Florida Keys beaches are not known for the long, wide stretches of sand that you find on much of the mainland Florida coastline. The Keys archipelago juts out into the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. It runs southwest from the east coast of mainland Florida, south of Miami and Key Biscayne, for more than 120 miles to Key West, and then to the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West. Parallel to this, and about three miles offshore, is the only coral barrier reef (actually about 6,000 reefs) in the continental United States. These reefs protect the shores from breaking waves, which provide the erosion necessary for natural beach formation. Much of the sand on the Florida Keys beaches is imported.
Nonetheless, there are many great beaches in the Keys, both easily accessible public beaches as well as those that are private and reserved for guests of various resorts. The most frequented are the beaches in Key West since this is the most visited of the Keys resort areas. The Key West beach parking is plentiful and accessible, even though traffic can be quite congested during peak travel times. Smathers Beach, the town's main beach, actually has free parking.
You will find numerous other beaches on the other Keys as well. Anne's Beach is an Islamorada beach dedicated to the local environmentalist Anne Eaton. It is located on US Route 1 at Mile Marker 73. Mile markers on this main road, also known as the Overseas Highway, provide the best method for finding your way if you are driving your own vehicle or taking advantage of car rentals. Anne's Beach is a long, narrow beach with a pleasant boardwalk that winds its way through mangrove trees, covered picnic pavilions, and bathroom and shower facilities. There are two parking areas about a quarter mile apart, and you will find nicely secluded stretches of beach furthest from the lots.
Florida Keys Beaches
Because of the reef, there are very few Key Largo beaches of the traditional type. Key Largo is a hub for snorkeling and diving and is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, a vigorously protected marine conservation district. The shore is made up primarily of mangroves, with several miles of kayaking, canoeing, and hiking trails. You'll find picnic areas with barbecue grills, and there is also fishing and camping here. There are two small Key Largo beaches that have quite shallow water, so they are excellent for novice swimmers and families with children. There are glass-bottom boat tours along the reef itself in addition to snorkeling and diving tours. Also near Key Largo (actually in Tavernier) is Harry Harris Beach Park, with a protected man-made lagoon, clear waters, and a sandy beach.
Between Marathon Key and Big Pine Key is the 525-acre Bahia Honda State Park; the name of the park is Spanish for Deep Bay. This island is virtually uninhabited, as it is made up almost totally of the park. Unusual for Florida Keys beaches is the fact that here you will find a very long (2.5 miles), natural sandy beach that borders a lovely tidal lagoon. There are other beaches here, allowing you to swim in both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay. As you are located right on the famous Seven Mile Bridge, there are wonderful views. In the town of Marathon is Sombrero Beach, which has a shady park with picnic tables and a lovely sandy beach. This is a nesting area for the endangered loggerhead turtle. If you're deciding when to go to see these incredible sea creatures, consider April through October.
Beaches in Key West are the most numerous, and they can be more crowded than others in the Keys. Probably the best public Key West beach will be found at the 87-acre Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. This is the southernmost state park in the continental United States, and it contains the fort that is a National Historic Landmark and played a significant role in the history of the Civil War and Spanish-American War. Spectacular sunsets on this beach make it popular for weddings. The park and beach are on the far southern tip of the island and within walking distance of the shops, nightlife, and great dining in town.
Other beaches in Key West that are also in the downtown area are Higg's Beach in Old Town, with an excellent grassy area reserved just for dogs (and their humans), and South Beach, which is a favorite of the locals. The longest Key West beach is Smathers Beach, located along the Atlantic shore south of the Key West Airport.