Our minds drift to white sandy beaches and hammocks strung between palm trees. However, the Florida Keys also boasts some of the most outstanding State Parks and National Parks in the US.
The geography, natural beauty, and fascinating history of the stunning archipelago are what make many of these parks so unique.
The Florida Keys has long been a mecca for those looking to chill on pristine beaches or party in the bustling city of Key West, famous for its nightlife, tourism, and shopping.
But there has never been a better time to escape the holiday masses and get back to nature.
We have put together a selection of the most unique and beautiful parks in the Florida Keys. Parks where you can experience the natural world above and below the water to discover what makes The Florida Keys so special.
Related: Discover the best places in the US to escape the winter cold – Florida has some great winter getaways.
Where to Stay in the Florida Keys
Many will visit the Florida Keys on day trips from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. But, to fully appreciate the archipelago’s unique parks, we believe it is worth staying in the Keys for at least a few days or more.
With so many islands making up the Keys; there is an abundance of choices when looking at the best places to stay in the Florida Keys.
From secluded resorts, historic homesteads and B&B’s, and modern hotel complexes. As the 113 mile scenic Overseas Highway links much of the Florida Keys from Miami to Key West, all of the Keys best attractions are well connected.
Visitors to the Florida Keys often look to Key West for accommodation first. Mainly because of the nightlife, shopping, and tourist appeal. After all, there is a lot to do in Key West. Key West’s proximity to parks such as Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, and Bahia Honda State Park is also appealing.
Whereas, the gateway to the Keys; Key Largo also offers a nice pace for those looking for something a little more low key. It has more of a small town or community atmosphere as opposed to a bustling city vibe.
Key Largo also has two state parks and a marine sanctuary. There are excellent hiking and biking tracks through the subtropical wilderness, and the incredible coral reefs close to the shore in John Pennekamp State Park appeal to dive and snorkel enthusiasts looking for an adventure vacation. A nice place to dodge the crowds and get back to nature.
While the gateway to the Keys may not have the same reputation as Key West, Key Largo also has an outstanding array of accommodation from five-star resorts to luxurious oceanfront cottages, boutique retreats and budget accommodation to suit all styles.
Get Back to Nature at These Beautiful Parks in the Florida Keys
John Pennekamp State Park
John Pennekamp Park on Key Largo was the first underwater State Park in the US. A notable attribute of the park is the ease of access; the reef begins a mere 20 meters from the shore so you can snorkel straight from the beach.
Other than snorkelling, there is a host of ways to enjoy John Pennekamp Park, including paddle boarding, canoeing and some of the best kayaking in Florida Keys. There are also glass-bottom boat tours for those who like to keep their heads above water.
You can take a guided dive or snorkel tour to see the best colourful reefs and marine life and discover the parks highlights such as the underwater bronze statue of Christ.
On Cannon Beach, you can see remnants of a Spanish shipwreck no more than 100 feet from the shore.
Off the water, there is bike rental, some excellent hiking trails of varying distances, all relatively easy thanks to the flat lay of the land, and designated picnic areas with bbq grills.
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda Park is the quintessential beach paradise and a favourite park in the Keys. Long stretches of palm-fringed white sandy beaches with crystal clear water, away from the tourist hustle and bustle.
Stroll along the picturesque shoreline or take one of the short hikes in the park. You can hire a kayak and explore the open waters to discover the parks marine life. Keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins.
For the bird enthusiast, it is an excellent place to observe birdlife, especially shorebirds and wading birds. A visit to the parks Sand and Sea Nature Center gives nature lovers information on the island’s flora a fauna.
A popular spot for sunset, the old bridge gives visitors some of the best views in the Keys.
Other than the nature centre, there is also a small store, snack bar and rental shop for kayak and snorkel gear rental. Boat trips to the reef and snorkel excursions are also available.
You can access the park either by boat or the Old Bahia Honda Bridge.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Venture down to Key West for a unique insight into the history of the Florida Keys dating back to the 1800s.
