The Tampa Bay area has all sorts of places to escape and feel like you’re on vacation without having to drive very far or fly off somewhere.
And, when you get company from afar, there’s always someplace wonderful like Fort De Soto Park to take them. Here, all in one place, are a world-class beach, views of both the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, two fishing piers, boat launches, a historic fort, a ferry ride to Egmont Key, nature trails, kayak rentals, picnic shelters and the chance to see dolphins, manatees and more than 300 species of birds.
If you like to camp, the park – Pinellas County’s largest, with 1,136 acres – offers 238 camp sites for tents, pop-ups and RVs.
When my niece, Katie, visited recently from Georgia, we spent the day at the park soaking up sun, touring the fort and its museum, and strolling on Gulf Pier, where we saw five dolphins leaping from green, choppy water.
I had promised she’d see dolphins around the pier, attracted by thousands of tiny bait fish that always seem to be around.
And, there they were, cruising close to the pier and arching out of the water in pairs – perfect for a picture she sent to her mom.
All sorts of fishermen – from regulars with their wheeled carts overflowing with fishing gear to sunburned tourists – try their luck on the 1,000-foot-long pier, so it’s a good place to people watch.
A friendly fisherman, obviously a regular, helped us spot dolphins, while a younger man, who looked like a spring-breaker, hung his rod over the railing, trying hard to catch bait fish clustered under the pier. A cheering section – probably his family – rooted him on.
We saw all sorts of birds that day – seagulls soaring over the pier, pelicans in the bayou fronting the campgrounds, great blue herons and snowy egrets keeping watch at the beaches and curlews, which we call “chickens,” pecking around the camping and picnic grounds.
At the campground, we watched a man fishing in Mullet Key Bayou, water up to his thighs, oblivious to kayakers slipping silently behind him. Many sites line the bayou, with open views of water. We liked the fact that tents – which we prefer – and smaller pop-ups have their own area, separate from spots that allow RVs, which are known to run noisy generators, even at night.
Campers with dogs have yet another area – far from campers who prefer to travel without pets. The opposite was true at Jonathan Dickinson State Park on the east coast when we visited recently. Giant RVs overshadowed tiny tents and lots of campers had dogs in the campground we saw.
Fort De Soto’s campsites also offer lots more shade: most are nestled among trees that provide a natural barrier between sites. Bathhouses – some recently updated – were clean on our visit. A camp store sells everything from food to camping supplies and Florida souvenirs.
And, it’s a bargain to camp there at right around $40 a night for tent or RV.
A walking, biking trail leads to the boat launch area, with 11 floating docks, where we saw kayakers heading out for a ride. The trail also goes to the beach, and to the Gulf and Bay piers, the fort, picnic areas and shelters, and to a concession/snack bar/souvenir shop next to the fort.
After checking it out, we decided to eat there, since it would have taken too much time away from the park to drive to eat lunch somewhere else. We were happily surprised to find that the food was very good – fresh and cooked right there by a short-order cook. And, the price was good, under $10, for an excellent Caesar salad with grilled chicken. We ate at picnic tables just outside the concession with mostly British tourists on holiday.
It was an easy stroll to the fort, built in the late 1800s to protect the Tampa Bay area during the Spanish-American War. We walked around the remaining fortifications and studied the two British rapid-fire rifles built in 1890 that once protected Egmont Key, when it was home to Fort Dade and later moved to Fort De Soto so more people could see them.
And, we checked out the last four 12-inch M 1890-MI mortars remaining in North America. The only others are in the Philippines. Surprisingly, very little signage – or historical information – is available at the fort. But, we later discovered a free history museum that offers all sorts of information about the fort in a building next to the Gulf Pier’s parking lot.
A park brochure online at PinellasCounty.org (select Fort De Soto Park) also features a historic walking tour of the fort with pictures and lots of good information.
It’s best to go the museum, or check out the brochure, before visiting the fort. We wish we had.
The park’s beach is among the best in the country, with powdery white sand, and on weekdays there are large areas with few people.
The beach deserves its accolades. Stephen Leatherman, known as Dr. Beach, crowned Fort De Soto’s beach as No. 1 in the nation in 2008 and as one of America’s best in 2005. (He never picks the same beach for the top spot more than once). And, Trip Advisor, the popular online travel site, picked it as the nation’s top beach in 2009.
Two designated swim centers – East Beach and North Beach – have plenty of parking, picnic shelters, restrooms, showers and playgrounds. A dog beach area is between the Gulf and Bay piers.
On the beach, a warm breeze blew softly and white billowy clouds danced across a clear blue sky. Sea oats sprung from the sand and kids played under royal blue beach umbrellas. It was a picture postcard day in Florida.
We had one more nice surprise before heading home. We drove south along the beach, past the giant American flag near the park entrance station, and at the end of the road saw kite-boarders soaring above the water, their colorful kites against the sky with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge looming behind them.
It was windy, the perfect day to fly. And, their pleasure was ours.
TIPS FOR THE TRIP
How to get there: Fort De Soto Park is at 3500 Pinellas Bayway South in Tierra Verde. From St. Petersburg, take I-275 south, then exit 17 onto Pinellas Bayway/FL 682 west. After 3 miles, turn left onto Pinellas Bayway (FL 679). Go 6.6 miles to the park. Park entrance is $5.
For information on the park, maps, camping and picnic shelter reservations, see PinellasCounty.org/parks, and choose Fort De Soto Park. For reservations for the ferry to Egmont Key, call (727) 398-6577.
Where to eat: We liked the concession snack shop next to the fort in the park. On another visit, we enjoyed lunch close to the park at the Island Grille & Raw Bar, 210 Madonna Blvd., Tierra Verde. It has good seafood, friendly service and a signature marlin mounted over the entrance.
Fun fact: The park stretches over five keys: Mullet Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Madelaine Key and Bonne Fortune Key.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published June 21, 2017