As part of our ambitious desire to visit every state park, we thought a snorkeling adventure at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park would be an easy and fun addition to our list. We called the snorkeling crew down in Key Largo and made a reservation over the phone a day before. The next morning, we made the drive to Key Largo.
The park is easy to find with plenty of signs directing you. Like any other state park, it’s a $6 entrance fee to the park for a car with 2-8 people. With your receipt you’re given a map of the park and some history of the area.
After you park your vehicle you’ll see an education center with some wildlife and conservation information. A little further and you’ll see the area where you’ll check in, which is the gift shop and activities check-in desk together..
The conditions for the water are listed on a whiteboard when you go to check in which details the level of choppiness and visibility in the water.
They have mask, snorkel and fin rentals available in case you don’t bring your own, but I definitely suggest you find your closest WINGS store and pick up a set there. Buying a mask/ snorkel set at Pennekamp will cost a hefty $30.
Fortunately, the people at John Pennekamp don’t make you pay in advance. Unfortunately, we and two other people signed up for the snorkeling adventure and drove about two hours to get to the park. We got to the counter, big-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to snorkel to our hearts’ content when we were told…
The water is too choppy. We might not be running the tour today. If we do run the tour, you will need to be an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer.
FYI: I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer. Mark’s never snorkeled. The couple we were with had both snorkeled and swam, but they weren’t keen on bobbing about in choppy waters. We decided to have lunch and see how we felt about going. When we went back inside, we were told that the waters were still really choppy (the wind was gusting at about 15-20 miles per hour) and good visibility wasn’t guaranteed.
Translation: The current is kicking up a bunch of sand and you might not actually see shit.
With the tour being about $40-50 a person including the gear rental, we decided that going snorkeling on a super windy, super choppy day wouldn’t be the best idea for first-time snorkelers.
Alternative plan: We asked about the glass-bottom boat tour, but were told the choppy waters were churning up the sand and reducing visibility on the boats as well.
So, what’s a group to do in John Pennekamp if you’re not snorkeling/ glass-bottom-boating?
It turns out… not a whole lot.
There are three small beaches where you can put your towel down or post up some chairs, but the sand is packed hard and it’s really uncomfortable to lay on. There’s a few boardwalks, and there’s kayaking, but we went kayaking at Oleta River State Park the day before, so our upper bodies were sore.
We wound up leaving about an hour after lunch and headed to Crandon Park, near downtown Miami, for a classic cityscape photo shoot before driving home.
Pro-tip #1: Make a reservation a day before, then call before you leave and ask about “if the conditions are clear, the waters are smooth, and if we can see the statue.”
Pro-tip #2: Buy your own mask and snorkel, even at a drugstore. It’ll be cheaper and function just the same. And you can keep it.