Key Largo

Key Largo is both an island and a community in the Florida Keys.

The island of Key Largo is approximately 30 miles long and approximately 1-2.5 miles wide. It is a relatively small island by any normal standard, but it is the largest island in the Florida Keys.

Key Largo is classified as part of the upper Keys. It’s the closest Key to Miami that is accessible via the Overseas Highway.

The drive from Miami to Key Largo is approximately 68.9 miles. With little to no traffic the drive might take approximately 1.5 hours.

The total drive time is highly variable and can be considerably shorter, or most likely longer, due to traffic, bridge delays, frequent road construction, slow-moving traffic and congestion.

Key Largo is also the northernmost town in the Florida Keys, and is the first island found along the Overseas Highway. It is located between mile marker 106 at the north and mile marker 90 at the south.

The name Key Largo is an adaptation from its original Spanish name, Cayo Largo, which means “Long Key”.

Population and Living in Key Largo

The population of Key Largo is 12,447, as of the most recent 2020 census.

The population grew 19.2% from the previous 2010 census. In 2010 there were 10,433 residents counted in Key Largo.

Most people who live in Key Largo are either retired or work in a service or tourism-related industry. Local government jobs are also major sources of jobs in Key Largo.

Commuting to Miami, Homestead and other locations on the Florida mainland is not advised due to the long commuting time, slow traffic and unpredictable road conditions.

Residents of Key Largo struggle with a high cost of living and low wages. The cost of housing is especially troublesome, and is a major deterrent to living in Key Largo.

The high cost of real estate is mostly because of the high demand for land and very low supply, given the small amount of buildable land in the Florida Keys.

High rental prices for tourists also drive up housing costs for locals. Vacation rentals also displace housing stock which is not available for local residents.

How Large is Key Largo?

Like all of the islands in the Florida Keys, Key Largo is a small island. It has a total land area of approximately 15 square miles.

Surprisingly, the exact size of Key Largo is not agreed upon.

Some historical archive sources report that the island covers more than 23,000 acres. The U.S. Census reports that Key Largo covers 12.05 square miles, which is 7,712 acres. The actual size of the island is probably close to 20,000 acres.

Key Largo is significantly larger than all of the other islands in the Florida Keys. The next largest island is Big Pine Key which covers approximately 6,000 acres.

By comparison, Key West, the most populated city in the Florida Keys, covers approximately 7.21 square miles or 4,614 acres.

History

Like all of the islands in the Keys, Key Largo was originally inhabited by local indigenous people for thousands of years before the earliest European explorers arrived. The Calusa and Tequesta tribes were active in the Keys, among others.

Juan Ponce de Leon later “discovered” the islands in 1513.

For the next several hundred years the islands were lightly populated by fishermen, shipwreck salvagers and sponge divers.

North American settlers began populating Key Largo in the early 1800s. They also engaged in fishing, pineapple plantations and shipwreck salvaging.

The Keys were an important stop on the maritime trade route between the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Many ships were wrecked in the shallow waters and coral reefs around Key Largo and the Keys.

The population of the Keys was greatest in the late 1800s; it reached its peak in approximately 1890.

Key Largo grew considerably in the early 1900s when Henry Flagler’s railroad linked it with the Florida mainland. The Overseas Railroad was completed in 1912. Key Largo was an important stop for the railroad and there was a station on the island.

Key Largo grew again in 1938 when the Overseas Highway was built to link Miami to Key West via highway 4A, making it possible for cars to drive from Miami to Key West.

Things to Do on Key Largo

There are many things to do in and around Key Largo.

One of the most famous and popular attractions is the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida Keys
Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established in 1963. It was named after John Pennekamp who helped protect the natural environment in south Florida.

Pennekamp was a newspaper editor and was heavily involved in preservation efforts. He helped secure the protection and establishment of Everglades National Park and the marine preserve which would later be named after him.

Pennekamp recognized that the sensitive marine ecosystems needed protection from development, including coral, marine life, shore birds and the complex natural ecosystems.

A river through mangroves in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo

The state park is located next to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Combined, the two protect approximately 178 square nautical miles of important marine ecosystems. These areas would have been lost, ruined and developed without protection.

Protected areas include mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds, beaches and living shorelines, among others.

John Pennekamp State Park was the first underwater park in the United States. The park boundaries are approximately 25 miles long and extend for three miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the undersea park is located offshore.

