FORT DESOTO PARK – A NEW WORLD AWAITS YOU


Florida, almost entirely surrounded by water, has so much to offer its residents and visitors alike.  Take a journey with us to Fort DeSoto on Florida’s west coast where a world of stunning beaches, boating, biking, camping and yes, even history, welcomes you.

Fort DeSoto Park, just south of St. Petersburg, is 1,136 acres of Pinellas County real estate consisting of five keys, a/k/a islands, Madelaine, St. Jean, St. Christopher, Bonnie Fortune and the main island of Mullet Key.  Six miles of beach frontage and several miles of waterfront can be easily accessed from Mullet Key. 

Everyone loves a day in the park, and you’re sure to find Fort DeSoto topping your list of favorites.

First, A Little History

Spanish explorer, Hernando DeSoto began what was to be his expedition, of the now southeastern US, when he landed on the shores of Tampa Bay in 1539.  He encountered some hard times and plenty of Native Americans.  He died only 3 years later in 1542.

Union troops began occupying Mullet Key and Egmont Key, to its south, in 1861 at the start of the Civil War.  When the Spanish American War began in 1898, Fort DeSoto was constructed on Mullet Key while Fort Dade was constructed on Egmont Key.  Both proved to be rather extensive and well-manned forts.

In 1948 Mullet Key was sold to Pinellas County.  In 1963, it was designated Fort DeSoto Park.  Fort Dade remained active until 1923, and in 1989 Egmont Key became a Florida state park.

Egmont can be reached via private boat or the Egmont Key Ferry.  Information and tickets are available at https://www.hubbardsmarina.com/egmont-key-ferry-cruise/.  Egmont is almost entirely a wildlife refuge, but visitors can enjoy peace and solitude here plus a look back at what remains of Ft. Dade and the Egmont Key Lighthouse that has stood since 1858.  It is a primitive key; there are no stores so ensure you pack water and snacks.  Wear comfortable shoes for hiking the island, and depending on the time of year, sunscreen and insect repellant is recommended.  Fishing is permitted on Egmont.

Fort DeSoto, on Mullet Key, is easily accessible by car.  Pick up a brochure and take the self-guided tour.  Learning the history of this area will further enhance your entire visit to this incredible county park.

Weather

Depending on your heat tolerance, note that visiting Fort DeSoto Park has its good times and its great times.  Summers are a popular time for family getaways.  It’s easy to set your clock to beach time.

If you wish to hike, visit Egmont Key, bicycle and the like, keep in mind there is limited shade for these activities.  

Snowbirds and even Floridians love the weather of Fall, Winter and early Spring.  Breezes off the waters and cooler temps provides the opportunity to enjoy any activity here your heart desires.  

Recognize that coastal areas are known for no-see-ums and mosquitos.  Both can leave you itching and cursing these little buggers under your breath.  While more prevalent in warmer temperatures, to be on the safe side always carry reliable insect repellent.   If you are camping and a bug magnet, plan a trip in cooler months to help lessen the chance of insect bites.  Some lucky people are not fazed by them; sadly, I’m not one them.   I can attest to no-see-ums even in October.

Premier Beaches

It seems even those who’ve not visited the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida, are aware of their well-known reputation for beauty, sugary white sand between your toes and turquoise calm waters.  That sums it up in a clam shell but seeing it for yourself hits the high-water mark.  

You’re in luck because Fort DeSoto is home to two pristine beaches – North Beach and East Beach.  Mullet Key is shaped like a “V”.  North Beach, the top left side of the “V,” faces the Gulf of Mexico, while East Beach, the top right side of the “V,” is on Tampa Bay.  The Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay conjoin to meet at the V’s bottom point.

Both beaches provide parking, restrooms, picnic pavilions, grills and a playground.  The availability of four sand -wheelchairs help those with disabilities navigate onto the beach to relish in a perfect day.

