The Florida Keys Are All About Outdoor Fun
From swimming with dolphins and fishing the flats to snorkeling the reef and camping on the beach—these idyllic islands have it all
There’s no shortage of fun stuff to do in the Florida Keys & Key West. From reef snorkeling and mangrove paddling to bike cruises and beach camping, there’s enough outdoor recreation to last a lifetime. The southernmost point in the U.S. is made up of five distinct districts, each of which offers its own unique take on outdoor entertainment. Our recommendation? Use the following as a Florida Keys starter’s guide, and then trust your adventure-seeking instincts to lead you to the rest of the fun.
Snorkeling Progression | Hiking Long Key State Park
The snorkeling from shore at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is great, but sign up for a charter boat to head 20 minutes out to the shallow—13 to 23 feet deep—reefs offshore and it gets world-class. If you sign on with the Florida Keys Dive Center a divemaster will help coach new snorkelers, too. Expect to be wowed. “We always see fans, soft and hard corals, nurse sharks, moray eels, and schooling fish like jacks and grunts,” says dive instructor Cory Dam, with the center. “If you’re lucky, you might see an octopus.” Many of the full-service dive centers like Ocean Divers and the Rainbow Reef Dive Center offer snorkeling trips, too. Check them all out here. Later in your stay, opt for hiking and shore fishing from the expansive Long Key State Park. It’s famous for its shallow swimming and white sand beaches, some of which are exclusive to you if you choose to camp out to catch the sunset.
Light Tackle Fishing | Stand-up Paddleboarding
If one of you has a fishing bucket list while the other is just happy to catch whatever is biting, Islamorada is the answer. Here the shallow-water fisheries offer up a steady stream of ravenous species (sea trout, snapper, and drum) that pretty much guarantee that both parties will see plenty of action. “I’m known for paying attention to the rookie on board,” says Captain Ted Benbow, who runs Skins and Fins Charters with his son. “They end up catching as much as or more than the experts. It’s a unique fishing experience. I still get charged up every time I go out.” Want to mix up the fishing beyond the light tackle fare? Over a dozen charter boats offer offshore trips for bigger game fish. Start with Blu Sushi Fishing or Wide Open Sportfishing, or find all your options from backcountry and flats fly fishing to party boats here. Need more time on the water? Rent paddle boards or kayaks from Aquaholic Adventures—or better yet, sign up for a guided night paddle tour under the stars.
Family Swimming with Dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center
Yes, it sounds like a dream, but you actually can swim with dolphins while learning about their biology and habitat at the Dolphin Research Center. Here, you can get up close and personal with well-cared-for dolphins—there’s a variety of experiences to choose from, including a family-friendly option that includes a dorsal fin tow and full-day admission to the center. The best part? Part of your entry fee helps maintain the sanctuary, which has been protecting dolphins since 1984 and acts as a first responder to stranded marine mammals across southern Florida. Keep up the interactive education and altruism by stopping by Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, a rescue, rehab, and release facility that offers tours to the public. Later, feed sharks at Aquarium Encounters, perhaps the world’s most interactive and immersive marine aquarium.
The Lower Keys
Camping on Big Pine Key | Beach Time at Bahia Honda State Park
Tent and RV camping abounds on the Lower Keys. From beach sites at Boyd’s Key West campground to full RV hookups at the Breezy Pine RV Park, there’s a ton of great options—you can see them all here. Overwhelmed with all the choices? Try Sunshine Key RV Resort and Marina, where you can practically fish from under your awning, and Bahia Honda State Park, which is famous for white sand beaches and great snorkeling. Either way, check out the Key Deer Refuge to see the endangered species and learn what you can do to help. No tent or RV? Not a problem. There are tons of other options as well, from cabins at Bahia Honda State Park to houseboat rentals throughout the area.
Wreck Diving | Nightlife | Eco-Tours | Culture
Your one-stop spot for all Keys culture, Key West is both a quirky and upbeat artists’ enclave and one of the top wreck-diving destinations in the world. Settled by a mix of Bahamians and New Englanders, the town has a Wild West flair, and architecture that’s as iconic as the people who call it home. And the downtown is hip and lively enough to satisfy your inner tourist—no matter how much you like to pretend it doesn’t appeal to you. But as riled up and full of vigor as the place is, you can still escape the crowds effortlessly. Our top pick for non-divers? A secluded and intimate sea-kayak eco-tour with Blue Planet Kayak in the wildlife-filled mangroves of the everglades—what the locals refer to as “backcountry” waterways. In fact, such eco-tours are now a major Key West draw, with options to paddle clear bottom kayaks with Clearly Unique Charters or catch a ride on the Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry to bird watching and beach exploration. Later, rent bikes and basketed trikes from the famous Bike Man shops—with eight locations loaded with red beach cruisers.