This marine wonderland was the first undersea park in the U.S., established in 1963 to preserve and protect nearly 70 nautical square miles of living coral reefs, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, and tropical hammocks.
Located on the coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys, the park is 25 miles long and extends 3 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Its name recognizes the efforts of the late John D. Pennekamp, a Miami newspaper editor who fought for the preservation of the coral reefs and the everglades.
Planning a Visit
The park is open 365 days a year from 8:00am until sunset. Park buildings, including the Concession Building and Visitor Center, are open from 8:00am to 5:00pm. An admission fee is collected at the entrance (per vehicle, up to 8 passengers). Fees for pedestrians or bicyclists cost less.
The peak tourist season for Key Largo is the “dry” season between December and April because rain is less frequent, temperatures are pleasant, and the mosquito population reduces with the rainfall. However, if you are interested in water sports then summer may be your best bet as water temperatures are balmy – but be prepared for hot days with high humidity that triggers thunderstorms almost every afternoon. The highest risk of hurricane storms occurs in September and October. This park is very popular and gets crowded, so try to avoid major holidays. Plan to visit on a weekday if possible, and arrive early.
The entrance to the park is located on Key Largo at 102601 Oversea Highway (US Hwy. 1, mile marker 102.5), about 60 miles south of Miami and 30 miles south of Homestead. Miami International Airport (MIA) at 2100 NW 42nd Avenue in Miami services numerous commercial airlines and car rental companies. Accessible bus transportation from the airport to Key Largo is available through Greyhound.
Accessible Features: Things to See and Do
Parking lots have accessible designated parking and ramped or level access to paved walkways.
The Visitor Center features a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium with coral reef exhibits and a theater showing nature videos. It has a ramped entrance and accessible drinking fountains. Park rangers are available to answer questions.
There are two man-made beach areas with shallow water for swimming and snorkeling. At Cannon Beach, remnants of a Spanish shipwreck can be seen just 100′ offshore. A beach wheelchair is available free of charge at the Visitor Center (call 305-451-9570). Be aware that the beach surface is coarse with sharp rocks and coral and consider protection for feet and legs. A bath-house with ramped entrance has accessible changing facilities, restrooms, and showers with shower bench and hand-held sprayer.
Along the shore there are picnic tables and covered ramadas connected by a paved sidewalk that is lined with benches for resting or enjoying the view. Barbeque grills are available.
There are two hiking trails in the park but these are not recommended for wheelchairs due to the uneven, mulched surface. If you are interested in hiking, Dagny-Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park just 4 miles north at the intersection of US1 and County Road 905 has an accessible paved nature trail (1 mile round-trip, small fee, closed March-July 2016 for renovations).
Canoe and kayak rentals are available for paddling amongst the maze of coastal mangroves.
The vibrant offshore coral reefs can be accessed and explored by commercial tours via glass bottom boat, scuba diving, or snorkeling. Tickets for glass bottom boat and snorkeling tours are available at the Main Concession building next to the Visitor Center. This building is accessible and also contains a gift shop and snack bar. Scuba diving tours and boat rentals are available at the dive shop in the marina. Each tour offers at least one vessel that is accessible to persons with disabilities. The glass bottom boat is accessible by ramp but does not have an accessible restroom or tie-downs. (Note: I took this tour on a day when seas were rough and my lightweight manual wheelchair was moving around. It was necessary to hold tightly to a railing.) The snorkeling boat has tie-downs and an oversized restroom. Advance reservations are strongly recommended for all tours as they frequently sell out. Visit the park web page for further details about tours, reservations and current pricing. Be sure to inform staff in advance of any particular needs! Persons must be able to swim and able to get in and out of the water independently (or be accompanied by someone who can help). All necessary gear is available to buy or rent. Understand that tours are dependent on the current weather and sea conditions and can be canceled, so it’s a good idea to have a backup plan. Staff are helpful and will explain what to expect based on current sea conditions and advise how to avoid seasickness, so pay close attention to the instructions.
Service animals are allowed throughout the park, but pets are restricted from beaches, tour and rental boats, and all buildings. In the areas where pets are allowed, they must be kept on a 6′ hand-held leash.
Where to Sleep and Eat
There is a campground within the park that has 3 spaces (38-40) that will accommodate accessible RVs or trailers. These spaces are next to the restrooms and shower facilities. Reserve online or by calling 800-326-3521. In addition to the campground inside the park, there are several other campgrounds and RV parks nearby.
Key Largo is a popular resort area, so there is a wide selection of lodging near the park, including many national chain hotels such as Holiday Inn, Marriott, Hampton Inn, and Hilton. We stayed at Hampton Inn in Homestead, which was about 30-45 minutes away and had great accessibility.
Food is available at the snack bar in the Concession Building inside the park. Or, if you’d like to bring in supplies for a picnic, there are several groceries stores in the area. Restaurants are also plentiful on Key Largo, with fresh seafood being the star attraction. We enjoyed lunch at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill 1.5 miles north of the park. This is a resort complex offering a tiki bar, a sports bar, and restaurant with a patio – all with terrific views of Blackwater Sound.