With an array of eco tours on land and sea, Coral Reef State Park is a fascinating place to explore while visiting Key Largo. When the tourist trade was taking its toll on the fragile eco-system in the 1950s, journalist John D. Pennekamp and other conservationists led the push to keep the land pristine, yet enjoyable and accessible for the public. In 1960, President Eisenhower declared this land the Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve, which was America's first underwater park. It was renamed in honor of the journalist a short time later.
For an overview of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and all that it offers, it's smart to step into the Visitor Center. A 30,000-gallon aquarium and several exhibits detail the wonderful world of wildlife found in the water and on land, and park rangers are often available to give guided tours. In the winter months, the rangers lead nighttime campfire circle programs, which are filled with information about the environment, wildlife, local history, and other interesting topics. In addition, visitors will find a lunch counter, snack bar, and concession shop that carries gifts and gear for snorkeling.
The nature trails that meander through John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park reveal a variety of landscapes. Following the Wild Tamarind Trail gives hikers the chance to see the hammocks covered with tropical hardwood trees. The Mangrove Trail crosses the estuaries, and is a fantastic place to watch birds, and park rangers will lead guided walks when requested. The crystal-clear waters that surround the mangroves are a favorite place for kayaking and canoeing.
Throughout the year, visitors can discover where Coral Reef State Park got its name when they embark on snorkeling tours. Dipping below the surface just off Cannon Beach gives visitors the chance to spend time in a vibrant world of living reefs, tropical fish, and underwater invertebrates. The comfortable tours, designed for beginners, are suitable for anyone who is a good swimmer, and all of the trips are led by certified dive masters who give an instructional class before heading out to enjoy the waters of Pennekamp Coral Reef Park. One of the vessels, the Encounter, can accommodate people in wheelchairs.
For those who want to go deeper, diving is available as well at Pennekamp Coral Reef Park. The dive shop staff leads tours, teaches classes, provides informal instructions, and rents gear. Divers climb aboard a 35-passenger catamaran named Reef Adventures to begin their trip. Whether they take along a guide or explore the waters their own, divers will make stops at two different places along the reef line, where they can explore the Benwood shipwreck.
It's also possible to take in the underwater beauty of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park without getting wet, thanks to the glass-bottom boat. The Spirit of Pennekamp, a 65-foot, high-speed catamaran, can hold up to 130 passengers. While exploring different points in the Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, passengers have the chance to see the shallow reefs and the amazing animals that make their home under the water.
In addition to boat tours, Coral Reef State Park allows swimming, boating, and fishing in designated areas. The palm trees of Far Beach provide an excellent place to find some shade from the sun. There's also space for picnicking and camping. The well-equipped campground welcomes both tent campers and RVs, and it even has laundry facilities.