K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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Want to experience snorkeling in a breathtaking underwater world without a passport or a longer journey to the Caribbean? Florida has an abundance of snorkeling spots, but the Florida Keys are a gem for snorkelers. Lying on the Florida Reef, the world’s third-largest coral barrier reef, it provides countless outstanding snorkeling spots. It’s the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, stretching from Key Largo to Key West as well as remote islands that are far removed from the mainland. When planning your trip, be sure to include some of these top spots to jump in and enjoy it.
One of the best spots in the continental U.S. for snorkeling can be found in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This was the country’s very first underwater park to open, holding its only living coral reef. Spread across 70 nautical miles, snorkelers can see all sorts of tropical fish, sea turtles and even shipwrecks. It’s the perfect place for beginners and families with kids, as tours are available with experienced guides who conduct a “how to snorkel” class right on the boat. You’ll get a safety vest, and if you don’t have your own gear, you can rent a mask, snorkel and fins.
Accessed by ferry or seaplane 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park offers the ultimate snorkeling day trip. The crystal-clear aquamarine waters that surround its historic 19th-century fort are filled with abundant colorful fish, queen conch, starfish, living coral and more. And, it’s all directly accessible from a pristine white sand beach. Fort Jefferson also offers snorkel tours with complimentary fins, mask and snorkel provided.
Bahia Honda State Park is home to some of the most popular campsites in the country, just steps away from some of the best snorkeling spots in the Florida Keys, but you don’t have to spend the night to enjoy them. Come anytime to take advantage of the clear shallow waters that make this a great place for beginners who can snorkel right from the beach to view abundant sea life.
Biscayne National Park is made up of just 5 percent land, which includes 40 small barrier coral reef islands and a mangrove shoreline. Its coral reef houses some of the most extensive life-forms you might ever witness. To access snorkeling here you’ll have to have a boat or join a tour. Boats leaving from the jetty at the visitor center will bring you to the reefs, vibrantly colored fish and shipwrecks off of Elliott Key, an island in the park, but the reward is well worth the effort.
The most popular snorkeling spot in Key West for decades, the rocky bottom and rock formations offshore at Fort Zachary Taylor attract lots of tropical fish. It’s a great place to snorkel right from shore with the crystal-clear water like glass. Discover everything from parrotfish and schools of yellowtail snapper to lobster and a variety of hard and soft corals. There are plenty of other activities in the park to enjoy as well, including guided tours of the fort and nature trails to walk.
Sombrero Reef is considered the very best reef in The Keys. The shallow area ranges from two feet to a depth of 30 feet and spans 30 acres, while its arch is a vast limestone structure decorated with numerous colorful stony and gorgonian coral and sea sponges, along with neon gobies, grunt and snapper. The clarity of the crystalline turquoise water is amazing on most days, making it easy to see this spectacular underwater world. To reach it, you’ll need to join a boat from the Marathon area on Vaca Key.
The Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) sits about eight nautical miles southwest of Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key. Visitors to the park can join a tour to reach the impressive diversity of fish that congregate here. On the reef crest, view butterflyfish and grunts, and to the north, surgeonfish and parrotfish. Atop the reef, you can often see jacks and barracudas swimming about.
If you’re looking for a place to snorkel along the scenic Overseas Highway, at mile 67.5 in Long Key State Park you’ll find exceptional flat shallow waters to enjoy just offshore. There’s also a scenic nature trail with shady trees that traverses through a variety of ecosystems, including some beautiful deserted beaches while offering the opportunity to watch for all sorts of shorebirds.
Historic Alligator Reef Lighthouse is a three-mile charter boat trip away from Islamorada and offers the perfect place for snorkelers to discover all sorts of marine life, including parrotfish, barracuda, rays and sea turtles. The main snorkeling ground is right beneath the lighthouse, with its steel foundations serving as the home for so many tropical fish, you might think you’re swimming inside of an aquarium. Unlike some of the reefs nearer to shore, that tends to have cloudier green water with lower visibility, this area experiences a constant flow of strikingly clear blue water for outstanding visibility.
For those who stay visit Islamorada, Cheeca Rocks is another great snorkeling option. One of the favorites among snorkelers in the Florida Keys. The patch reef is about halfway between the keys and the barrier reef, bringing the opportunity to marvel at many different types of fish, green eels and occasionally a sea turtle too. You’re likely to encounter schools of grunts, all sorts of beautiful angelfish, wrasse and parrotfish. The coral reefs thrive here with abundant fire, star and brain corals, as well as spectacular sea fans that some of the smaller reef fish use to hide.