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People have been snorkeling, in some form or fashion, for thousands of years. Skin and freedivers around the world have been plunging into the depths of the ocean in search of food, pearls, and shipwrecks since long before recorded history. One of the earliest references to snorkeling in Western history comes from Aristotle, who told tales of how Greek soldiers breathed through reeds as they hid underwater from Persian soldiers, plotting their attack.
It wasn’t until the 1920s, off the coast of southern France, that newly competitive European freedivers like Jacques O’Marchal began experimenting with breathing tubes and masks that we now know as the modern-day snorkel. Soon, divers and beachgoers all over the world were seeking out the best places to snorkel. Thankfully, there are plenty in the U.S.
14 Of the Best Places to Snorkel in the United States
Snorkeling is great because, unlike scuba diving, you don’t need much equipment or training and there’s comparatively less risk. And while you can’t go everywhere the scuba divers go, there’s no shortage of places to snorkel, not only along the United States’ 95,471 miles coast and shoreline, but also in lakes, rivers, and even flooded volcanic calderas and craters.
And because the flippers are the bulkiest part of a snorkeling setup, it’s not hard to tote your snorkeling gear along to your favorite campground, whether you’re flying to your destination in Maui, driving down to Gulf Shores after work, or spending the week soaking up the sun in the Dry Tortugas. We’ve rounded up 14 of the best places to snorkel in the United States where you can bring those Little Mermaid fantasies to life and check out first hand what’s under the sea:
1. Dry Tortugas National Park — Florida
One of the southernmost points in the country, Dry Tortugas also has the distinction of being the most secluded National Park in the United States. Accessible only by ferry and with only primitive camping to offer, this is a prime destination for those who love the backcountry as much as the colorful world underwater. And because less than 1 percent of Dry Tortugas is actually above water, you have a lot to see once you slip on your snorkel.
From old pier pilings to the ruins of past military fortifications, there’s plenty of manmade infrastructure that’s become a haven for sea life, and a fun place to start your underwater adventure. The Moat Wall and a shallow shipwreck dating back to the early 1900s are other fun attractions that make this one of the best places to snorkel not just in the U.S., but all of Florida. However, the real magic at Dry Tortugas are on the natural reefs, some nearly 12,000 years old, formed by the hard work of 30 coral species, including two rare and endangered corals— the Elkhorn and Staghorn varieties.
Camp Nearby: Dry Tortugas National Park
The ferry company that takes tourists out to the Dry Tortugas is also a great resource that will help reduce, or at least shape, your packing list. There’s no water at any of the Dry Tortugas’ primitive campsites, hence how this far-flung key got its name. That said, you can bring water aboard, and sometimes fill up when the ferry docks. Keep in mind that fires aren’t allowed on the Tortugas, and you can’t bring compressed fuels. Only self-starting charcoal and Sterno gel are allowed.
Also remember that passengers are limited 60 pounds of gear per person, not including your water. You’ll also want to skip the hammock and tent camp to protect sparse vegetation on the Tortugas. Don’t forget proper food storage, either, as beach rats will definitely be interested in sharing your snacks. If you’re hoping to kayak as well as snorkel, you can bring up to three kayaks or small canoes (no greater than 17 ft in length) for $20 each, round trip. Inflatable kayaks are not recommended due to strong sea currents, however.
“The snorkeling is really wonderful and very special once the ferries and seaplanes leave for the day and you have the island pretty much to yourself – magical. During the day you can take Ranger led tours of the Fort and just hang out, bird watch relax, etc.” –The Dyrt camper Shirwil L.
2. Navarre Beach — Florida
For a few brief months during the summer of 2004, Navarre Beach was a state park, Florida’s answer to Mississippi’s Gulf Islands National Seashore. Then Hurricane Ivan blew through, and Hurricane Dennis the following year. The destruction from those storms gave the county a chance to take control of Navarre Beach, and invest heavily in artificial reef building and marine ecosystem restoration.
There is also a massive “super reef” one mile out that was constructed using a $1.22 million grant from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) program following the 2011 Deep Horizon oil spill. Today, Navarre Beach is home to a total of three public reefs easily reached from shore, making this one of the best places to snorkel near a metro area. In order to increase access to the public, Navarre Beach has permanent beach wheelchair access, too, for outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities.
