Is Fort De Soto park the best beach in the country?

Fort De Soto Park is a county-owned park in Pinellas County, and as county-owned parks go, it’s one of the most spectacular.

With a beach that regularly ranks in Dr. Beach’s completely arbitrary top 10 beaches in the country, a historic fort, kayak trails, fishing piers, an amazing campground and miles of hiking and biking trails, there is no shortage of things to do at the park.

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Fort De Soto has a sentimental place in my heart – it’s where I had some of my earliest and most memorable tent camping experiences.  It was also one of the closest wilderness areas to my childhood home, presenting a drastically different beach landscape than the nearby tourist-filled, condominium-lined beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater.

Because of it’s status as a protected county park, there is almost no development near the beach (none, in fact, other than the buildings operated by the park rangers).  It’s also quite out of the way from everything else – it’s not on the way to anything – cutting down on the size of the crowd.  Outside of the peak periods, summer weekends, there’s actually very few people there compared to other beaches in the area.

I’m going to highlight the best things to do in the park, the best beaches, the best kayak launches, but before I do so, let me say this: I could not recommend this park any higher.

The geography of Fort De Soto

The park is composed of several islands located south of Pinellas County connected to St. Petersburg by the Pinellas Bayway.  The main island is in an L shape, with half of the island exposed directly to the open waters of the Gulf.  The beaches, fort, dog park, fishing pier and hiking trails are all located on the main island, with the boat ramp and the campground on an island nearer to the mainland.  The bike trail connects several of the islands, and kayak launches can be found all over, but the best one is on the main island.

South St. Pete Map

Fort De Soto is the L shaped island located south of Pinellas County | Copyright Google Earth 2012

Fort De Soto Map

A map highlighting the key points on the Fort De Soto islands. | Copyright Google Earth 2012

Kayaking at Fort De Soto

There are kayak put-ins all over the islands, and truly, the entire interior side of the island is good for paddling.  Small islands, sand embankments and mangrove clusters make for interesting shallow-water paddling.  If you’re fond of fishing from your kayak, there’s a ton of redfish holes that are only accessible by kayak and in water shallow enough for stake out poles.

Kayak Rental Fort De Soto

Rental kayaks at the Topwater Kayak Outpost

The park also has a 2.3-mile guided trail (numerical markers) that leaves from the kayak hut on the main island.  That trail meanders around the coast, but there is no risk of getting lost if you paddle away from the trail. The Topwater Kayak Outpost rents kayaks (singles and doubles, even fishing ‘yaks) and canoes from the mainland, although the price is steep: $30 for the first hour in a double sit-on-top kayak.  If you bring  your own, you can pull your car up right to the water and slide in, so no hand trailers needed.

I do not recommend on attempting to kayak on the Gulf side of the island.  It’s certainly possible on a calm day, but the currents are surprisingly strong and an outgoing tide will make it almost impossible to paddle back to shore.  It’s better to just stay on the inland side of the island.

Hiking at Fort De Soto

The hiking trails on the island are short and sweet.  There are three “hiking” trails on the island – 1 mile, 3/4 mile, and 2,200 feet.  The shortest of the three is wheelchair accessible.  None of them are particularly strenuous, but they do provide for a quiet walk through some unspoiled beachfront and some good opportunities for nature viewing.

Bird at Fort De Soto Beach

A snowy egret wades near a beachfront hiking trail. Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the background.

Hiking Trail Fort De Soto

A hiking trail through a partially burned palm forest.

Camping at Fort De Soto

The park’s campground is one of the nicest around.  Many of the tent spots back up to the water, offering million-dollar views of the Florida sunset for only $30 to $40 a night.  The campground is clean, quiet and convenient, with a nice camp store and friendly rangers.  The bathrooms are clean and within easy walking distance from every campsite.  You can even launch your kayak directly from your site.

Alcohol and pets are prohibited (alcoholic pets are very prohibited), and there is a 10 p.m. “curfew” (no loud music or loud noises, late-night campfires are fine).  Both are good measures, as the park is frequented by large groups that could get rowdy if left unchecked.  The park has an impressive raccoon population – you’ll see their beady eyes watching you at night – so be sure to secure your food inside your vehicle.  You can reserve your spot online, and you should, as spots tend to fill up early, especially for holiday weekends.

Fort De Soto Campsite

A typical waterfront, tent campsite. For $36 a night, it can’t be beat.

