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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$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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Swim the crystal waters of Fanning Springs State Park

Like Otter and Hart Springs just to the north, Fanning Springs is a second-magnitude spring that empties into the Suwannee River.  Unlike those two, though, the park is part of the state park system and isn’t managed by the county or a private company.  Personally,  I think that state parks do a better job of managing these natural resources than other entities – and I imagine it’s not easy to balance human recreation with natural preservation.

But Fanning Springs is really a lovely place to spend the afternoon.  It’s a small park, but the spring is beautiful.  The water is crystal clear and the spring itself is pretty deep (maybe 30 or 40 feet to the lowest point you can see from the surface).  The park service has built a boardwalk that surrounds the spring on three sides, allowing people to sunbathe near the water and preventing boats form the river from getting all the way into the spring.

The spring vent is located under the far trees.

The park service has also constructed a short boardwalk system (less than 1/4 mile) that takes visitors out to the river.  Looking out at the river, you’d have no idea that below the surface, about 100 yards from the Old Town bridge, the sunken remains of a 100-year-old steamship have sat relatively undisturbed since the early 1920s.  There’s lots of false information about the wreck – many claim it was a Union gunboat – but the truth isn’t any less interesting.  The boat, The City of Hawkinsville (that’s its name), was a turn-of-the-century steamboat that hauled lumber and naval supplies up to the Gulf Coast and into north Florida.

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