Home USAFlorida Key Largo in One Day – Vibrant Coral Reefs and Conservation Excellence

Key Largo in One Day – Vibrant Coral Reefs and Conservation Excellence

by Valerie Vanr

Key Largo is the gateway to the Florida Keys and is often called the “Diving Capital of the World”.  Discover Key Largo’s vibrant marine life, including colorful fish, beautiful corals and lush mangrove swamps.  Learn about local efforts to conserve and restore these delicate ecosystems. 

Our guide to a day in Key Largo showcases the best that Key Largo and nature have to offer.

Where is Key Largo?

Key Largo is the longest and most northerly key of the Florida Keys, located just over 60 miles (100 km) south of Miami.

This makes Key Largo an easy day trip from Miami.  Better yet, use Key Largo is a starting point for a road trip exploring the entire Florida Keys.

Itinerary for Key Largo Florida

Spend at least one day in Key Largo to visit its must-see attractions.  Ideally, spend a second day, visiting several locations which focus on environmental and wildlife preservation and protection.

Day 1. Key Largo Day Trip

Day 2 (additional day)

Key Largo Map

There are many things to do in Key Largo. Check out our map for all of these fun Key Largo activities.

Key Largo map starred attractions
Click on the above Key Largo Attractions map for an interactive map of the entire Florida Keys.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The only living coral reef system in the continental United States is offshore of the Florida Keys.  Early in 1960, after years of environmental impact, the United States government designated the reef system and surrounding waters as a protected area. 

Later in the year, Florida established John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, further protecting and preserving the remarkable coral reef and associated marine ecosystems at Key Largo. This was the first undersea park in the United States and now covers about 70 nautical square miles.

Today divers come from around the world to see its coral reefs which teem with colorful fish, sea turtles and other marine plants and animals.

Back of glass-bottom boat floating at state park's dock
Enjoy a tour of the coral reefs to the east of Key Largo on the glass-bottom boat Spirit of Pennekamp.
Coral growing in ocean through glass-bottom boat window
Through the glass viewing portals in the bottom of the boat we saw coral growing on a line. It will eventually be planted on the reef to restore more of the coral reef.

There are several ways to visit the reef:  diving tours, snorkelling tours, or glass-bottom boat tours.

We opted to stay dry and chose the glass-bottom boat tour.  The 2.5-hour tour visits various parts of the reef, such as Molasses Reef.

While sitting around the large glass viewing portals, we saw schools of colorful fish, the odd moray eel and a sea turtle.  There was even a nurse shark.  We saw new coral growing on a line structure which will be replanted to help restore the reefs.

Back on land, head to the visitor center and see more marine life in the large 30,000-gallon aquarium and a number of interesting displays.

There are also several hiking trails, offering a chance to explore the coastal hammocks and mangroves.  There are 2 beaches as well as kayak, canoe and paddle-board rentals. RVers and tent campers are welcome at the campground.

To reserve your glass-bottom boat tickets, visit the John Pennekamp website.

The African Queen

Yes, this is THE African Queen, the actual boat used in the classic 1951 film of the same name.  Built in 1912, this steam-powered vessel has been lovingly restored.  Passengers experience the nostalgia of the film which earned Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar.

Rear view African Queen vessel at its dock
The actual boat used in the 1951 film The African Queen is docked in Key Largo. Take a cruise and learn about the history of this boat, built in 1912.
Valerie Andy either side of steam-engine aboard African Queen
We attempted to re-live some of the moments from the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

We boarded the African Queen and enjoyed an entertaining 1.5 hour cruise through the Key Largo canals and the near shore waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Learn the interesting history the African Queen, the vessel and how it eventually found a home in Key Largo.  Captain Eddie, our tour guide, cast and photographed us recreating a classic scene on board between stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.  On the way back to the dock, Captain Eddie tested our movie knowledge with some timeless movie quotes. 

Person relaxing at tiller of boat waterway and docks background
Enjoy a relaxing tour aboard the African Queen around the beautiful canals and waterways of Key Largo.

Carrying only six passengers at a time, this is an intimate and entertaining cruise back in time. What a lot of fun!

To reserve tickets, go to the African Queen website.