As an aside, North Beach was given the title of “America’s Best Beach” in 2005 by Dr. Beach.  It offers a concession stand plus cabana and umbrella rentals making your day about as relaxed and chilled as one can be.  Set your sights on the tranquil water, breathe in some salty air, and you’ll find those cares of the world drifting out to sea.

Plenty of Fish in the Sea

Both shallow and deep-water species abound throughout the Gulf and Tampa Bay.  The abundance of fish will lure you into casting your line in the water over and over again.  Even the novice is sure to get a bite or two without much effort.

Two fishing piers are located on Mullet Key.  A 1000’ pier sits on its Gulf side, while Tampa Bay’s side host a 500’ pier.  With lots of flowing water between the two piers, fish are drawn to the multitude of bait skirting about.  A shop, located at each pier, sells bait, tackle, food and beverages.  

Wade fishing is also popular at the backside of Fort DeSoto on the Gulf.  Fish like the deep pockets among the sea grasses, oyster beds and mangroves.  

Located close to the entrance of the park is an 800’ boat launch with 11 floating docks.  The fee is $6.00 for parking with a boat trailer; $2.00 for vehicles only.  

A saltwater license is required for all anglers between ages 16 and 65 unless you are fishing from one of the piers.  The piers are run privately and are licensed.  

Spring and fall, finds anglers streaming into Fort DeSoto for the Spanish mackerel migration.  These fish, while good fighters, are caught a plenty even by novice fishermen.

Kayak fishing, another popular way to catch dinner, allows you to go where powerboats cannot.  Most kayakers will carry 2 or 3 rods with them for the opportunity to catch a variety of species using different types of artificial bait.  The sit-upon kayaks are popular for this sport.  If you’d like to paddle your way out to sit and cast a spell, Topwater Kayak Rentals can set you up.  You’ll find Topwater by turning right at the Ranger Station as you approach Mullet Key.

Bringing Fido

Fort DeSoto seems to think of every aspect to keep their visitors happy – even Fido.  It’s the only Pinellas County park to allow dogs on the beach.  Additionally, just south of the Tampa Bay Pier, a dog park, Paw Playground, has been designed for pooches who love to romp and play.  

There are two fenced areas, one for large and one for small friendly canines, with water stations and showers to rinse your salty dogs.  The beach entrance for all dogs is at the southwest corner of the dog park.  Here’s where the fun begins and where Fido can walk the beach, dog paddle in the calm waters and best yet, roll in the sand.  

Be respectful of this benefit and luxury for your pup.  Clean up after your fur-baby and dispose of properly.  Pinellas County requires that dogs be fully vaccinated.  All dogs must be leashed while on the beach and are not allowed in any public buildings, piers or other beaches.

Camping

If you’re planning to stay more than a day, you’ll find one of the most appealing campgrounds ever located on Mullet Bay.  Fort DeSoto’s 238-site campground is naturally popular due to its location and the myriad of activities for the outdoor enthusiast.  

With 3 camping loops, many sites are waterfront – a great way to plunk your kayak in the water right from camp.  Not to worry though, launching a non-motorized vessel is an easy task in this campground no matter which site you’re on.  

There is one caveat.  Pets are only allowed on particular sites in Loop 2.  The park has a very strict pet policy so don’t think you’ll sneak one in.  You’d hate to be kicked off your site for not obeying park rules. 

All sites have water and electric, picnic table and grill.  There are no fire rings, however, fires are allowed if you have your own ring or rent one through the park.  Restrooms with showers, laundry facilities, playground, dump station and a camp store round out the amenities for this campground.  

Pinellas County gives residents an added benefit when making reservations, which is one of the reasons this campground is in high demand.  Residents may reserve a campsite 7 months in advance; all others reserve 6 months in advance.  Nightly rates range from $35 to $45 depending on location of the site.  

For more information, go to:   https://www.pinellascounty.org/park/camping.htm

Ready for More Fun?

