Budget-Friendly Florida: Explore the Keys Through State and National Parks

The Florida Keys are a popular vacation destination but it can be a challenge to decide which ones to visit first. By touring the area’s state and national parks, you can create an exciting itinerary with something for everyone that showcases the best excursions anyone could ask for. And because these are state and local parks, the fees for entry are nominal, making them a great way to stretch your vacation funds at the same time. Enjoy world-class snorkeling, fishing, and swimming backed by million-dollar views. It is a great introduction to the natural beauty of the area and the perfect addition to any trip to the Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Located about 75 miles from the island city of Key West, this world-renowned park is mostly underwater and welcomes even the most novice snorkelers with clear and gentle waters. The ferry leaves from Key West several times a day, but passage books up quickly so it’s best to reserve your ticket far in advance. While on Dry Tortugas, you can tour the historic fort or walk the sea wall. There are multiple coral reefs and shipwrecks for divers and snorkelers to explore. And the park hosts nighttime activities, too; these include stargazing programs and night snorkeling to view nocturnal sea life. Kayak around the smaller keys and enjoy birding, too. There’s some overnight camping allowed, but facilities are limited, and arrangements need to be made in advance. If you’d rather enjoy Dry Tortugas from more of a distance, consider going with All In Fishing Charters on a half- or full-day excursion that takes you within view of the park. All the gear you need–including permits and fishing licenses–is included.

Bahia Honda State Park

Just north of Key West, Bahia Honda State Park is known for its unique beaches. Without leaving the park, you can swim in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and  Florida Bay on the other. You might even recognize some of the often-photographed beaches as soon as you arrive! The island concession stand offers convenient beach equipment rentals, and you can also enjoy a light meal and a small souvenir shop. The park’s activities include hiking and biking, fishing, and birdwatching. Snorkeling is the big draw here. You can sign up for a tour of Looe Key Marine Sanctuary before arriving at the park to ensure your spot. Visitors with tents are welcome to camp, and there’s RV parking, too, along with marina slips for docking overnight; book your reservations for these accommodations in advance.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

On the island of Key West, enjoy historic fort tours and lots of natural attractions for visitors of all ages. Fort Zachary Taylor is open for tours daily, and guides share lots of information about troops that served here during the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Check out the trails for walking and biking, as well as the beach where you can swim and snorkel with ease. Many area hotels and motels offer their guests bicycle rentals, so this is an easy park to get to if you’re already staying in Key West. Beach umbrellas, chairs, and snorkeling gear is available for rent. With fishing licenses, you can also fish off the jetty here. The picnic area includes grills for visitor use. If you’d rather let someone else do the cooking after a day out in the sun, there are lots of area restaurants nearby. Of note is Eaton Street Seafood Market & Restaurant, where the lobster roll, fish tacos, and conch fritters are among the most popular dishes.

Biscayne National Park

This national park was established to protect undeveloped land in the Florida Keys, and it includes a wide swath of underwater land within its borders. Located in the northern part of the Keys, it’s popular with tourists interested in marine life. Guided tours include views of aged shipwrecks that dot the Maritime Heritage Trail and the sea life that’s claimed them. Kayaking offers a unique view of the lush shoreline, filled with mangrove clusters, birds, and turtles; you may even spot a dolphin nearby, so it’s worth packing the binoculars. Overnight guests can pack in/pack out at Boca Chita and Elliot Key. The fishing is notable here, too. Consider booking a fishing charter and head out for grouper, tarpon, bonefish, and more.

Immerse yourself in the striking scenery of the Sunshine State. Through water sports and recreation at state and national parks throughout the Florida Keys, you can get an up-close introduction to wildlife and nature that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, making your vacation the trip of a lifetime. And because the parks are so close to many of the Keys’ most popular cities, they’re a convenient and affordable addition to your trip.