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.

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The mangrove trails at Weedon Island are the coolest ever

A few months ago, I posted a Friday photo from Weedon Island Preserve, in St. Petersburg. The photo was a few years old, but I revisited the park recently to kayak the trails for probably the tenth time.

There’s lots of great kayaking in Florida, and lots in the Tampa Bay area, but nowhere comes close to Weedon Island.  Watch the video for a good summary:

Weedon is located in on the Tampa Bay side (as opposed to the Gulf side) of St. Petersburg.  Even though it’s been open to the public for the last 80 years, you’d be surprised how many people in the Bay area have never even heard of it.

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History and mystery at Rye Preserve in Manatee County

I’m a big fan of “neighborhood campgrounds” – those little, out-of-the-way campgrounds with few amenities and even fewer campers.  Probably because I don’t care too much about campsite grills and frills, but these campgrounds tend to be cheaper, quieter and ready on short notice.

In Manatee County, Rye Preserve is one such campground.  It’s about as in-the-middle-of-nowhere as you can get in that county, and it’s a pretty cool place to spend the weekend. There are about 20 sites at the campground, and they are rented on a first-come-first-served basis for $20 a night.  You can easily fit three tents on a single site.

S'mores

The chocolate gets extra melty if you leave it in your car all day.

There is nothing special about the campground, at all.  It’s as ho-hum as they come – clean bathrooms, occasional picnic tables, a small ranger station – but its relative isolation means there are all sorts of cool things to do nearby.

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$40 to sleep on the sand? Check out Long Key State Park

If you’ve never slept on a beach, you should add it to your bucket list.

There’s something about the roar of the ocean in the middle of the night that is unforgettable.  I spent the first 23 years of my life within five minutes of the Gulf of Mexico.  I’ve spent every year since within an hour and a half.  I’ve boated, kayaked, fished, swam.  I’ve run on the beach, I’ve snorkeled on reefs, I’ve cruised from island to island in the Caribbean and Central America.

But I’ve never felt the ocean like I did sleeping in a cheap tent on the sand.

Sunset from Long Key

If you’re reading this within four hours of the Florida Keys, here’s what you should do this weekend:

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Video from Silver River in Ocala – Hiking, biking, kayaking, Oh yeah!

I’ve written about kayaking on Silver River in Ocala before, but I haven’t touched on any of the other cool things to do there.

I’ll hit on a few of them quickly, and I’ve put together a little video to give you the sense of what else is out there.

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Photo Friday – Weedon Island Preserve

Here’s a special Saturday edition of Photo Friday!

Weedon Island Preserve, on the Tampa Bay side of Pinellas County, offers one of the coolest mangrove trails in the state.  The channels, which were dug by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to help reduce the mosquito population (didn’t work), are now maintained as a series of kayak trails.  In many places, the trails are so narrow that you need to use a half-paddle to get through.  Crabs, snakes, rays and wading birds fill the park, and there’s a nearby manatee viewing area.  I can’t recommend this place enough.

Kayaking Silver River in Ocala, Fla.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more scenic river in central Florida than Silver River.  The slow, meandering current (2-3 knots, according to the park rangers) makes for an easy paddle in either direction, and because it flows through a state park, there is no development along the riverbank, save for one tattered old cabin.

Silver River State Park

Beautiful afternoon for kayaking up Silver River.

There’s a kayak launch inside the state park ($6 per car to enter), and from there, you can explore the 5 ½ mile spring run, before the river eventually joins the Ocklawaha.

It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the river, and motorized vehicles aren’t allowed on the trail.  If you’re traveling alone, with several kayaks or with a heavy canoe, you’ll need a manual trailer to get your gear down to the water.  It’s a long ½ mile with a kayak trailer in tow.  Complicating matters further, the trail to the river is mostly soft sand, and while I didn’t have the pleasure of dragging a trailer through it, I’m guessing it’s a less-than-pleasurable experience, particularly in mid summer.

In light of all that, the park offers canoe rentals for $7 an hour on a first-come-first-served basis.  They’re locked up down by the water, so a key and a paddle is all you’ll have to lug down the river trail.

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