Things to Do When Visiting Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida
If you’ve traveled to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area on the west coast of Florida, you may be familiar with Fort De Soto Park. This 1,100-acre park stands guard to Tampa Bay and is a virtual playground for the outdoor enthusiast. You name it, and this jewel of Pinellas County has it to offer. From fishing, boat ramps, nature trails, and kayak rentals to a dog park, camping facilities, ball fields, and a historic fort to explore, the list is endless. To top it all off, the white sandy beaches of Fort De Soto Park were named America’s Best Beach in 2009 by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest online travel community, and Best Beach for Families in 2014 by USA Today. What better way to get your fill of the great outdoors while in Florida than to visit this beautiful and historic park located at the southern end of St. Petersburg?
History of Fort De Soto
Before I get into all of the wonderful activities available at this outdoor paradise, perhaps a little history of the fort is in order? It was during the mid-19th century that the five keys located at the southern tip of St. Petersburg were first considered for fortification. Utilized for the blockade of Tampa Bay during the Civil War, the keys were abandoned at the end of the conflict until the late 19th century when the United States became involved in the Spanish American War. Feeling exposed and at risk, the citizens of Tampa demanded military defenses for the bay. Due to its close proximity to Cuba and the importance of the port facilities of Tampa, the Secretary of War agreed and ordered the construction of a permanent fort to defend the bay. In late 1898 construction began and by April of 1900, the fort was completed and officially named Fort De Soto, after the famous Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto.
By 1922, after just twenty-two years in service, the Secretary of War announced that they would be closing Fort De Soto due to the rapid advancement in armaments, and the considerable modifications that would be required at the fort. In 1923 the fort was abandoned and left with only a single caretaker. Following World War II, Pinellas County purchased the fort from the War Department with the intention of opening the land to the public for recreational use. By 1962 a road was constructed to allow cars to travel to the island and a year later in 1963, Fort De Soto Park was officially dedicated. Although the huge guns placed in the fort were never fired in defense of Tampa Bay, some of them remain for visitors to experience. Today, the park is a popular destination for those looking to enjoy the great outdoors and the abundant Florida sunshine.
Things to Do in The Park
In addition to exploring the historical fort, there are a number of outdoor activities available within the park. Of course, you can always head to one of the two beautiful white sand beaches, North Beach or East Beach. The beaches of Fort De Soto Park consistently rank among the top beaches in Florida. Or, if you love to fish, then head to one of the two piers, both of which allow fishing and have bait, tackle and food concessions.
If you’re looking for a little exercise there are seven miles of multi-purpose trails where you can take a walk, run or bike ride. And if boating is your thing you can use the parks 800-foot boat ramp to get out on the water. Another option for exploring the park from the water is to rent a kayak or canoe and traverse the 2-½ mile kayak trail that will take you through the five keys that make up the park. Here you can see the mangrove forests and many of the more than 300 species of birds that occupy the area. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a manatee, dolphin or sea turtle. And, if all you want to do is let your dog run free and enjoy the great outdoors then head to the dog park where our four-legged friends are allowed on the beach in a designated area.
The park also has numerous nature trails allowing you to take in the native flora and fauna of the area. After working up an appetite with all of this outdoor activity it's time to grab a snack from the parks food concession or better yet pack a lunch and have a picnic at one of the parks fifteen picnic shelters. No matter what your interests, Fort De Soto truly has something for everyone.
Fort De Soto State Park, is actually located on five islands or keys: Bonne Fortune Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Madelaine Key and the main island, Mullet Key.
If you’re looking to spend a few days in Fort De Soto you might be interested in camping within the park. There are 238 family camping sites complete with showers, modern bathrooms, water and electricity hookups, washers, dryers, grills and picnic tables. Everything you need for a not-so-rough adventure in one of Florida’s most historic and beautiful parks.
- Reservations can be made on-line or by calling the Fort De Soto Camp Office at 727-582-2100, Monday to Friday from 8 am to 5 pm.
- Camping reservations can be made up to six months in advance.
- Camping fees range from $30 to $40 plus applicable taxes. Rates vary due to the campsite location with waterfront sites demanding the higher rates.
- Special sites for camping with pets are available.
Fort De Soto Park Visitor Information
County parks are open 7 days per week from 7 am to dusk.
Fishing pier hours are 7 am to 11 pm daily.
Beach parking permit fee: $5
No fee required if entering the park on foot or bicycle.
Kayak and canoe rentals are available in the park from Topwater Kayak Outpost.
- 1 hour: $23 for single, $30 for double
- 2 hours: $29 for single, $40 for double
- 4 hours: $39 for single, $55 for double
Bicycle rentals are also available in the park from the Pedaling Pelican.
- Hourly rates range from $8 per hour for a beach cruiser to $27 per hour for a fancy double train bike.
The Possibilities Are Endless
Enjoy the beach.
Go for a run on the park's trails.
Rent a bicycle and explore the park on two wheels.
Bring your fishing pole and cast off the pier.
Tour the historic fort.
Rent a kayak and explore the mangrove forest.
Bird watch while hiking the trails.
Pack a picnic for lunch by the sea.
Bring your roller blades and get a workout in.
Spend a weekend camping in the park.
Take a guided nature tour - signup at park headquarters.
Bring your dog to the beach.
And so much more...
Having family in the Tampa Bay area we have the opportunity to visit this wonderful park often. No matter how many times we go, we never tire of this beautiful setting with its gorgeous white sand beaches and the abundance of activities that the park offers. Whether you are enjoying the beach, exploring the fort, or paddling out on the water there is an activity here for everyone. Fort De Soto is a true gem of the west-central Florida coast and definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in the area.
Fort De Soto
Tampa - St Petersburg Area
© 2012 Bill De Giulio