Caladesi Island

A top-rated beach and plenty of natural wonders are the highlight of this popular park, which can be reached by boat, but not by car.

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There’s plenty of room on the beach at Caladesi Island State Park. Even though it’s a popular park, the people who make the effort to reach the island are still just a fraction of what other beaches see. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • A legitimately beautiful beach.
  • Feels far away from civilization but isn’t.
  • An easy way to enjoy an undeveloped barrier island.
Cons
  • Taking a boat requires time and money.
  • Choices are limited on the island.

If Honeymoon Island State Park isn’t a big enough taste of Florida’s gulf coast barrier islands, Caladesi Island State Park is just a boat ride away.

Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island once were a single, larger island before a 1921 hurricane split the island in half, opening what’s now known as Hurricane Pass. To get to Caladesi now, you have to take something that floats, usually from Honeymoon Island.

That’s kind of a hassle, as you either have to go to Honeymoon Island first, pay that park’s entrance fee and take the Caladesi ferry, or take your own boat or paddle craft across St. Joseph Sound.

It’s really worth it, however, since the beach experience on Caladesi is much better than Honeymoon, with no limestone rubble to contend with and much smaller crowds. Caladesi has topped Dr. Beach’s best beaches in America list twice in recent years.

To confuse geographic matters further, Caladesi actually isn’t its own island. Starting in the 1980s, sand began accumulating in Dunedin Pass, the channel separating Caladesi from Clearwater Beach. Hurricane Elena rolled through in 1985 and sealed the channel. This land bridge has been thinning, but storms dredge up sand to reinforce it.

That means you can technically walk to Caladesi Island State Park from Clearwater Beach, but it’s a nearly two-mile trip and requires some sections where you’d have to wade across at high tide. Read more in our Clearwater Beach travel guide here. We recommend taking the boat.

Caladesi Island State Park remains one of the finest beaches Florida has to offer, with fine, white sand and zero commercial development beyond the ranger station, marina and concession stand, and the bathhouses and gear rental shack on the beach.

Walking through the park onto the beach remains a signature Sunshine State moment, allowing a glimpse of what the barrier islands truly looked like in years past.

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GETTING THERE

Caladesi Island State Park is a destination, so it will take some planning to get there. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Tampa Bay is served by two airports, Tampa International Airport (TPA) in Hillsborough County and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in Pinellas County. Multiple carriers service TPA, while most flights to and from PIE are run by Allegiant. There are many ground transportation options at both airports.

If you’re taking the ferry to Caladesi, you’ll need a rental car to get to Honeymoon Island State Park, which is at the western terminus of State Road 586, known as Curlew Road in Pinellas County. You can access the islands by taking Interstate 275 or U.S. Hwy 19 into Pinellas County, then heading west on Curlew.

Otherwise you can stop on the Dunedin Causeway to rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, or put a boat in St. Joseph Sound. (There’s more about the Causeway in our Honeymoon Island profile.) Paddling from the Causeway to the northern end of Caladesi takes about the same amount of time as it does to take the ferry from Honeymoon to Caladesi’s marina.

Keep in mind that Hurricane Pass and St. Joseph Sound can both get busy, so be sure the coast is clear before paddling across the waterway. In the summertime, scads of boats drop anchor in the pass just off the northern end of the beach, and the area is very popular among anglers.

Because it’s a short distance, some people swim across Hurricane Pass from Honeymoon Island to reach Caladesi. We recommend a lot of caution, because the current in the pass can be quite strong, especially at low tide. We’ll also point out the area is known for its shark and crab fishing, so you won’t be alone in the water.

Back on land, you could conceivably use a ride-sharing service and be dropped off at the admission gate, but distances are far and pickup would require some coordination. We’ve seen people do it.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority does not offer service across the Dunedin Causeway, but does maintain a route along Bayshore Boulevard in Dunedin on the mainland. The Jolley Trolley, which helps cart people between Tarpon Springs and Clearwater, also runs along Bayshore. A schedule and details are here.

