Camping on the Keys
There are several ways to enjoy this spectacular undersea park, the first in the United States.
This park protects part of the only living coral reef in the United States. The powers that be have made exploring this coral reef easy for everyone. Beware: The campground is nowhere near as enticing as the rest of the park, but you would never know it by the efforts you have to put forth to get a campsite here.
Just as the other state parks in the Keys, you are better off reserving a campsite 60 days in advance of your arrival. But once here, the campsite is yours for up to 14 days, as long as you renew it every day. And judging by the prices of the other campgrounds in the area, John Pennekamp is a bargain. You will still have to put up with some RVs. But since electricity is provided for each site, generator noise won't be a problem.
The campground forms a U around a tidal creek and pond. The sites are neither very big nor overly attractive. There are adequate shade trees at the campsites, but vegetation buffers between the sites are few. So don't jump naked out of your tent in the morning if this is your normal camping routine.
Campsites 1 through 22 abut the creek and pond. They generally have less vegetation than the sites on the other side of the campground. Campsites 23 through 40 run parallel to sites 1 through 22. They are backed against a thick stand of woods. Some of these have an adequate vegetation buffer offering a little more privacy. The final six sites follow the U back to the front of the campground.
Complete bathhouses are found at either end of the compact campground, affording easy access for all. This campground is not the greatest, but it will serve any tent camper who wants to check out what this state park has to offer.
Nearly 180 undersea nautical square miles are growing and waiting for you. The clear, warm waters are alive with fish, turtles, lobsters, and plant life. Have you ever wanted to dive? There is an on-site dive shop that offers open-water certification for the novice and advanced open-water certification for those who already know a thing or two about tanks and such. If that sounds a little too much, go snorkeling. It's easy with on-site equipment rental and guided tours of the reef. And if you would like to see the coral reef but don't want to get wet, go on the glass-bottom boat tour.
Boat lovers can rent fishing boats, canoes, sea cycles, and sailboats. All of these are ready to go at the marina in the center of the park. A 2.5-mile marked canoe trail winds through the park's mangrove wilderness. Maybe you want to see a fish at the end of your rod instead of on the coral reef. There are plenty here at John Pennekamp.
Sunbathers have two beaches to choose from. Far Beach is at the less-crowded, east end of the park. Cannon Beach is larger. It is by the main concession area. A roped-off swimming area makes it safer for families. A replica of an old Spanish galleon is located 130 feet off the shore of this beach.
Landlubbers can check out the two nature trails. Step from the marina parking area onto the Wild Tamarind Trail and enter the forest that once covered much of the Keys. Visually, it's very stimulating; however, you can't escape the sounds of U.S. 1. I enjoyed it nonetheless. Because without this state park, even this small woodland would be a T-shirt shop.
Hike the Mangrove Trail. It is the only way you will ever get in the middle of a mangrove thicket without sinking up to your thighs in muck. That's because you follow a boardwalk that has interpretive signs along the way to help you appreciate how a mangrove stand functions. I always enjoy these little trails. It helps me understand how every place is unique and is just one more strand in the intricate web of nature.
The natural features of John Pennekamp make up for the fair campground. Don't pass this place by. And with all there is to do here, you will be too tired to care if it is not the world's finest place to set up a tent.
To get there, look for John Pennekamp at mile marker 102.5 on U.S. 1.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication