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The Florida Keys are renowned for their tropical vibe, surrounded by vibrant turquoise water and large stretches of coral reefs. While driving south through the 125-mile-long chain of islands, the Atlantic will be to your left while the Gulf of Mexico is on your right. You’ll pass plenty of fantastic beaches along the way, but you’ll want to make a stop at some or all of these.
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Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is a National Historic Landmark that offers some of the clearest blue waters for snorkeling and diving in Key West. It hosts the city’s favorite beach at its southern end, making it ideal for those activities along with paddling, fishing and picnicking. The top destination in the Florida Keys is also popular among history buffs, home to a 19th-century fort used to defend the country’s coastline during the Civil and Spanish-American wars. Today, it features the largest collection of Civil War-era cannons in the nation.
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park is the country’s most remote national park. It’s technically considered part of Key West, but it’s located 70 miles west, accessed by ferry. It makes a great day trip for enjoying what feels like the ultimate paradise in Florida with pristine powdery white sands, swaying palms and crystal-clear blue waters for swimming and snorkeling.
Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key has been noted as the home of America’s greatest beach by Dr. Beach, although it offers two dazzling stretches, Calusa and Sandspur along with unrivaled snorkeling offshore. Enjoy the clear shallow water that makes it one of the best snorkeling spots where you can snorkel right from the beach to view abundant marine life. It’s a popular spot for photos too, with the sand straddling the scenic Overseas Highway providing views of a partially-demolished bridge from the old road on one side, and the new, fancier bridge on the other.
Another Florida Keys’ paradise, Long Key State Park is one of Florida’s most picturesque parks, with a long stretch of beach that provides tropical fantasy-like views, along with opportunities for kayaking, swimming, hiking scenic trails, picnic areas and wildlife watching. Or simply relax on the shoreline while gazing out at the azure Atlantic. Bird lovers will be in heaven with the diverse range of bird species that include ibis, herons, terns and egrets.
*A storm damaged the campground and is expected to re-open in 2020.
If you’re looking for an empty stretch of sands, Sombrero is located near Mile Marker 50 in Marathon. Thanks to its remote location at the end of Sombrero Beach Road, it’s often empty during the off-season, and rarely too crowded during the busier times of the year. The short strip of white sands is reached by walking through mangroves and palm trees, while offering views of both the sunrise and sunset, with the latter best experienced from the rock formations further down the beach. Keep an eye out for the loggerhead turtles that nest here between April and October.
One of the most popular destinations for families in The Keys is Smathers Beach on Key West. It stretches for over two miles providing plenty of white sands for all sorts of activities, including a morning jog, or relaxing with a breathtaking view. Plus there are a wide range of eateries nearby to enjoy breaks from the Florida sun while feeding your appetite. A wealth of outfitters provide water sports gear and tours, with everything from sunset sails to kayaking, parasailing, paddleboarding and windsurfing available.
Located on the Atlantic in Marathon, Coco Plum Beach boasts one of the Florida Keys’ rare natural stretches of soft white sands that lie adjacent to an area of wetlands. Sea turtles nest here providing great wildlife watching, and there’s plenty of room which means it rarely feels crowded. It’s also long enough for enjoying romantic strolls that are even better at sunset, with an orange glow over the ocean providing a truly magical backdrop.
Located in Islamorada, about half-way down the island chain, Founders Park offers a beautiful palm-lined beach that’s great for families, with snorkeling, swimming, paddleboarding and kayaking all available here. Plop down your beach chairs and enjoy relaxing in the sun, picnicking, and even a yoga class on the sand during certain seasons. The kids will appreciate the pirate ship-themed playground where they can walk the plank while parents enjoy the water in the shallow bay. The park hosts multiple other amenities too, including a pool with a splash pad, a dog park and a marina.
Cannon Beach can be found in Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. One of its two man-made beaches, it was named for the 17th-century cannons that lie along its rocky shore. Most don’t come for sunbathing or building sandcastles, however, but for snorkeling. One of the best places to snorkel in the continental U.S., it’s home to the country’s first undersea park which includes the water west of Key Largo and the beach. There’s a wealth of sea life to enjoy, including turtles and colorful fish, along with a Spanish shipwreck replica that sits about 100 feet from the shoreline. The warm, shallow waters are incredibly calm, making it ideal for beginners, but even non-swimmers can enjoy the underwater world here. Simply take a stroll along the edge and you’re bound to spot all sorts of tropical fish among other creatures.