Anclote Key Preserve

Miles of white-sand beaches accessible only by boat make this the proverbial hidden gem.

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The southern beach on Anclote Key is barely wide enough to host a game of catch. Much of the island is covered in dense foliage. [Lauren Flannery | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • Pristine views of the Gulf of Mexico with beachy sandbars.
  • Boat tours from Tarpon Springs are easily accessible and are good for sightseeing.
  • This is the place to be if you want to spot dolphins.
Cons
  • There are no amenities on the island.
  • Time on the beach is limited if you're taking a dolphin tour.
  • Florida thunderstorms can delay or cancel boat trips.

It might not be overstatement to call Anclote Key the crown jewel of North Pinellas County’s beaches.

Well, technically, Anclote Key is only partly in Pinellas. The southern end is in Pinellas, while the rest is in Pasco County to the north. But that’s splitting hairs, because once you’re out there, you’re in another world.

Four islands comprise Anclote Key Preserve State Park — North Anclote Bar (sometimes called Dutchman’s Key), South Anclote Bar, Three Rooker Island, and, of course, Anclote Key. The “bars” are sandbars that tend to change shape constantly, and Three Rooker Island is a haven for nesting birds, but there’s no mistaking Anclote Key.

The namesake island, which boasts its own lighthouse, is the big draw (and is split with Anclote National Wildlife Refuge). The four-mile long, half-mile wide key is home to a white sandy beach that stretches up its entire west side. It’s where collections of intricate shells have been pushed ashore by bright blue surf and sunsets are seen on the unbroken horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. It is truly a worthy focus of travel brochures.

But great things take effort to find, and this island is no exception. Anclote Key itself is about three miles offshore, and there are no roads to get here, so you have to take to the waves.

Whether you go by tour, charter or private boat, you will find a relatively secluded and pristine slice of Florida, away from all the hubbub and tiki bars of inland beaches. Tourists will often make a day of exploring neighboring Tarpon Springs before boating out to collect shells, while locals will pack a boat full of friends and camp overnight on the sand dunes.

However you see Anclote Key, plan ahead just a smidge and the trip will do the tourist brochures justice.

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GETTING THERE

Anclote Key, seen here from the north, is only the main island. There are three others that comprise the preserve. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

First, you should familiarize yourself with our Tarpon Springs travel guide, to make arrangements easier. Go ahead, we’ll wait …

Now: There are three ways to make the three-mile boat trip to Anclote Key:

  1. You or someone you know owns a boat.
  1. You take a packaged dolphin cruise from a tour company in Tarpon Springs.
  1. You rent a private boating charter.

The first option certainly gives you the most flexibility in terms of how much time you spend on the island. While the park is open from 8 a.m. until sunset, most private charters won't rent past six hours. With the dolphin cruises, you'll typically spend less than an hour on the key. Having your own boat is also the easiest way to go camping on the key, because it can be difficult to find a boat charter that will drop off and pick up for overnight stays.

If you are going by private boat, Anclote River Park in Pasco County is an ideal place to launch. The park boasts a location at the mouth of the river, overnight parking, a huge boat-trailer parking lot, a six-lane boat ramp and loading docks. Anclote Village Marina next door rents boats if you want the horsepower without the travel hassle.

Intrepid kayakers can also paddle the three miles out to the islands. It's a popular route for outdoorsy types, especially on the weekends. Be sure to check sea conditions before you start, however. Open water kayaking isn't the good starting point for beginners. Be sure to have a GPS, a buddy and a gallon of water for the trip.

Let’s say your own watercraft is out of the question. Dolphin cruises offered by Sponge-o-rama and Odyssey Cruises are the most easily accessible option. Both companies have ticket stands along Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs, and the boats sail directly from the Sponge Docks. With tickets costing less than $20, and multiple trips out to the island per day, these trips are popular among tourists. They can fill up quickly on weekends, so would be best to call ahead and reserve a time slot.

Finally, hiring a boat and licensed captain from a charter service is expensive, but allows you more time on the key. Keep in mind, private charters usually require that you come to them with a group of 6 or more people in order to book.

Windsong Charters runs out of the New Port Richey area and has pricing options available dependent on how many hours you would like to stay out. Private Island Charters in the Palm Harbor area has both a half day and full day option for pricing. Figure on spending about $400 for five or six hours with these options.

Island Paradise Charters in New Port Richey offers a few trips, including cookout or adventure cruises, that charge per person and last varying amounts of time. Tickets run anywhere from $25 to $40.

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PARKING

You’re not taking your car to the island, so you’ve got to leave it on the mainland. That means your parking situation depends on what you choose as your point of departure.

If you're boarding a dolphin cruise, there are a number of paid parking lots along Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs. Parking is included if you book with Sponge-o-rama, but otherwise there is a plethora of "$5 a day" lots and paid parking booths.

In true tourist fashion, weekdays and early on weekends are better times if you want to snag a primo spot, or even (gasp) a free city parking space. Dodecanese Boulevard is the Main Street of the Sponge Docks, so even if you have to park a few blocks away, it's very walkable.

If using your own boat, there is plenty of parking at Anclote River Park for $5 a day, or try to launch from Tarpon Springs.

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BEACH SCENE

While Anclote Key itself is a popular destination, you don't have to work very hard to find a stretch of beach all to yourself. [Lauren Flannery | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Like most islands around Florida, the spits come in two flavors: Sandy and shrubby. The main draw, and the place where the tours generally drop you off, is Anclote Key.

The sandy beaches along the key are definitely the feature that has attributed to Anclote's popularity. The white-sand beach arcs up the entire four-mile distance, dotted with exotic looking shells and sloping every so gently into the turquoise water. The southernmost beaches of Anclote Key are so narrow and so flat that it almost feels like you're standing in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Some scruffy vegetation does thrive on the sandbars, so keep an eye out for different patches of bristly grass and sea oats that have made a home for themselves.

Generally, the Gulf-facing West side of the key is home to the photo-worthy beaches, while the inland-facing areas of the key are home to thick underbrush, tough grasses and drought-resistant trees that would make Charles Darwin proud with their ability to survive with minimal freshwater.

Paths have been cut through the brush for exploring the key. It's generally best to stick to them, or keep an eye on the shoreline. Since the key is only a half-mile wide, it's hard to lose sight of the water.

The key tends to be busier on weekends, with locals lining up their boats on the east side or surrounding North Anclote Bar. It can turn into a regular bacchanal up there on holidays, and it’s the only place in the preserve where dogs are allowed. Three Rooker Island, as noted earlier, is largely set aside for seabirds, was only formed in the 1980s, but is popular with boaters and campers.

Families with children tend to stay in the calmer, shallower waters inside the southern arc of Anclote Key. They tend to stick within sight of the island’s repaired lighthouse, which dates to 1887 and is watched over by a resident park ranger.

Boatloads of tourists will briefly stop by for photographs and couples will stay for the beautiful sunsets, but overall the beach has a much more relaxed, au naturale vibe than other beaches along the Pinellas coastline.

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WHERE TO STAY

Unless you plan on camping (more on that in a bit), there is no place to stay on Anclote Key.

There are a few lovely bed and breakfast cottages in Tarpon Springs, like Ashley's Victorian Haven and The 1910 Inn, both built in turn-of-the-century Florida homes. Otherwise, a variety of standard chain motels and hotels can be found a few miles east along US-19.

AirBnB is also very well priced in the area if staying in a little beach cottage is more your style.

Read our Tarpon Springs travel guide for more information.

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The lighthouse on Anclote Key is usually not open to the public, except at open houses. It was recently restored after falling into disrepair over the years. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Island Open House (with Lighthouse access)

Usually you can only admire Anclote Key’s lighthouse from the outside, but the Friends of Anclote Key State Park & Lighthouse host annual open houses. It’s the only time visitors are allowed to be inside the structure.The lighthouse was built in 1887, and while its navigational duties were stopped in 1984, the tower and oil room have been refurbished to their original glory. The lighthouse stairs are many and steep, so the volunteer group recommends you wear comfortable, closed-toed shoes. Check the Friends website, as the open house dates vary.

THINGS TO DO

The key (get it?) to a trip to the park is relaxing and doing a whole lot of nothing. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for how to while away your time here.

Swimming and sunning

Take a dip in the aqua-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico! But be warned: If it's a particularly blustery day out at sea, it's better to swim on east side of the island, where the currents are weaker. There are no lifeguards on the beach, but most people don't dip in past wading levels anyway. Or park it on a spot and catch some rays! Just don't be surprised when your giant umbrella tries to fly away from windy conditions.

Watersports and fitness

You're surrounded out here, so doing something on the water would be good. As mentioned, there are watercraft rental places on the mainland, but this is a good place to get caught up on some snorkeling or fishing. If you're relying on a business for transportation, check to see whether you can bring your gear or need to rent it.

