The Florida Keys are synonymous with sparkling turquoise waters, towering palm trees, striking sunrises and sunsets, and picturesque white sand beaches. A popular year-round vacation destination in the Sunshine State, the Florida Keys also attract visitors with world-class sport fishing and diving opportunities. The only living barrier coral reef in the continental United States surrounds the entire island chain and supports the islands’ numerous aquatic activities. This archipelago extends 125 miles southward, from just below Miami to 90 miles north of Cuba – and its regions include Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and the eclectic island of Key West. The 113-mile-long Overseas Highway connects all the islands with its 42 bridges.
From Key Largo to Key West, visitors can count on an unforgettable experience exploring the unique and beautiful beaches in the Florida Keys.
(Note: Some of the following locations and activities may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Cannon Beach: Key Largo
(Frazier Nivens/Courtesy of Florida Keys News Bureau)
Located in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Largo Sound, Cannon Beach is one of two human-made beaches in the park. This Key Largo beach’s name comes from the 17th-century cannons that sit on its rocky shore. Cannon Beach is a popular spot to visit, and most guests spend their time snorkeling in the shallow waters, where you’ll find shrimp, crabs and several species of tropical fish, including barracuda and tuna. Venture out further to discover a Spanish shipwreck replica about 100 feet from the shoreline and possibly see other marine life like rays, tarpon and manatees. The state park, encompassing an impressive 70 nautical square miles, also features the country’s first undersea park. You’ll have to pay a fee for daily park entry to access both Cannon Beach and Far Beach.
Far Beach: Key Largo
(Courtesy of Mathew Shepard)
After snorkeling at Cannon Beach, you should head to Far Beach for a relaxing afternoon spent under the palm trees. This beach is also located in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and requires a modest daily fee for entry, but it provides a less rocky alternative to Cannon Beach. Take time for a refreshing swim before reading a book or lounging on the white sandy beach. Far Beach has a Mobi-Mat so it’s wheelchair-accessible. Other activities in the park include enjoying a glass-bottom boat tour to view the sea life from above the water, or renting a kayak, paddleboard or canoe to explore the mangroves and water trails. If you’re feeling more adventurous, the park also offers four-hour scuba tours to introduce novice divers to the coral reef.
Founders Park Beach: Islamorada
(Courtesy of Islamorada Parks and Recreation Department)
Founders Park Beach’s shallow waters draw travelers to the Florida Bay in Islamorada, a top Florida beach locale. The 45-acre Founders Park primarily serves as a recreation area for Islamorada’s residents, but visitors are also welcome to take advantage of the park’s amenities, activities and special events. Free guest passes are available for guests of local hotels and rental properties. If you’re not staying locally, you’ll have to pay an admission fee, with access to the pool area costing a bit extra. The beach features grills and a picnic area as well as a volleyball court, a pickleball court, a pirate ship-themed playground and outdoor showers. After a day at the beach, head about a mile northeast to Twisted Shrimp for fried shrimp, fish tacos and cold drinks. And if you’re planning an extended stay with kids, check out the casual and family-friendly Matecumbe Resort for overnight accommodations.
Sombrero Beach: Marathon
This lesser-known beach in the Middle Keys is a favorite among locals and the lucky few travelers in the know. Sombrero Beach’s soft white sands border the clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean, making the area ideal for snorkeling. The beach also serves as the perfect spot to catch a few rays and enjoy a swim. Sombrero Beach is wheelchair-accessible and pet-friendly, though pups must remain leashed. If you plan on spending the day, bring a lunch to enjoy under a shady picnic pavilion. Then, mosey back toward the sand to play a few games of beach volleyball in the afternoon. To experience the Gulf of Mexico side of Marathon, spend a few days in one of the guest rooms or private houses at Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort, where you can also relax on the property’s private beach.
Curry Hammock State Park Beach: Marathon
This 1,200-foot-long beach sits along the Atlantic Ocean in Curry Hammock State Park. The park comprises more than 1,110 acres of pristine tropical maritime wilderness, making it the largest tract of undeveloped land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key. The protected beach features mangroves and shallow waters that are perfect for exploring via paddleboards and kayaks. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a manatee or a dolphin. Looking up from sunbathing or building sandcastles on the beach, you might also see adventurous kiteboarders cut through the turquoise waters. There’s a fee to enter the park by car, and overnight camping is an option here as well.
Calusa Beach: Big Pine Key
Calusa Beach is the smallest of the three beaches in Bahia Honda State Park. At this stretch of shore, also known as Bayside Beach, the water is calmer, as the beach sits on the Gulf side at the southern end of the park. Architecture enthusiasts will appreciate the beach’s unique view of the Florida Keys Overseas Railroad trestle bridge, which now serves as a part of the Overseas Highway. The park is also home to three trails, along which you can spot a variety of rare plants and animals. The Great Florida Birding Trail even distinguishes Bahia Honda State Park as the best birding habitat in the Florida Keys. Admission to enter the park includes access to all of its beaches: Calusa Beach, Loggerhead Beach and Sandspur Beach.
