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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