The historic Fort Zachary Taylor has guarded the Key West Harbour through some of the most defining times in US history including the Civil War, the Spanish American War, WWI and WWII. With Cuba only 140 km from Key West, it was also strategically critical during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
You can take a guided tour of the fort or self guide your way around using the information signs. The views from the top of the fort are very worthwhile.
Other than the historic fort, the park also has two hiking trails – the Tropical Hammock Trail and the Fort View nature trail which offers views of the fort from the outside. There is a lovely stretch of beach for swimming and kayaking. Fishing is also possible.
Fort Zachary is also a popular place for a picnic, especially at sunset where you can watch a parade of yachts enjoying a sunset sail.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand. It lies approx seventy miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
Covering 101 sq miles, most of which is the surrounding shoals and waters, the history of the national park is steeped in tales of shipwrecks, pirates, and of course, sunken treasure. Given its location, the centrepiece of the islands, Fort Jefferson reminds us of the parks prominent military past. The historic fort was also used as a prison during the Civil War.
The park also has abundant marine and birdlife and plenty to do both in and out of the water.
Take a day trip to Dry Tortugas and immerse yourself in the national parks fascinating story of swashbuckling tales of shipwrecks and pirates and military history.
Enjoy snorkelling and diving – The park’s stunningly clear waters are teeming with coral and shipwrecks. It is also possible to fish on the islands, or maybe you prefer a relaxing picnic on the beaches of the beautiful island.
While dry land only makes up around 1% of the park, there is a campground where you can pitch a tent should you like to spend some time on the island.
You can reach the island by boat or seaplane. The Yankee Freedom III is the official Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry – The high-speed catamaran takes approx 2 hours each way and is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.
San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park
A little over a mile offshore from Indian Key is Florida’s other underwater park.
The San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve, a 640- acre state park offers snorkelers and scuba divers the opportunity to see the wreck of the 287-ton Dutch-built ship, the San Pedro. Part of the Spanish Flotilla, the vessel was one of 21 ships in a fleet travelling from Havana to Spain in 1733 when all but one ship were driven aground by a hurricane.
The remaining ship returned to Havana and rescue ships were sent to recover survivors and salvage cargo. The San Pedro was one of thirteen vessels that could not be refloated so was burned to the waterline to thwart salvage wreckers.
The wreck lies in 18 feet of water and makes a unique destination for divers and snorkelers. If underwater adventures are not your thing, it is possible to view the wreck from a glass-bottom boat.
The site of the wreck and the surrounding seagrass habitat has abundant marine life, and the structure of the San Pedro has provided a substrate for a healthy array of coral species.
Indian Key Historic Park
Rent a kayak, pack a picnic and paddle out to this tiny island brimming with history.
From 1831, Jacob Houseman built Indian Key into a wrecking empire salvaging cargo and shipwrecks that ran aground on nearby reefs. A lucrative and legal trade at the time.
By 1829, the 11-acre island had a population of around 50 men and growing infrastructure which included a store, hotel, warehouses, dwellings, and wharves.
With a slew of shady business dealings and constant run-ins with other wreckers under his belt, Houseman sought independence from Key West and established Indian Key as the first county seat for Dade County.
A decline in his fortune followed, and eventually, the loss of his wreckers licence. Finally, the island suffered a brutal attack by a large party of Indians killing 13 men while the rest fled the island. Houseman’s empire was destroyed.
The island was used sporadically throughout the decades until a historic hurricane in 1935. The island was abandoned entirely, and remnants of Houseman’s empire became derelict and consumed by the island.
In 1971, the State of Florida bought Indian Key and designated it a historic site.
While most of the ruins are still engulfed by nature, you can walk around the tracks learning the key points of the buildings and history from the information signs.
There is some excellent snorkelling off the back of the island with loads of tropical fish. The paddle out will take 15 – 30 minutes depending on the weather and wind. You can rent a kayak from the Kayak Shack on Islamorada. Make sure you pack a lunch and take plenty of water.
Plan Your Visit to The Florida Keys Most Beautiful Parks
There are so many natural wonders in the Florida Keys and this a small sample of the beautiful parks worth visiting. But it goes to show, it is worth planning your visit beyond the beach and the nightlife of Key West to discover the quieter and natural side of the Florida Keys.