this is so on my wishlist. Those views are lovely! You might even have convinced me to go camping…
Sweet!! There are some terrific camping locations at all of these state parks.
I drove to Key West with my family a long time ago, and I believe we stopped at a few State Parks and they really enhanced our Florida road trip. I love the snorkeling with underwater statues, I have always wanted to go diving to see something like that. Thanks for encouraging people to get off the beaten path and explore the natural beauty of Florida.
And the state parks are so much more affordable than the more resort type places.
I haven’t been to this part of the U.S – yet! It’s definitely on my bucketlist, the Key West looks like so much fun and the nature seems amazing. Snorkeling there must be great!
Yes, Lynn, the water is really clear so snorkeling, and diving for those that are certified, is pretty great all along the Keys.
I haven’t visited Florida and would love to visit it soon. Visiting a state park is always fun. I will definitely keep your article in mind. Taking a glass-bottomed boat ride for an overhead view of seagrass, coral, and colorful fish sounds interesting and fun.
Yes, the glass bottom boat tours are fantastic!
Looks like a perfect set up for a snorkel and a relax on the beach 🙂 Thanks for sharing
It is! Florida state parks are all pretty sweet, but the parks in the Keys? Perfection!
So fun! I’ve been to John Pennekamp once to snorkel. I definitely need to go back! So much more to do everywhere in the keys!
Yes! Pennekamp park is where the underwater statue is….so fun to see!
I’m going to have to plan a trip to Florida. It looks beautiful!
I think you do Tammie! Have fun when you go!
Omg the underwater statue. I totally didnt know that was here. Very cool.
The statue is pretty awesome for sure!
Wow!! I can’t believe I missed this on my trip to the Keys. Will definitely go there next time !
Next time for sure!
I love the keys I used to go every weekend when I lived in South Florida. Definitely need to go back! Thank you for all the useful information.
You’re welcome Jennifer!
We live in St. Augustine FL, and have wanted to come to the Keys for a visit, so I’m pinning this for future reference:) Great info! I love state parks, Florida’s parks are fabulous! I also blog about places to visit where we live, love Florida!
I have read some of your articles! Very informative!
I’ve been wanting to go to John pennecamp with my kids… I went when I was in 6th grade!!! It’s been a while lol
I hope you can take your kids soon Gail.
When we moved to Florida over 10 years ago, we said we were going to camp in the Keys. Over 10 years later, we’ve only been there on a cruise. This makes me want to head down there now!
You should definitely give camping in the Keys a try!
I love going to the Keys! Marathon is my favorite.
Oh, that’s a nice one!!
We enjoy snorkeling and have had John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on our list for a while. Looking forward to visiting.
It’s a sweet place! I remember one New Year’s Eve, many moons ago, I took the kids camping there…and there was a biblical level of rain! We still had fun though. 🙂
This article has come at the right time because I was thinking about planning a trip to the keys but wasn’t sure what to do there.. Visiting state parks is a great idea!
I’m glad to help Alisa!
Anther well done article. I love snorkeling!
I think we are doing the Florida National Parks next year. We will have to check out some of these as well! They look awesome!
Thanks, Lisa! I can personally say that the state parks in the Keys are all fantastic!
Great pictures! I would love to snorkel and do the underwater park, something I’ve never done before.
I hope you can give it a try Dominique!
As I’m currently surrounded by feet of snow, I am more than ready to head to Key West!
Being from Georgia it’s hard to believe that I have never been to the Keys! I really need to add it to my list!
You do Michele!
We really want to visit the Florida Keys someday and don’t really know what to do there. Thanks for the great ideas. We just saw underwater statues in Cancun!
We really want to go here. I pinned this for later!
I always like to hit state parks on trips. Thanks for adding that info!
You’re welcome Jordin!
I had no idea that state parks have guided tours! That is so cool and something we will definitely check out. The snorkling looks awesome!
Yes, they do! And the snorkeling is fantastic at John Pennekamp State Park.
We went to Miami last year and I wanted to visit the Florida Keys but we just didn’t have time :(. It looks so gorgeous!
The Keys really are pretty spectacular!
We’ve been to Bahia Honda State Park. The keys are gorgeous, but watch out for the mosquitoes at night.
Ah yes! Depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes seem to be as big as small birds. 🙂
Oh, my gosh – now that we are here in Florida, I so want to go explore the Keys and beyond. Great article – it just excited me even more about traveling around the state more this coming year.
Go! Go! Go! You’ll love it!