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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Camping

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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park - Judy Gallagher
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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park - mattk1979
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Campgrounds in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Overview

A brief introduction to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Located in Key Largo, ~60 south of Miami, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the U.S.’ first undersea park. Campers visit the park to explore its life-filled coral reefs, enjoy the beach, and do some fishing. Divers can make their way to the bronze Christ of the Abyss statue, which lies in wait in the park’s waters. Pull out your sandals, pack your hammock, and come soak up the Florida sun at this relaxing park.

Camping at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park visitors will find full-facility camping for RVs and tents—and some youth/group camping options. The park has just one campground and ~47 campsites, so its peak season books quickly.

The park offers potable water and restrooms with hot showers. Each campsite contains a picnic table and grill (for preparing your day’s catch 😋). A camp store offers some supplies. You can book a boat tour, equipment, or snorkeling trip from the concession. Park rangers and camp hosts are on site to assist with camper needs. You can find trash bins, recycling, and a dump station at the park.

Although John Pennekamp doesn’t have ADA-restricted campsites, three sites are paved, which makes them more accessible. The main restroom has ADA-compliant toilets and showers. There’s also an ADA-accessible private family bathroom. You can access a beach wheelchair through the Visitor Center (305-451-9570). Service animals are allowed at John Pennekamp.

Location, geography, and history

Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located in the Florida Keys and covers ~70 nautical square miles of land and underwater areas. The Atlantic Ocean is east of the park, and the Gulf of Mexico is to the west. The park sits adjacent to Everglades National Park.

The park is known for its mangrove forests and coral reefs (its most notable aspect). Seagrass meadows create marine habitats for local wildlife, and the park also contains some sandy beaches. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is situated in a subtropical climate. It is home to many marine species, playing a key part in the Keys’ marine ecosystem.

The Calusa and Tequesta groups lived in the Florida Keys for centuries before the arrival of primarily Spanish settlers in the 16th century. As time passed, The Keys experienced periods of piracy, fishing, and (later) tourism. Newspaper editor John D. Pennekamp strongly advocated for the park’s creation, hence the park’s name.

Ecosystems, wildlife, and vegetation

Conservation efforts have helped protect the park’s coral reef ecosystem. These vibrant reefs are made up of coral colonies that support immense biodiversity. Nearby seagrass meadows are underwater fields where animals can feed and find shelter. On land, you’ll find dense, tangled mangrove forests. These trees have adapted to the saltwater environment—and help protect the coast.

Playful bottlenose dolphins and the occasional West Indian manatee can be spotted in John Pennekamp’s waters. Turtles (Loggerhead and Green Sea) nest in the park. Other animals you might see include the beautiful queen conch, colorful parrotfish, and the common nurse shark. Up above are osprey, distinctive brown pelicans, and stunning roseate spoonbills. Endangered species in the park include coral, the shy American crocodile, and Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly.

Gumbo limbo’s peeling red bark is found in John Pennekamp’s vegetation, as is hardwood mahogany (which is protected in the park). Sea oats are grasses that stabilize the beach dunes. You’ll also see strangler figs engulfing some trees and hardy saw palmetto with its saw-tooth-like spines. Flowers in the park include purple beach morning glories, yellow tickseed, and pink blooms on railroad vine.

Sporting, recreational, and cultural activities at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Campers visiting John Pennekamp bring snorkeling or scuba diving gear so they can see the vibrant coral reefs, colorful fish, and shipwrecks. (If you don’t want to get wet, you can take a glass-bottom boat tour.) You can also paddle through the mangrove forests in a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. Some also fish in the permitted areas.

Wildlife viewing is popular at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. In addition to the reef’s many fish, corals, and invertebrates, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles can be seen in the park’s waters. Birders commonly see osprey, pelicans, herons, and other shorebirds in the park. Tide pools come alive at low tide. You can also search the beach for seashells, sea glass, and other treasures.

Kids can participate in the park’s Junior Ranger Programs, build a sandcastle, or identify the fish they see in the water. A short drive to Islamorada makes for a nice day trip. The History of Diving Museum dives into the history of underwater exploration. Those looking for more history and culture might visit the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center.

Risks, tips, and notes

As with any outdoor setting, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park has some risks. Jellyfish and corals can cause painful stings, so consider protective swimwear. Although not common, sharks, alligators, and crocodiles may be present. Be cautious near water, especially at night. Given the warm temperatures, protecting yourself from the sun and staying hydrated is essential. Take care to monitor the weather for sudden storms and avoid rough seas.

Visit John Pennekamp between December and March when the weather is milder, and water visibility is high. To skip the crowds, camp at the park on weekdays and avoid busy holidays. Tours, rentals, and campsites do sell out, so book well in advance (or scan John Pennekamp for campsite cancelations). This park’s ecosystem is fragile. Please use reef-safe sunscreen to help protect corals.

Campers love snorkeling, experiencing the beauty of John Pennekamp’s reef, and seeing the local marine life up close. The park’s location makes it easy for campers to explore the Florida Keys. The primary gripe campers had about John Pennekamp related to how the park sometimes fills up with crowds—and mosquitos.

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Reviews

Camper reviews for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Fun Park! Smaller sites.

I've stayed here a bunch of times. It's a very large park with lots of places to walk, swim and explore. Some sites back-up to a mangrove bog. You can see huge iguanas and various marsh birds in the campground. Headlamp night walks are great here! The sites are a little on the small side. They have full hookups, but some of the hookups (particularly sewer) are in disrepair. The biggest issue with this park is the no-see-ums. They are so tiny, they will fly through your screens. When we stay here, we close all of the windows and use the AC. We don't spend much time sitting outside (especially at dusk). The no-see-ums aren't as bad during cold snaps. I still love this park despite the bugs!

ariel solomon
ariel solomon reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on April 4th, 2024

Awesome park

Lots of things to do

Sandra Grasso
Sandra Grasso reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on December 4th, 2023

Best weekend getaway to snorkel

It takes me 5 hours to get to Pennekamp so I can get there on a Friday night and get 4 snorkel sessions in over the weekend and leave on Monday morning refreshed for my workweek. The snorkel boats are pleasant and the reefs are fantastic. There are so many fish to see especially if you just "hang out' over an area and wait. NO standing and NO touching!

Timothy Ryan
Timothy Ryan reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on May 29th, 2023

Lots to do

The site itself could have used some TLC, and the no-see-ums were horrific, so we didn’t enjoy being outside our rig. We did take the boat ride out to the coral reef and rode our e-bikes all over, which was great.

Martha Olney reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on May 18th, 2023

Nice but very tight

This was a nice park but the site to site spacing was so close that my neighbors awning touched my RV. Gravel sites but way to many for space they have. Employees are very nice.

Terry Hicks
Terry Hicks reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on May 6th, 2023

Another Top Florida State Park

This park is the first one you come to upon leaving mainland Florida and entering the beautiful Florida Keys. It's busy and crowded but a well-maintained park with a nice campground. The sites are a little tight so be sure to check your rig size to make certain you fit. Their glass-bottom boat tour wasn't operating when I was there and I hate that because I wanted to experience it (they were servicing the boat for a week they told me). I highly recommend this park.

Carl Crumley reviewed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
on March 13th, 2023

Map

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