Coral Restoration Foundation Exploration Center

Learn about the vital ecological role of coral reefs, the challenges facing coral reefs today and the process of coral growth and reef restoration.  Through education and active restoration, the Coral Restoration Foundation is working to restore and protect the health of our coral reefs.

The foundation grows corals in offshore Coral Tree™ Nurseries in the Florida Keys.  In the nurseries, the coral are cultivated and nurtured.  Once mature, they are removed from the nursery and outplanted to carefully selected reef sites.  At these sites, the new corals will grow and strengthen the existing reef structure.

There are currently 8 nurseries, with more than 750 coral trees, each holding about 60 corals.  Over 30,000 corals are grown each year.

Several classroom-style wall displays about coral
At the Coral Restoration Foundation’s Exploration Center learn about coral reefs around the world, their health and efforts to conserve and restore them.
Person demonstrating how to attach coral to a reef
The Coral Restoration Foundation grows new coral in its offshore nurseries. Volunteers are taught how to attach the juveniles to their new sites to continue to grow and strengthen the reefs.

In addition to public education, classes are held at the center for divers, training them to work in the offshore coral nurseries or to outplant the new corals on existing reefs.  Our guide demonstrated the technique to secure the new coral to the coral reef.

One of the most fascinating facts we learned is that corals reproduce only once a year.  Called “simultaneous mass spawning”, it occurs only one night a year.  While the actual night can’t be predicted, scientists can predict the week the event will happen.

For more information about visiting the center or becoming a volunteer, see the Coral Restoration Foundation website.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center

This not-for-profit organization has two facilities in Key Largo, Mission Wild Bird and Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary.  The two locations work together to rescue and rehabilitate injured or displaced wild birds, releasing them back to the wild or providing safe, humane shelter to those who cannot be released.  A large part of their work is educating us about healthy interactions with wild birds and their importance to ecosystems.

Valerie standing front of Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center
I am outside the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center’s Mission Wild Bird hospital.

Mission Wild Bird

Most of the building (at Mile Marker 92) houses the Avian Rehabilitation Hospital, where sick, injured, and orphaned native and migratory birds are brought to be treated and cared for.  Although the public is not allowed inside the hospital and rehabilitation center, the building also contains the Gift Shop, and the Visitor Education Center.  Interpretive exhibits share the challenges birds face in their natural habitats, and steps that can be taken to protect them.

The birds are cared for at the hospital until they have recovered enough to be returned to the wild.  Should it be determined that a bird cannot survive in the wild due to its injuries and can live in captivity, it will find a permanent home at the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. 

For more information, see the Mission Wild Bird webpage.

Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary

The sanctuary, covering over 7 acres (1.6 miles north of the hospital), is home to over 70 non-releasable birds.  It is open to the public 7 days a week from sunrise to sunset.

Enjoy a walk on the boardwalk to visit the birds.  Their enclosures are shaded, have natural perching areas and activities to keep them stimulated, giving the birds a safe and natural environment in which to live.  Educational signs are nearby giving information about each resident.  The boardwalk ends at Florida Bay, the perfect spot to enjoy sunset. 

We saw several species of hawks, owls, gulls, herons, pelicans and more.  Be sure to see the daily pelican feeding sessions.

5 photos of different bird species
These are a few of the permanent residents of the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. If you visit at feeding time, don’t miss the excitement in the Pelican enclosure.

The sanctuary is staffed by a team of professionals, interns and volunteers who work tirelessly to feed and provide a safe environment for its residents. 

While there are no admission fees at Laura Quinn, be sure to make a contribution to the donation boxes near the entrance to assist in the care of the birds.

Please note:  Pets are not allowed.  Assistance dogs are permitted.

For more information, see the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary webpage.

Key Largo Diving, Snorkelling and Water Activities

Key Largo is known as a premiere spot for diving and snorkelling to see the marine life on the famous coral reefs.  Divers can investigate the artificial reefs created by sunken ships, including the Spiegel Grove and City of Washington.   

The Florida Keys are home to one of three bronze statues called Christ of the Abyss.  Sculptor Guido Galletti sank the original bronze statue in the Mediterranean Sea in 1954.  Two others from the same mould were created in the early 1960’s.  One is in Grenada and the other was placed in about 25 feet of water near Key Largo Dry Docks and is a favorite of divers visiting the state park.