We’re not done yet!  There’s a world of recreation in Fort DeSoto Park.   

Multi-Use Trail:  Walk, run or bike your way through Mullet Key on its 7-mile multi-use paved trail.  This trail connects North Beach to East Beach with the advantage to stop in between for sightseeing or taking in a watery view.  

Hiking:  There are several hiking trails to explore.  Be sure to stop and pick up a trail guide at the park’s headquarters.  

Birding:  Over 328 species of birds have been documented within this park.  The aquatic birds of Florida are high on the lists of many birders, and Fort DeSoto is internationally known as a premier birdwatching location.  Many migratory birds make a stop here for spring or fall; while the coastal birds of this area love calling Fort DeSoto their year-round home.

Even if you are not an “official” ornithologist, watching these wading birds or hearing their delightful song is simply a part of appreciating nature.  Bring your binoculars and camera — you never know what may fly your way.

Wildlife:  Catching sight of dolphins is always a thrill, but sea turtles and manatees likewise call these waters home.  Gopher tortoises abundantly live on Egmont Key but are also found in the park as well as armadillos and a snake or two.  Not to worry, you’ll rarely see a snake, and they are not interested in seeing you either.  

If camping, be forewarned the raccoon population thrives.  You’re probably going to come across some of the largest raccoons you’ve ever seen, and they aren’t shy.  Keep your food in your RV, car or cooler.  And yes, remember raccoons have opposable thumbs and are quite adept at popping cooler lids.  Slide it tightly under the picnic table.  I’ve not known a raccoon yet to actually move a heavy cooler.  

Snorkeling:  Yet another possibility is here to fill your day.  Many adults and children decide to snorkel right off North or East Beach.  Small fish, crabs, sand dollars or even a sting ray can be spotted.  Afterall, it is the west coast of Florida, known for its ultramarine waters.

A snorkel trip can be booked on the same Ferry taken to Egmont Key.  For an hour you’ll snorkel the sunken ruins of Fort Dade or the grass flat beds depending on weather conditions.  Sometimes snorkeling is not an option due to weather.  At Egmont while the Ferry is docked, it sells snacks or drinks and restrooms are available.

Kayaking/Canoeing/Paddleboarding:  Yes!  There are several access points on Mullet Key to launch your vessel of choice.  Some choose to launch at Topwater Kayak Outpost, which also rents canoes and kayaks if needed.  There are also access points along the main road.      

The canoe trail begins next to the Outpost and is an easy 2.25-mile loop.  This loop is calm backwater as the mangroves protect it from wind – perfect for canoes and paddleboarding.  

If you wish to venture further, there’s a 10-mile paddle trail that takes you around Mullet Key.  This entails paddling into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico which is best done by an experienced kayaker.

The campground is also an ideal location for launching non-motorized vessels.  Mullet Bay keeps these waters protected and calm, plus you never know what sights you may happen upon.  

Several years ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to snag a campsite on the water.  We took advantage of kayaking as much as we could.  We got on the water one morning just after sunrise.  We happened to notice a flock of birds diving into the water in Mullet Bay so we naturally assumed there was a large school of fish.  

We paddled out that way for a look-see.  Much to our surprise, not only did we locate the school of fish, but we also discovered several dolphins swimming around feasting on those fish.  We sat just outside the pod of dolphins for probably an hour enjoying a glorious morning.  Sadly, I didn’t have a camera with me, but you’ll have to imagine that amazing sight and the smiles on our faces.  Rest assured you’ll love being on the water here.

Conclusion

How much excitement can you fit into a day?  At Fort DeSoto Park, that total sum seems immeasurable.  

The possibilities are endless when discovering this treasure trove.  It’s family fun and a couple’s delight with so much to offer in outdoor diversity.  Listen up, nature is calling.  Do yourself a favor and answer the call.  

Fort DeSoto Park – make it happen!

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Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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