Camp Nearby: Navarre Beach Campground
You can camp close to the action a mile away from the public beach and Santa Rosa Sound at Navarre Beach Campground, a private oasis with tent & RV sites, as well as cabins. Other amenities include a 300-foot fishing pier, a camp store, WiFI, a game room, playground, dog walk, heated swimming pool, and hot tub. In addition to having snorkeling access at Navarre Beach, you’ll also be close to the Blackwater Heritage State Trail, which is popular with nature walkers, bikers, equestrians, and bird-watchers.
“First you will check in at the front office, where you will be greeted by a very kind lady. They are very knowledgeable about the area and when you are done checking in a man on a cart will escort you to your campsite. We tent camped but we had a nice shady spot on a comfortable raised sand bed. This campground has its own sweet little beach and pier. Also has a small hot tub and a 4 foot deep heated pool.” –The Dyrt camper Katie N.
3. Cinnamon Bay — Virgin Islands
In many ways, Cinnamon Bay seems like it was designed to be one of the best places to snorkel in the United States, or the Carribbean. With waters so shallow the challenge is to avoid bumping the reef, you definitely don’t need a charter boat to access habitat for beautiful tropical fish. And because the whole Cay is surrounded by reef, there’s plenty to explore underwater. There’s just one hitch— Hurricane Irma.
Camp Nearby: Cinnamon Bay Campground
Although it’s been almost two years since the category 5 storm hit, and though you can definitely enjoy snorkeling in Cinnamon Bay today, the campground hasn’t quite recovered yet. In May of 2019, it was announced that the campground had a new owner who would be doing extensive refurbishment to bring the whole place back and better than ever in time for the 2020 camping season, which isn’t too far off. Until then, save Cinnamon Bay for your bucket list and count down to when camping near one of the best places to snorkel in the Virgin Islands is back and better than ever!
“Some of the best snorkeling was here! We saw so many beautiful fish, turtles and colorful plants. We did a ton of snorkeling here, and enjoyed every bit of it. The beach was clean, but again it was busy. Go early to claim a spot!” –The Dyrt camper Drew W.
4. Anacapa Island — California
California has a reputation as a surf destination, but is less lauded for it’s snorkeling. That’s a shame, especially with spots like Anacapa Island, whose wild kelp forests make this one of the best places to snorkel on the west coast. While Anacapa itself is lonesome, remote, and occupied mostly by seabirds, the tidepools and surrounding ocean are filled with seeing-bright sea stars, spiny sea urchins, and day-glo orange Garibaldi. You can even get a preview of the scenery thanks to Channel Islands Live, a broadcast put on by the National Parks Service from diving rangers sharing updates from this unique marine sanctuary.
Camp Nearby: Anacapa Backcountry Campground
Because Anacapa is so remote, you want to make sure your backcountry camping skills are well up to snuff, and that you stock up fully before departing Santa Barbara. Bring plenty of water and food, as well as a bear canister to keep mice and the gulls at bay. When you are snorkeling or exploring tide pools, you can enjoy the trails criss crossing Anacapa, including one to an old lighthouse built in the 1930s, which is still in use today.
“The campground and island facilities are pretty well-maintained. Major kudos to our island facilities host – benches, tables, and bear boxes are pressure washed regularly and there are spinning apparatuses to keep gulls off of table tops. The toilets are incredibly impressive. Tiled floors, handcrafted wooden doors, vinyl wall covering, and a hand sanitizer dispenser.” –The Dyrt camper Jo R.
5. Bahia Honda State Park — Florida
It should come as no surprise that so many of the best places to snorkel are in Florida. Bahia Honda is a favorite not only for the snorkel set, but also scuba divers, sea kayakers, and anyone else hoping to soak up the Florida Keys. The incredibly shallow waters on the Atlantic side make for beginner-friendly snorkeling, and you’ll have a chance to see hawksbill sea turtles, octopuses, sponges, seahorses, and queen conch. Nearby Looe Reef is another popular spot for snorkelers in the area.
Camp Nearby: Bahia Honda State Park Campground
Sites are available at Bahia Hodna for tent and RV campers, as well as slips for those who like boat-in campsites. RV sites in the Buttonwood camping area have electricity, water, a picnic table and grills, as well as access to a dump station, restrooms and hot showers. Sites in the Bayside area are non-electric, and smaller in scale. RVs over 50 feet are too big for most of the sites in Bahia Honda State Park, so be aware if you’re driving a big rig.
“While the space itself is breathtaking, the location is great too and provides a lot of opportunity to explore all the Keys. Be sure to catch the sunset on the bridge and get plenty of snorkeling in. The sand bar goes way out and there is SO much to see!” –The Dyrt camper Ronnie M.
6. Ho’okena Beach Park — Hawaii
It’s also not terribly surprising that Hawaii is yet another state with more than its fair share of the best places to snorkel. Hookena Beach on the Big Island isn’t as crowded as some of the other favorite surf and snorkel spots on the island, and there’s a place to rent snorkel equipment right on the beach if you didn’t bring your own. Proceeds from the rentals go to the Friends of Ho’okena Beach Park to fund preservation efforts.
Dolphins and sea turtles frequent the area, as does Hawaii’s state fish, the epically-named Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. There are so much marine life here that it is still a site where Hawaiian natives still practice traditional canoe fishing techniques from this site. Be respectful of what this place means to indigenous peoples, especially the cliffs at the south end of the beach, which are especially sacred ground.
Camp Nearby: Ho’okena Beach Park Campground
Amenities are pretty basic, but there’s a sink where you can do dishes, outdoor showers, restrooms, and barbecue pits. You can purchase WiFi separately after you make your campsite reservation. As with many Hawaiian campgrounds, rates are different for locals and mainlanders, and pets are not allowed. Tent camping is also the name of the game at Ho’okena, as there are no sites for RVs and hammocks.
Stop at nearby Menehune Coffee Company for local beans and one of the Big Island’s favorite dishes— loco moco. This combination of rice, ground beef, and brown gravy was invented in Hilo, on the other side of Hawai’i, and will stop any hangover in its tracks, not to mention fuel you for a mighty day of snorkeling and beach play.
“My favorite place to camp in Hawaii. A small and isolated beach well hidden from the average person it seems. Ho’okena is a fun place to get a feel of local vibes for sure. Great and very accommodating staff. Real bathrooms as well as fairly clean porta-potties they provide closer to the actual camp sites. Some really amazing snorkeling too!” –The Dyrt camper Bryce H.
7. Laguna Madre Estuary — Texas
Texas is better known for desert art installations and glamping in Marfa, backcountry desert camping, and Big Bend wildflower blooms than snorkeling. But with 367 miles of coastline and plenty of oil rig infrastructure that marine life have adopted as habitat, there’s actually some pretty good opportunities to slip on your fins and mask in the Lone Star State. Head to South Padre Island near Corpus Christi for one of the best places to snorkel in Texas.
Laguna Madre Estuary, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, is a hypersaline lagoon packed with tropical fish like pinfish, smooth butterfly rays, houndfish, and sleeper gobies. On shore, there’s even more to see, with an abundance of sea and songbirds that call the estuary home. Off-roading is popular here, though even robust 4x4s can easily get in trouble in the soft sand, and you should be mindful of sea turtle nests in the area.
Camp Nearby: South Padre Island Primitive Camping
There’s 60 miles of primitive beach camping to enjoy, too, which you can reach from Beach Access #5 and Beach Access #6. Be sure to bring a bear canister to protect your food from wildlife, pack in plenty of food and water, and pack your trash out when you leave. It’s wise to bring a portable toilet or wag bag, too.
“South Padre is a perfect place to go when you really want to get away from everything. Great beach camping and you can drive down as far as you’d like. We are always able to find a spot with no one else around.” –The Dyrt camper Paige R.
8. Papalaua Wayside Park — Hawaii
Back in Hawaii, Papalaua Wayside Park gives you something a little different from some of the other contenders for the best places to snorkel in the Aloha State. In addition to clear waters that let you spy on sea turtles and tropical fish, you might even see whales go by. But the real secret to Papalaua isn’t the snorkeling directly from the beach, but forty minutes south if you head out to Molokini.
This sunken volcanic crater sits two miles offshore from Makena State Park, a day-use beach where you might encounter a handful of nudist outdoor enthusiasts. Once you boat out to Molokini, there’s a wealth of reef to explore and visibility up to 150 feet, giving you a lot of opportunities to peep the 200 species of fish endemic to the crater. And thanks to the extensive curve of the caldera, you’ll be protected from the rougher currents and waves you find this far from shore.
Camp Nearby: Papalaua Campground
Drive back up to Papalaua after your snorkel sesh for prime no-frills Hawaii beach camping. The only days campers aren’t welcome are Wednesdays and Thursdays, otherwise you’re free to camp with purchase of a $10 permit for adult mainlanders. There are no designated sites, so you’re free to set up wherever looks good. Definitely bring a bear canister to protect your food, and it can’t hurt to bring extra toilet paper just in case.
“Great location. The cheapest place to camp on the west side of Maui. Located on the southern shore, the camping is all beach camping right along the beautiful coast. Trees for shade, porta potties for bathrooms.” –The Dyrt camper Carrie S.
9. Elliot Key — Florida
Part of Biscayne National Park close to the Miami shore, Elliot Key offers snorkelers a rare chance to explore not only reefs and schools of fish, but also a series of sunken shipwrecks that make up the Florida Maritime Heritage Trail. Park rangers even float special ecotourism offerings, like guided tours of the shipwrecks and other parts of this unique park, which is 95% water. That’s in addition to options for self-guided snorkeling tours of Biscayne and several licensed charters that will take snorkelers and divers to different parts of the park, as well as on deep sea fishing trips, bowfishing expeditions, and seaplane tours.
Camp Nearby: Elliot Key Campground
You can only reach Elliot Key by boat, so your slip fee is included along with the cost of your camping permit. Tent sites come with access to restrooms with sinks and cold water showers, as well as basic amenities like picnic tables and grills. If you want to sit by the campfire, you may want to bring a portable fire pit, though, because ground fires are not allowed except in the Elliot Key group campsite.
“This park is all about the water. Awesome kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The water is beautiful, and the park itself is super relaxing!” –The Dyrt camper Sam D.
10. Laguna Grande and Faro Las Cabezas De San Juan — Puerto Rico
The Virgin Islands don’t have a monopoly on the best places to snorkel in the Carribean. Puerto Rico, for all its struggles since Hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into the island, remains a tropical paradise well worth exploring. Laguna Grande and Faro Las Cabezas De San Juan are two stunning aquatic destinations that offer very different experiences.
The former is a bioluminescent lagoon popular with nighttime kayakers. The latter is home to a picturesque lighthouse and excellent snorkeling. The lighthouse at Faro Las Cabezas itself is closed for repairs after Irma and Maria wreaked havoc. That said, tour companies and outfitters are still offering snorkel gear rentals and excursions into the bay, and the local economy could definitely use tourist dollars. Guided tours of Laguna Grande in particular help you learn about the landscape while also protecting it from overuse and harm.
Camp Nearby: El Yunque National Forest
Laguna Grande and Far Las Cabezas are just a short drive from the dispersed campsites in El Yunque National Forest. Unfortunately, some of the best places to snorkel and camp in Puerto Rico are still in the process of recovery. Camping in El Yunque isn’t currently available, but many of the trails in this national forest are open to hikers still. It’s well worth putting a pin on an El Yunque National Forest camping and snorkeling trip for as soon as these one-of-a-kind destinations are fully back online. Or you can come now for the snorkeling and save the camping for a return visit. Stay updated on their current status here.
“This place is absolutely beautiful! Some trails were blocked off due to damage from Maria but what we did get to experience was well worth our time! Although we weren’t allowed to camp we still had an amazing time. From the waterfalls and beautiful foliage to the Coqui singing for us all day. The trails are clean and well maintained even in spite of the recent hurricane. I can’t wait to go back!!” –The Dyrt camper DeWayne H.
11. Punalu’u Beach State Park — Hawaii
Just southwest of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is Punaluu Beach, one of Hawaii’s famous black sand beaches that is home to hawksbill sea turtles the size of your coffee table. Not only is the beach beautiful in its own right, and close to the fabulous restaurants and farmers markets of Hilo, Hawaii, it’s also one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island. Ninole Cove provides a safe, gentle place to ease into the water before your flip your fins in search of coral, fish, and more turtles.
Camp Nearby: Punalu’u Beach Camping
It should be no surprise that the snorkeling here is so good when Punalu’u Means “diving spring.” The camping is nice, too, though, with outdoor showers, drinking water, and a grassy area where you can pitch your tents. There’s also a pretty little pond full of water lilies just behind the beach, where dense groves of trees cluster near the shore. Keep an eye out near the pavillions for the ancient Kiʻi pohaku, or petroglyphs, left here by native Hawaiians long ago.
“My family and I loved this part of Hawai’i and coming to this beach. We had some of the best snorkeling we have ever had, here. We saw turtles, tons of fish, and 1 shark!! The water was super clear and pretty warm. There was also a really cool cliff to jump off of. This beach Park is close to the town, which makes it nice for food.” –The Dyrt camper Sasha W.