In addition to the cruises offered at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, there are several charter companies which go out to the reefs.  Florida Keys Tourism has a handy list of local diving tours and snorkel tours.

Sport fishermen can join a fishing charter or rent their own boat.  Local operators also rent kayaks and jet skis.

Woman on paddle board person in kayak Key Largo
Rent paddle boards, canoes and kayaks at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and tour the local waterways.
Beach with cannon driftwood beach chairs, people swimming
John Pennekamp’s Cannon Beach is the perfect place to enjoy the water.

For swimming opportunities, head back to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to enjoy Cannon Beach and Far Beach.  They also rent kayaks, canoes and paddle boards.  Harry Harris Beach and Park is another beach option.

Hiking and Nature

The Key Largo area has some excellent trails to explore its stunning natural beauty. 

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park has 3 trails, each exploring different ecosystems.  

The Wild Tamarind Trail (0.3 mile, linear) explores a tropical hardwood hammock.  These hammocks once covered much of the Florida Keys but today are greatly reduced due to both natural and man-made factors. 

The Grove Trail (0.6 mile, linear) travels from the hammock environment to a tropical fruit grove, often filled with butterflies. 

Valerie on boardwalk of Mangrove Trail Key Largo
I am on the Mangrove Trail’s boardwalk loop, learning about these very productive ecosystems.

The boardwalk of the Mangrove Trail (0.3 mile, loop) circles through the mangroves along the park’s paddling trail.  Mangroves provide food and habitat for a multitude of plants and animals.

Another area to explore is Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park (Mile Marker 106.5).

This park is unique.  Originally a condominium development was planned for the land (and some basic infrastructure was built) but it was never completed.  The area is now being allowed to return to nature.

There are 6 miles of trails to explore consisting of half-loops and full-loops through the hammocks.  These are the largest tracks of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the United States.

There are 84 protected species of plants and animals, including the rare Schaus swallowtail butterfly.  During bird migrations in April and October, enjoy the great bird watching opportunities.

We recommend hiking this park only during the winter months, Florida’s dry season. There are no mosquito control methods employed here.  Best to avoid this park anytime after the month of May, as the mosquitoes will quickly make your hike unpleasant.

Best Key Largo Hotels

Looking for accommodations in Key Largo?  There are a great range of places to stay, from casual mom-and-pop motels to deluxe resorts.

We stayed at, and highly recommend, Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, a Hilton Curio hotel.

This resort features 2 pools, 2 restaurants and a fabulous beach, with lots of water activities available.  Go fishing in the morning and follow that with a kayak paddle.  Grab a book from the library and spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach.  Your choices are endless.

Beachside with water bikes boards boats peopled beach chairs building behind
Enjoy Baker’s Cay Resort’s beautiful beach and water toys.
Aerial view two irregular shaped pools surrounded by tropical vegetation pool furniture
A stunning waterfall separates the family swim area from the adults-only section.

Baker’s Cay also has great children’s programs to keep the kids busy.  They have everything from playing games to roasting marshmallows.

Follow this link to book your stay at Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo.

Know Before You Go

Key Largo vs Key West

When visiting the Florida Keys, many people wonder what the difference is between the cities of Key Largo and Key West.

Key Largo is a quiet, laid back town with plenty of opportunities to explore nature nearby.  Key West, on the other hand, has plenty of museums, artist galleries, restaurants and a lively night scene.

If you’ve only time for a day trip from Miami, then a visit to Key Largo is perfect.  With more time we definitely recommend travelling to Key West and exploring the entire Florida Keys archipelago.

Valerie sitting on bench below a Welcome to Key Largo sign
The friendly staff at the Key Largo Welcome Center helped us find out more about Key Largo and the Florida Keys.

Florida Keys Road Trip

Key Largo is just one of the many great locations in the Florida Keys.  Be sure to check out our detailed article, Florida Keys Road Trip, to discover many more places to visit on a one-week journey through the Keys.

Ribbon of highway surrounded by water and small urban areas
Florida Keys Road Trip – A Spectacular Drive from Miami to Key West

Interested in more Itineraries? Sign up here.

Thanks to Key Largo and the Florida Keys for hosting portions of our stay.