Summer is upon us, the kids are out of school, and you need a vacation! While a trip to the Maldives or the Great Barrier Reef sounds cool, it just is not feasible for most of us. Luckily, the east and west coast of the United States offer amazing snorkeling opportunities and I have narrowed down what I believe to be the very best for those on a budget.
The list consists of personal experiences, interviews with fellow snorkeler/divers, and online research. While places change over time, this list will cater to all ages, experience levels, and all budgets!
1. Florida Keys
Crystal clear…warm water…no flights required. The Florida Keys are a convenient and beautiful destination, hence why they have landed my number one spot. Whether it is the easy access, abundance of marine life, affordable resorts, or sheer number of things to see and do, I find the Keys to be the best snorkeling destination on the east coast. Now the real question becomes which Key to go to?
While the north and southern keys, Largo and West, are the most popular, I will say the areas near Islamorada offer the prettiest snorkeling areas. Areas around Cheeca offer clear water, thriving coral, and an abundance of fish populations. There are plenty of boat tours to choose from around these areas so be sure to check out reviews before booking. A quick search reveals Robbie’s of Islamorada to be the most popular, and highly recommended, way to see the reefs of Islamorada. While I have personally never been on this tour, nearly 1700 reviews and a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor later…I definitely believe this is the best option in the area.
If you decide to head all the way out to Key West, there are a few spots worth noting. Galen and Nicole over at TropicalSnorkeling.com do a great job of reviewing one of the spots I would recommend, Dry Tortugas National Park. It takes a boat or plane to get there, but it is a park based around the historical Fort Jefferson and features plenty to do for the whole family. Snorkeling, historical tours, and fishing (license necessary) are sure to make for an awesome family excursion.
In terms of price, while some of the lodges, resorts, etc. can be a bit pricey, you will be saving TONS of money by not having to fly to a Caribbean location or similar. Even if you live pretty far north on the east coast, it is still cheaper to spend a couple hundred buck on gas than it is to drop anywhere from $2000-3000 on flights for a family of four. Also, the drive down through Florida into the Keys is quite scenic as an added benefit. Road trip anybody?
2. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
If you want to experience one of the coolest places I have ever been, then head on down to the west coast of Florida and check out the manatees.
Did you say manatees? Yes! I actually stumbled onto this spot by accident during a road trip. Crystal River features a spring, Three Sister’s, which is famous for attracting huge docile manatees. A quick kayak trip up the mangrove wrapped channels leads you to an entrance into the springs. Clear, slightly cool, water makes this place a small paradise.
While there are swimming tours that lead up into the spring, I would HIGHLY recommend renting kayaks from nearby and grabbing a map. This puts you on your own time, you can explore other areas, and you can stay/leave if you get cold or decide to hangout longer with the manatees. There is also a boardwalk overlooking the spring, however it is currently closed until November.
The manatees are most active during the colder months as they seek the warmth of the spring. Year round temperature of the spring is 72 degrees so if you are kayaking you will be fine without a wetsuit, however swim tours usually require one. I went during the dead of summer and was lucky enough to see manatees so they do frequent year round.
If you want the same exact experience as I had, it was AWESOME… stay at the Plantation on Crystal River and rent a kayak straight from there. They also offer a ton of other activities as well including a large pool.
3. Catalina Island
For the west coasters reading, this is by far the most famous snorkel spot. Though it is ~25 miles off the coast, and helicopter rides do exist, there are plenty of affordable ways to arrive. After all, we are on a budget here!
Two ferries exist which leave from Dana Point, Newport Beach, San Pedro, and Long Beach. They take about an hour and will add to the adventure, however I am here to talk about the water…so for more information head to the Catalina Chamber of Commerce website.
So what might you see off Catalina? While it may not be the corals of the Keys, don’t worry! California has its own specialties which are sure to mesmerize. Kelp forests rule and these swaying underwater forests are full of life. Sheepshead, sea bass, garibaldi, and plenty of other fish species inhabit the forest and make for amazing snorkeling. Also, the beaches may be a little rocky, but this makes for crystal clear water.
Finally, where do you go and who with? There are plenty of well reviewed snorkel charters worth checking out like Catalina Scuba and Snorkel and Snorkeling Catalina which are worth a check on Trip Advisor. While most of these places rent gear out, if you are going to be visiting more than one location, I would recommend taking at look at my top 5 snorkel combos to save money in the long run. Avalon is going to be the most popular spot to head out of and other areas, including 4 shipwrecks, can be be reached by slightly longer boat rides. Also be sure to look at Casino Point which can be chilly, but has some very tame fish and cool spots to check out.
4. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Yes, I wrote about the Florida Keys already, but this spot deserves it’s own special seat on this list. The Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is, in my opinion, is the best spot on the east coast. Clear water, affordable tours, and plenty to see make it my favorite.
The park is around “70 square nautical miles” and offers snorkeling, diving, boat rentals, fishing, camping, and of course…relaxing. While there are some nearshore mangroves and shipwrecks to see, make the trip out on a charter boat to see the beautiful coral reefs and multitude of fish species. Sharks, barracudas, stingrays, and pretty much every tropical fish you can think of!
The park is located north of Key Largo and here is their main website. For those who are looking for the ultimate getaway at an affordable price, this is the spot. Don’t just take my word for it, TripAdvisor has over 2000 reviews of the park and is ranking in at around 4.5 stars!
5. Beaches of California ( La Jolla, Laguna Beach, Channel Islands)
I don’t want to leave my west coast readers out of the picture, so I have written mini-reviews for each of these popular California snorkeling locations.
La Jolla Cove
Part of San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, the cove is famous and easy spot to reach. Since it faces north, waves are usually light, water is clear, and it is great for kids. Lucky snorkelers may encounter the harmless leopard shark and the more experienced can check out the famous La Jolla caves. I was just near this area and definitely recommend giving it a shot! Be sure to go on a warm day as the water can be chilly while snorkeling, or consider renting a wetsuit.
Shaw’s Cove and Crescent Bay are the spots to be for snorkeling. Exploring Shaw’s Cove will reveal rock formations, some reef, perch, urchins, and eventually a kelp forest as you head over towards Crescent Bay. Parking is free and these spots are about a mile north of Main beach off the Pacific Coast Highway.
The Channel Islands offer some amazing snorkeling, but is also recommended for experienced swimmers only.The Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 main islands, Catalina is included, and offer snorkeling, diving, and plenty of tours.
If I had to recommend the best place to truly experience a snorkeling vacation on a budget, I will always push towards the Keys. however, there are always new spots to be found! Having your own snorkel gear is crucial when first getting started or if you plan on becoming a snorkeling enthusiast. I’ve said it before, but rentals generally won’t cut it. Leaky masks, not having your size, and uncomfortable fins are common on most tours. Need a place to start? Check out my top 5 snorkel combo posts (includes kids gear) for some of the best gear to consider.
Have any of your own spots? Have any spots I have recommended changed dramatically? Please let me know in the comments!