Loggerhead Beach: Big Pine Key
Loggerhead Beach sits on the south side of Big Pine Key in Bahia Honda State Park. This beach is notable for its shallow water, which separates the coast from a large sandbar several feet offshore. After the sun sets, Loggerhead Beach offers one of the best stargazing experiences in Florida. The visibility is exceptional in this locale due to minimal light pollution, so myriad stars become easy to see in the night sky. You’ll have to pay an entrance fee to access Bahia Honda State Park.
Fort Zachary Beach: Key West
Known to locals as Fort Zach Beach, this rocky stretch of shoreline takes its name from the southernmost state park in the continental U.S.: Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. A favorite Key West beach among locals and visitors, Fort Zach boasts temperate and clear waters, which make for excellent swimming and snorkeling. For an afternoon activity, travelers should take a tour of the fort, a National Historic Landmark that predates the Civil War. History comes to life with war-era reenactments in the park during the third weekend of every month. For lunch, sample local beach specialties while admiring the Atlantic Ocean at Cayo Hueso Café. Then, beachgoers can spend the afternoon paddleboarding, geocaching, fishing, bird-watching or hiking along the area’s trails. The state park charges a fee for admission.
Smathers Beach: Key West
(Courtesy of Rob O’Neal)
Located on the Atlantic Ocean along South Roosevelt Boulevard, Smathers Beach is one of Key West’s largest and most popular beaches, especially during spring break. The beach’s soft white sand makes it the perfect place for a game of volleyball, a run along the coast or a relaxing spot to read a book. For the more adventurous, Sunset Watersports offers an array of activities that include parasail rides and Hobie Cat excursions, plus access to equipment like paddleboards and kayaks. You’ll have to pay for parking at the beach, but entry is free, as is use of the shower facilities. After freshening up, head to Lagerheads Beach Bar & Watersports for a salt-rimmed, frosty margarita while watching a brilliant Key West sunset.
Higgs Beach: Key West
Higgs Beach, a public beach at Clarence Higgs Beach Park, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and sits adjacent to one of Key West’s iconic hotels, Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. The soft white sand, long wooden pier and picturesque setting of this beach make it a frequently sought-after spot for sunning, swimming and catching a sunset. Higgs Beach also features the country’s only underwater marine park that is accessible by shore. Available amenities at the beach include umbrella and chair rentals; a casual restaurant; and courts for tennis, volleyball and pickleball. Plus, kids can enjoy the playground here, while pets can run around in the dog park.
South Beach: Key West
Situated at the end of the boisterous Duval Street, South Beach is where Key West’s famous Southernmost Point marker is located. This striped buoy represents the southernmost point in the continental U.S. and is inscribed with the phrase “90 miles to Cuba.” Across the street, you’ll also find the Southernmost House, a colorful Victorian mansion that serves as an adults-only boutique hotel. Keep in mind that while South Beach is small, it can be filled with tourists. Still, this top Florida Keys beach is worth a visit for a family photo at the buoy, a quick swim or a casual lunch at Southernmost Beach Café. A visit here is also a great way to kick off a classic Key West vacation experience, the Duval Crawl. This pub crawl covers the watering holes of Duval Street, where visitors will find many of Key West’s best bars and nightlife venues.
Dry Tortugas National Park: Key West
Set sail on board the Yankee Freedom III out of Key West for a full day exploring the historic Fort Jefferson, seven islands and four beaches of Dry Tortugas National Park. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, this remote national park covers 100 square miles and extends into the Gulf of Mexico. Spend your morning exploring the unfinished fort, then devote the afternoon to snorkeling or skin diving through the coral- and tropical fish-filled waters surrounding the historical site. If you would rather relax, the towering palm trees on the white sand beaches provide excellent sunbathing spots. Book a daytrip that includes boat transport from Key West, breakfast, lunch, entrance fees, a narrated tour of the fort and snorkeling equipment. The more adventurous travelers can arrive by seaplane or reserve a spot to camp overnight in the park.
Harry Harris Beach and Park: Tavernier
The small, sandy beach at Harry Harris Park is the perfect spot to bask in the Florida sunshine, relax in the shade or take a swim in the ocean. Amenities at the park include pavilions, picnic tables, charcoal grills, a playground and bathrooms. It’s free to visit the beach on weekdays; however, there is a charge on weekends and holidays for non-Monroe County residents. There is a deep-water boat ramp that you can use for a fee. If you decide to go boating and reel in a fish, pack up your catch and head over to The Lazy Lobster at Mile Marker 102 that evening. The full-service restaurant offers fresh seafood and other dishes – and the chef will even prepare your fresh catch for dinner.
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