John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park entry sign on US Highway 1
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park entry sign on US Highway 1
A scuba diver in the reef of John Pennekamp Coral Beach State Park

The 70 nautical square miles that comprise John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park also define the first designated undersea park in the United States. The park also offers some upland areas of tropical hammock and mangrove swamps but it's the coral reefs and marine life that bring in the visitors. While a lot of folks tour the park in the comfort of a glass-bottom boat, there are also many who enjoy their visit with a snorkel in their mouth or scuba diving gear on their back.

Situated on the edge of an extensive coral reef, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers two man-made beaches, Cannon Beach and Far Beach. About 100 feet offshore from Cannon Beach snorkelers will find the remains of an early Spanish shipwreck to explore. Far Beach is where folks go mostly to swim and enjoy a day in the sun on the beach. Both beaches have designated swimming areas and any snorkeling or diving done outside those areas need to have a "Diver Down" flag on display.

The marina at John Pennekamp offers a deepwater boat ramp that can accommodate most boats up to 36 feet in length. The park offers several different boat tours in their efforts to help visitors enjoy the local coral reef system. One of the boats is universally accessible and specializes in providing snorkeling opportunities for folks who need that extra bit of assistance. Boats are available for rent in 4 and 8-hour intervals at the marina. The marina also offers mooring slips and buoys for overnight visitors.

The park campground offers 47 campsites, all with water, electric, cooking grill and picnic table. There is a central RV dump station available nearby. There is also a central restroom and shower facility in the camping area that offers coin-operated washers and dryers. Maximum RV length: 45 feet. (The campground is closed until the end of March, 2011 for repairs.)

There is also a youth/group camping facility that will accommodate up to 24 people. Park rules require one adult chaperone per 10 youths. There is no electric at the site but there are restrooms, hot showers, benches, a fire circle, a large grill and picnic tables.

For canoes and kayaks there are 2.5 miles of marked trails through the mangrove forests. The park concession rents canoes and kayaks for those who don't bring their own. The park concession also offer snacks, drinks, gifts, souvenirs, beach gear and snorkeling equipment.

There are three nature trails in the park: two are loops (one through the mangrove forests on a boardwalk, the other through a beautiful hardwood hammck) while the third goes through the hardwood hammock and terminates in a grove of imported tropical fruit trees.

John Pennekamp offers 12 picnic pavilions on a first-come, first-served basis, although all pavilions can be rented and reserved, too. Each pavilion offers picnic tables and barbecue grills but ground fires are not allowed.

There is a children's playground located along the main road near Far Beach. Restrooms are found at the Dive Shop, next to the park concession and at Far Beach. The park's visitor center offers a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium plus six other much smaller aquariums. The building also houses natural history exhibits detailing some of the park's various biological communities. The visitor center theater usually has videos running about the park and the surrounding areas.

For day users, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is open from 8 am until sunset every day of the year. To get there: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located at mile marker 102.5 on US Highway 1, north of Key Largo.