Scuba Diving

Scuba diving in Key Largo, Florida Keys

Key Largo is known as the “Diving capital of the world”. Visitors should remember that those “designations” are usually made up by local businesses and tourism marketing departments.

Still, Key Largo and the surrounding area is one of the best places to scuba dive in Florida, and the United States.

It has some of the best and only living coral reefs in the continental U.S., and there are extensive underwater preserves to protect the marine environment.

Coral reef in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida Keys

Still, scuba diving in the Keys may be disappointing or depressing for some visitors who have dove in pristine environments around the world. Coral reefs in Florida have been bleached, diseased, damaged and depleted in many areas.

The sea around Key Largo provides a wide range of diving conditions. Sites vary considerably and range from approximately 20 feet down to more than 100 feet deep.

Many other Upper Keys dive sites are accessible within a short distance. Depending on the location it may be advisable to drive to a separate island rather than access via boat.

There several shipwrecks near Key Largo, which is part of the 100-mile long Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail:

  • The Spiegel Grove
  • The Benwood
  • The USCG Duane
  • Bibb
  • Eagle

Scuba diving the Christ of the Abyss statue dive site in Key Largo, Florida Keys

There are also other types of dive sites, including coral reef walls, rock piles, ledges, the famous Christ of the Abyss statue, and others:

  • Elbow Reef
  • Key Largo
  • Northern Dry Rocks
  • Christ of the Abyss
  • Grecian Rocks
  • Spiegel Grove
  • Benwood
  • French Reef
  • Sand Island
  • Molasses Reef
  • USCG Bibb Wreck
  • USCG Dauen Wreck
  • Pickles Reef
  • Snapper Ledge
  • Conch Reef and Wall
  • Carysfort Reef Lighthouse

Snorkeling

Snorkeling is also popular to see a variety of wildlife, possibly including sea turtles, dolphins, manatees and more.

Snorkeling tour in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo

Snorkeling tours are often divided into morning or afternoon sessions.

Snorkeling experiences vary widely based on the tour operator. Visitors should ask questions about what to expect, especially where the tour will go, what to expect to see, and most of all, how many snorkelers will be on the tour.

Operators may have differing policies on the requirement of lifejackets to be worn in the water, what equipment will be provided, and other tour-specific factors that influence the trip quality.

Natural Attractions

A crocodile in Key Largo, Florida Keys

There are several natural state parks and preserves in and around Key Largo:

  • Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
  • Everglades National Park
  • Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
  • Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge
  • Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

Fishing

Fishing is extremely popular on Key Largo and nearby Islamorada.

Both Key Largo and Islamorada are sandwiched between the rich, shallow waters of Florida Bay and the deep waters of the Atlantic.

Shallow “backcountry” fishing in Florida Bay and offshore fishing charters are both exceptionally popular. Each offer excellent opportunities to catch a variety of exciting, hard-fighting sport and game fish

Best Times to Visit Key Largo

Visitors should know that Key Largo can become crowded during peak times because it is the closest Key to Miami, and therefore easiest to access.

Most locals agree that the best time to visit Key Largo is from November until March. That is also the busiest time though, so it is a tradeoff.

During peak time prices are more expensive. Hotels, restaurants and tours will be crowded and reservations will likely be required for most things.

The summer is also a popular time to visit for families whose kids are out of school on summer vacation. Sadly, summer is the worst time to visit the Florida Keys in terms of weather and general comfort. The sun is extremely intense and the weather is almost guaranteed to be miserable, hot and muggy. Mosquitoes and noseeums are also worse during the summer and can be intolerable.

For people without kids, the shoulder seasons in late fall and early spring are great times to visit for slightly lower prices, fewer crowds and pleasant temperatures.

Visitors should also consider the possibility of cold weather, high winds and cold fronts during winter months.

Strong northerly winds are common during the winter. The water usually stays relatively warm, but the air temperature can drop to uncomfortably cold temperatures for swimming. Wet suits may be recommended depending on the air and water temperature.

High winds can also create rough ocean conditions which make water activities uncomfortable, or may even be cancelled.

Visitors should also consider the North Atlantic Hurricane Season, which lasts from June 1st until November 30th. Hurricane activity is often most intense during the late fall in September and October. Hurricanes and tropical storms may cause bad weather, activity cancellations or even forced evacuations.

There are also seasonal events in and around Key Largo, including the ​​Islamorada and Key Largo Food and Wine Festival, among others. Festivals and events may be an attraction for some, or a deterrent for others as it will generally increase prices, crowds and other hassles.

Featured Image by Sebastian Carlosena, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons