By JP Chartier
GutterPup Adventures would like to let you in on one of the best kept secrets in Florida, an undeveloped tropical utopia swaddled by three miles of soft white sandy beaches, and sunsets that set the sky ablaze with dramatic oranges, reds, pinks and yellows night after night. This place is a personal favorite of mine, and is my secret get-away “spot” when I’m in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.
This best-kept secret is called Fort De Soto Park, but it is so much more than your typical park.
It consists of five interconnected islands, or “keys,” and gets its name from the 19th-century military fortification that is located there, complete with canon and 20′ thick walls that served as protection during the Spanish-American War. The park is located near the southern most tip of Pinellas County (St. Petersburg, Florida, USA), and is 1,136 acres of pristine, untouched beach-front land.
If you enjoy camping, fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, boating, birding, hiking, bike-riding, hanging out at an American Top-10 beach, swimming in the ocean or taking a stroll through an old military fort, than Fort De Soto Park is where you should be!
So come along with me, and lets explore this park together…
In case you’re wondering what the heck a “key” is – A “key” is actually a special type of island, which is formed on the surface of coral reefs. Ocean currents pick up reef debris (particles that have broken off the reef as well as the skeletal remains of reef dwellers) and, due to tidal flows, deposits them in a particular area. Eventually, this ‘debris’ (which simply looks like sand to us) accumulates, and an island, or a “key” is formed.
The “Fort De Soto Park Campground” is located just inside the entrance to the park. I highly, highly recommend that you stay in the campground, it is top notch! Campers, RVs and tents are welcome and most of their sites are right on the water, what more could you ask for?
There are 241 campsites total, 85 are for tents and vans and the rest can accommodate all camping units. Each site comes with water/electric/grill/picnic table.
They also have a camp store, dump stations and restrooms with showers and laundry facilities.
Tents/Vans/Pop-Ups are $30 a night (as of May 2014)
RVs/Campers are $35 a night
Waterfront Premium Sites add $2 a night
The park has three beaches, one of which, North Beach, is quite famous.
North Beach – This is the jewel of the park, the 2005 #1 Beach in America according to Mr. Beach. This beach is huge, the size of the parking lot foreshadows this fact. After parking your vehicle, you walk past the large covered picnic areas, which you can rent in advance, and are well-kept and shaded by large beautiful pine trees. Make your way past the sand dunes and you’re greeted by the rush of the sea breeze, salty and refreshing to both your sense of smell and taste.
East Beach – This is the secluded beach, and it’s on the opposite end of the park from North Beach, far away from all the crowds. It has everything you need for a great day on the beach – picnic tables, grills, trash cans and plenty of sun, but the best thing by far about East Beach, is the view you get of the Skyway Bridge.
Dog Beach – Yes this park has a beach for your best friend Fido, so be sure to bring along your dog when you come to Fort De Soto Park because dogs have their very own beach! They are allowed to run free and play in the surf with all the other dogs, but have no fear, the Dog Beach is far away from the beaches populated with people.
When Fido is finished running around and playing in the waves, and he’s worked up a good sweat, there is the “Paw Playground” where you can rinse him off in one of their dog showers while he enjoys a refreshing drink in one of the dog water fountains.
The park is home to Fort De Soto, which was named after the famous explorer Hernando de Soto. It was built between 1898 and 1900, the year it became active. It never saw any action during the war, and was eventually evacuated by the Army in 1923.
During WWII, Mullet Key, where the fort is located, was used as a bombing range. Thousands of tons of bombs were dropped during these training runs, and the search for unexploded bombs still goes on to this very day.
In 1948 Pinellas County bought the island from the government, and in 1963 Fort De Soto Park was established, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1967.
The “Quartermaster Storehouse Museum” is a small reconstructed army building that contains historical information about the fort, there are wall panels that tell about the early history of the area, from the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors encountered the Toccobaga Indians. There are also historical artifacts on display, as well as three cases that contain Spanish-American War items. You can also find information on WWII military history here as well. The museum is free of charge to all park visitors.
Barrier-Free Nature Trail – This is a handicap friendly 2,200 ft. well maintained trail that provides a self-guided experience for all. The trail is 8′ wide to allow two wheelchairs to pass each other if necessary. There are benches located throughout the trail to rest or contemplate, and even a water fountain when you get thirsty. You will notice informative signs that point out the different flora that you’re seeing. There are even touch activated boxes that help enhance your trail experience.
There is the 46′ “Tampa Bay Ferry” that picks up park visitors at the smaller of the two piers located in the park and takes them to nearby Egmont Key for $20 a person (May 2014).
Fort De Soto Park is legendary among birders, and is one of the most popular birding locations in Florida for its spectacular offerings during migration, especially in spring when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. A staggering 325-plus species of birds have been sighted here, so be sure to stop at the Visitor Center/Headquarters to check the recent sightings log (add your own when you’re done), and pick up a park map and bird finding guide/checklist. You can also pick up a loaner binocular if you need one.
There are two piers for visitors to enjoy in the park, and they both offer excellent fishing. There is the smaller Bay Pier, 500′ in length, and the larger 1000′ long Gulf Pier to choose from. Both piers are free to all visitors of the park, and the best thing about them is that you don’t need to have a Florida Fishing License to fish off of them. The piers are open until 11 pm and have ample lighting so you can see to clean your catch. The Tampa Bay Ferry loads from the Bay Pier.
Where is your favorite “secret spot” located? How about your favorite beach?
loved your posts…very informative and helpful. is there an area to snorkel and view a coral reef??
Yes there is snorkeling in several areas, as far as viewing a coral reef I cannot say. I would like to thank you for your kind words!
Great, informative post. I had no idea why ‘keys’ were called keys; I just figured it was another name for an island. Who knew?! Definitely adding this park to my list for next time we’re in Florida visiting family.
Hi! I think Ft. DeSoto Park would be a great addition to your vacation itinerary the next time you visit Florida, there are a lot of beaches around, but not quite like this one!
Fabulous post. I have heard the camping is spectacular. I love the fact that you can bird and then hit the beach. Two activities that do not often go together.
That’s so true Ted. There is so much to do, you really need a weekend to properly see and do everything. But the campground is a MUST!!
I love special places like this! I try and visit FL beaches regularly, so I’m putting this one on the list. Looks like lots of variety which I like. Visiting the forts along the coastline is also very interesting. Thanks so much for sharing!
You are very welcome! There is an abundance of variety at the park, a lot to keep one busy for sure. If you’re into kayaking, this place is like heaven, so many nooks and crannies to be discovered 🙂
I finally made it to your site and I have to say I am glad I did!!
This is a great article, fun and informative at the same time with some great images.
Fort De Soto Park is certainly somewhere people should seriously consider adding to the to do list and if you happen to be in the area get on down there guys…..
I’m glad you made it Darren! Please don’t be a stranger in the future 🙂
Great, useful overview you’ve got here! I have yet to make it to Florida on a road trip, and will definitely check this place out when it’s time to plan the itinerary!
Hi Sarah, what makes Ft. De Soto Park even better is its location, you have downtown St. Pete & several other beaches close by.
Good to know. Thanks!
You’re welcome Sarah 🙂
Wish I would have known about this when I was in Tampa two months ago! Thanks for sharing – definitely a good reason to get back to Florida!
Hey Steve, yeah you’ve got a cool place to hang out next time you’re here. Hey, check out some of the other articles on my blog, there are other cool, overlooked places that I’ve written about in the Tampa Bay area.
I appreciate the information! It’s hard to find a beach that isn’t so over crowded, plus you have the historic aspect here. You really laid it out well and you included great photos! Thanks!!
I appreciate that Marilyn! There are so many nooks & crannies around the park that it’s very easy to find a secluded area, where you can have some peace and quiet 🙂
Very beautiful. My wife and I honeymooned on Sanibel Island; also spectacular there. This post and your photos remind me a lot of our honeymoon.
Thanks Jason, Sanibel Island is gorgeous! I’ll hopefully get back soon so I can write it up 🙂