12. Possum Kingdom State Park — Texas
You don’t have to be by the ocean to enjoy some great snorkeling— just ask anyone who’s slipped on some fins to try river snorkeling in streams across the country, or who has ever taken a dive in the much-beloved lake at Possum Kingdom State Park. Once immortalized in a song by Texas rock favorites The Toadies, Possum Kingdom was also the site of the first annual Toadies-run music festival, an event known as Dia De Los Toadies. But Possum Kingdom is a year-round playground for anyone near Fort Worth, where the lake provides a much-needed place to cool off.
Camp Nearby: Possum Kingdom State Park Campground
With three hundred miles of shoreline, there’s no shortage of places to start your snorkel adventure at Possum Kingdom. There’s also no shortage of great camping options, with a little something for everyone, from Texas glamping in air-conditioned cabins to sites with water and electrical hookups, water-only sites, or primitive walk-in sites. The Possum Kingdom State Park Store and Marina sells some camping essentials, groceries, and rents lake equipment, too, in case you forget something essential like broad spectrum sunscreen.
“We have been camping here for about 35 years. Started out tent camping and now prefer a RV. Love this park. Many of the campsites are directly on the water, the wind coming off the water will keep you cool in the summer. We camp here year round. We camp to relax and this is great place for this.” –The Dyrt camper Cynthia D.
13. Gulf Islands National Seashore — Mississippi
Like Texas and California, Mississippii is another state that doesn’t exactly come to mind when you’re trying to name the best places to snorkel. That’s too bad, since the Gulf Islands National Seashore is full of things to explore, from sea grass beds full of tropical fish to sunken shipwrecks. The bay side of Santa Rosa Island is one of the best places to snorkel in the Gulf Islands, with clouds of pinfish, pipefish, and seahorses hiding amongst underwater vegetation. You can also see a drowned tugboat on the bay side, while 1.5 miles outside Pensacola Pass divers can check out the remains of the USS Massachusetts battleship.
Camp Nearby: Cajun RV Park
Camp nearby at Cajun RV Park, just half an hour up the road from Gulf Islands. It’s not backcountry camping by any means, but you will be close to all the fun things there are to do in the Biloxi/Gulfport area, and directly across the street from white sand beaches. There’s free WiFi, a playground, swimming pool, outdoor fireplace, and dog park to serve the 130 large RV sites with pull-thrus and 30/50 amps.
“Nice RV Park with Gulf Access. Some concrete pads, some gravel pads, full hookups, pool, and laundry facilities. Quite, except for go-kart park next door until 10:00 pm. They provide coffee and danish-pastries each morning at 9am. Gulf and beach access right across the street. Close to all the casinos, great restaurants and beach boardwalk.” –The Dyrt camper Donnita Dawn D.
14. Homestead Crater, Utah
Like Mississippi and Texas, land-locked Utah is rarely associated with underwater sports. But Homestead Crater isn’t any ordinary contender for one of the best places to snorkel, either. For one, it’s not actually a crater. Instead, its the strange product of thousands of years of snowmelt from the Wasatch Mountains heating deep within the earth, swirling minerals around the swimming hole until they’ve formed a beehive-shaped mass on the surface, concealing the pool within.
Unlike other caves popular with divers or cenotes further south, you don’t need any canyoneering or rappelling skills to get into Homestead Crater, either. Instead, there’s a tunnel through the side of the beehive that lets visitors access the water, which is a constant 90 degrees— just shy of hot tub temperature. And how often can you say that you went snorkeling or stand up paddleboarding in a secret underground hot spring in Utah?
Camp Nearby: Jordanelle State Park
There are overnight accommodations at Homestead Crater, including guest rooms, suites, and condos. But if you’re not feeling indoorsy, you camp camp nearby at Jordanelle State Park. A waterfront destination in its own right, this state park is located off Jordanelle Reservoir, fed by the mighty Provo River. Close by is Park City, too, and a slew of ski slopes from Clayton Peak to Bald Eagle Mountain, Deer Valley Resort, and Alta. Campsites range from hike-in tent-only sites to RV sites with full hookups to cabins. You can even skip worrying about the gear and rent everything you need for a weekend in the woods from Utah Camping Company, from canvas glamping tents to travel trailers.
“Every single campground has a view of the reservoir. Each has a large, cement fire pit with a cooking grate, a large picnic table, and cement patio. The rangers are there 24 hrs and are very friendly and helpful.” –The Dyrt camper SaJatah B.
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