The fort

The most obvious and imposing feature of the park, aside from the beach, is the fort for which the island is named.  Military activity on the island has a long history, dating back, in fact, to Robert E. Lee, who first recommended that the island be used as a defensive outpost during the Civil War.  The island, and nearby Egmont Key, were instead occupied by Union troops, who used the island as part of a blockade of Tampa Bay.

The current fort was built in the late 1800s as part of preparations for the Spanish-American War.  It was occupied on and off for the next 150 years, with the final military activity taking place in 1948.  Since then, it has been owned by Pinellas County – but wasn’t easily accessible to county residents until a highway was built out to the island in 1963.

Lookout Top of Fort Fort De Soto

Looking out toward the North Beach from the top of the fort.

All of that is a long way of saying that the fort is pretty cool.  Visitors to the park can climb to the top of the fort for a great view of the beaches and the Gulf – and the internal chambers are open for visitors to walk through.  Some of the rooms and walkways, mostly used for munitions storage, are very dark and damp, with all the cheeriness you’d expect from a late 1800s weapons storage facility.

The mortars are still proudly on display, and you can almost imagine the weapons manned and ready to defend the port. It’s a neat experience to walk around the fort, touch the guns, climb the stairs.  The view’s not bad either.

The beach

Fort De Soto Beach

The beach – beautiful and empty on a Saturday afternoon.

The beaches at Fort De Soto are amazing, but the best one is North Beach.  As you drive out to the island, take a right when the highway dead ends at the flagpole.  Continue heading north until the road ends.  Park, and you’ll be at the greatest beach on the Gulf Coast.

Beach Access Fort De Soto

Beach access.

As would be expected with beaches in this part of Florida, the sand is white and soft, the water is cool and clear, and the atmosphere is relaxed.  There’s no development on the island, so there won’t be beach music or umbrellas or lounge chairs or rental Jet Skis.  Just water, sand, palm trees and you.

There are a few picnic pavilions with barbecue grills that you can reserve (non-reserved pavilions are first-come, first-served).  And like the campground, there’s a strict policy against alcohol.

While the waters are warm year-round, there is always a bit of danger of rip tides when swimming out at Fort De Soto.  That shouldn’t discourage you from going, but be vigilant and don’t let your bravado exceed your abilities.  Once you’re out 100 feet or so, you can feel the tide tugging at your feet under the water.  Stay close to shore and avoid the areas that are clearly marked as dangerous.

Biking at Fort De Soto

Bikers Fort De Soto

The bike trail working its way toward the South Beach.

There’s a 6.8-mile (one way) bike trail that runs the length of the island.  It’s paves and smooth and, for the most part, avoids going in a straight line.  It offers some  great views of the beach and the fort, and if you’re not in a hurry, is a great way to stop and see all that the island has to offer.

I’d recommend starting with your bike at the less-crowded South Beach, riding up the beach and stopping at the barrier-free trail for a hike, continuing on until a stop at the pier, peddling down the trail for a brief walk around the fort and continuing on for a look around the North Beach.  The trail ends at the northern tip of the island, so make the 6.8-mile trip back down to South Beach and take a dip in the water to cool off.  Can’t beat that for a relaxing afternoon, right?

The sun setting from Ft. De Soto

The sun setting from Fort De Soto

—-

Admission to the park is $5.  (That’s a recent development.)  There are also two unavoidable tolls on your way to the island, for a total of $1.25.  Once you’re on the island, everything else is free.  Bikes, kayaks, food and dogs are all welcome.  Dogs must be on leashes except at the dog park of the dog beach. Here’s a driving map to the park.

If you’ve been to Fort De Soto, share your thoughts in the comments section!
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Comments

  1. Hi thanks for sharing! Love this place, we hiked here back in the summer. I love that there is a park here for hiking and beach activities and not condos everywhere. I’d like to camp here sometime, also found several geocaches here.

  2. Maria Esantos says:

    What an amazing place. We live in Pasco County and are looking for somewhere nearby to camp — you know, cheap, fun for the kids, things to do. THis looks like it might just fit the bill! Wonderful post!

  3. Is there somewhere to eat out there?

    • There is a “grill” out on the island – hot dogs, burgers, ice cream. I think of De Soto as more of a picnic place, and I usually bring my own food. On your way out there, though, you’ll pass a number of restaurants and cafes with much better food than what’s available on the island. Have fun!

  4. This is one of my absolute favorite parks to visit! It’s a two hour drive from my house but definitely worth it. Great place to spend the day!

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  1. […] week, I reviewed Fort De Soto park in Pinellas County.  This picture didn’t make it into that review, but I wanted to share it […]

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