Shelling

Anclote Key is home to an amazing array of shells. The dolphin tours will even give you bags to collect your marine findings. Due to the popularity of the tours, however, the shells collections near the boating stop have become pretty depleted. If you walk up along the shore, you'll still find giant cockles the size of your hand and many more exquisite shells and patterns. Unless you have an intended goal for your shell bounty, you probably should collect photos and leave the actual shells for the critters and future visitors.

Birdwatching

The park is home to more than 43 species of birds, including bald eagles, so keep an eye out for feathered friends making nests on top of dense brush or wading through the tidal areas to catch their next meal. Keys like Anclote are a great place to spot migrating birds mixed along with Florida native birds. Three Rooker Island is especially good for watching nesting shorebirds, but be mindful of nests and chicks. Being disruptive can get you in trouble.

CAMPING ON ANCLOTE KEY

You can't camp on Three Rooker Island to the south, but it's worth a visit for nature lovers who want to see terns, gulls and other nesting shorebirds. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]

If you want a night-on-the-water experience, camping is allowed on the north end of Anclote Key. There are no designated campsites, no running water and one compostable toilet, but if roughing it is your style, you'll be around some amazing sunrises and sunsets. Camping is free, but make sure to call the park ranger at (727) 638-4447 to register.

The island vegetation is dense Florida scrub with a handful of palm trees poking through. The thick underbrush can make journeying off path difficult, so most campers set up camp on the beach itself. In the summer months the mosquitoes and no-see-ums can test the resolve of even the most steely campers, so don't forget your bug spray.

Also, there are no large animals on the island, but make sure to store your food from bugs, birds and the occasional raccoon that may come looking for a snack.

No dogs are permitted on Anclote Key — just the northern sandbar — and chopping trees for firewood is strictly prohibited, but you can pick up any dead wood you want for your campfire. You’ll have to pack in whatever you need, and pack out whatever trash you generate.

A word of warning: If you're new to camping, try going on a couple of camping trips in other parts of Florida before setting up at Anclote Key. Camping without water and designated camp zones while enduring fickle Florida weather can be tricky for any camper, but will be exhausting for a beginner.

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

There are no places to eat and drink on the island, so preparation is key. Luckily, if you take a cruise through Odyssey or Sponge-o-rama, the trip is only about two hours, with snacks and drinks available for sale on the boat.

Also, while alcohol isn't permitted on the key by state park rules, it is very much permitted on the boats, so feel free to bring that six-pack on your private charter, or purchase it on the dolphin cruise boats while you enjoy the ride. Sponge-o-rama has a sign that says customers aren't allowed to take drinks onto the boat, but water bottles seem to be a general exception.

Because of the large Greek population in Tarpon Springs, Dodecanese Boulevard is chock full of Greek restaurants. These restaurants are a great place to grab a meal before or after your trip. All within practically the same mile along the boulevard, the menus at these restaurants will be more similar than not, so don't agonize too much about picking the perfect authentic experience. But regardless of where you end up, be sure to order the flaming cheese dish saganaki for a dramatic table side experience and a whooping "Opa!"

Each Sponge-o-rama ticket also offers a free drink at the Yianni's Greek Restaurant, which sits in front of the boat dock. If you let them know you're in a hurry to catch the boat, they will work to get your gyro to you as quickly as they can.

Check our Tarpon Springs travel guide for some delicious suggestions.

SHOPPING

Dodecanese Boulevard is a tourist tchotchke paradise, with many small shops full with tank tops, beach gear, postcards and memorabilia. Tarpon Springs is famous for its farming industry of sea sponges, which dates back to 1890, so almost every shop has natural sponges, loofahs and homemade olive oil soaps for purchase.

Again, our Tarpon Springs travel guide offers guidance.

TIPS FROM TOWNIES

The clear, shallow water is postcard-ready. [Lauren Flannery | Florida Beach Insider photo]

If going on a dolphin cruise in summer, schedule your boat trip for before 1 p.m. or so. It's common during Florida summer to have rain showers every day in the late afternoon, and it could delay your trip out if the captain spots lightning.

There are no amenities on the island, so remember to bring plenty of water. A first-aid kit would also be useful in case someone steps on a particularly sharp shell. If you plan on swimming on the Gulf side of the key, make sure to read up on what to do in case of rip currents.

Lauren Flannery is a Tampa Bay native, who despite being very sunburn-prone, loves exploring and writing about natural ecosystems in her home state. To balance out her work life as a developer, she can often be found hiking with her comically large water bottle or at the beach enjoying the Florida sunshine.

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