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PARKING

You’ve got a couple of choices here: Either you can pay the entrance fee and drive into Honeymoon Island State Park, stopping at the spacious Caladesi ferry lot; or you can park out on Dunedin Causeway to take your own boat over. Either way, you won’t be hurting for parking. The Honeymoon Island route is the easiest, as there’s a limited amount of space on the Causeway. There also is parking along the road in the park, in case Honeymoon Island is really busy.

The one caveat is that sometimes traffic backs up a fair distance along the causeway. This happens much more on holidays and weekend sunsets, so check that you’ve packed a little patience. Turning around once you’ve passed the Royal Stewart Arms condos only makes the problem worse, even with the turnout in front of the park entrance for all those people who didn’t realize there’s an entry fee.

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TAKING THE CALADESI ISLAND FERRY

To reach Caladesi Island, you can either take your own boat, or relax and take the ferry from Honeymoon Island. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

You’ve got to get to that beach somehow, and the ferry is the most common way people without their own boats travel.

First and foremost, familiarize yourself with getting to Honeymoon Island State Park, because that’s where the ferry is based. Read our Honeymoon Island State Park travel guide here.

The road to the ferry is to the left just inside the Honeymoon Island entrance. There is a sizable parking lot at the pier for the ferries.

Two boats that can carry about 50 passengers each depart Honeymoon every half hour starting at 10 a.m. from mid-February to mid-September, and hourly the rest of the year. The ride to the Caladesi Island marina takes about 15 or 20 minutes.

The ferry is easy, since you don’t need to own or rent a boat, but it is relatively expensive because you have to pay the Honeymoon Island entrance fee ($6 for a car with 2-8 people) and then pay for the ferry. There’s no added fee once you reach Caladesi Island on the ferry, but boats headed to the marina have to pay at least $6 for up to eight people. Kayaks incur a $2 fee.

The fare to take the ferry is $14 round trip for adults and $7 for kids 6-12. Kids 5 and younger are free, and there is a military discount.

The ferry service also offers discount coupons on their website, good for $1 off the ride. On our last visit to Caladesi, we politely informed the employee in the ticket booth that we were unable to print the coupon and she accepted it anyway, saying we only needed to mention it.

When you get your ticket, it’s stamped with a guaranteed return time. That’s the time of day that you will be able to come back and be assured of a seat on the return ride home. For example: If you buy a ticket at 2 p.m. and your guaranteed return time is 6 p.m., that means you’ll have a seat on the 6 p.m. ferry no matter what. If you take an earlier or later ferry, you’ll be allowed to board if there’s room after other guaranteed passengers have boarded.

Waiting areas are covered on both ends of the trip, and the boat is relatively comfortable, with enough seating for everyone. Crews we’ve experienced are largely jovial and knowledgeable. Tips are accepted.

Be sure to keep your arms and legs in the boat when the ferry is docking, because it tends to slide against the pilings at both ends of the trip.

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BEACH SCENE

There’s plenty for the entire family to do, as long as you enjoy being outdoors. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Getting off the ferry, you’ll be at a marina with a ranger station and a concession stand, with no outward sign of the beach.

A short walk west across the island along a couple of paths brings you to a pair of buildings with bathrooms and showers. Beyond that is a mesmerizing stretch of legendary gulf coast beach.

It’s not hard to see why it’s so highly regarded: Standing on Caladesi’s shoreline and looking out into the Gulf of Mexico, you feel much farther away from civilization than you are. With no outward signs of development in the immediate area, it can feel almost deserted, even with a couple hundred people on the sand with you.

Part of that is because Honeymoon Island is far enough away to the north and Clearwater Beach far enough away to the south that you can’t really hear anything but the crashing waves. For a moment, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re the only person on the island.

The crowds tend to gather right off the walkways, where there’s a beach shack that will rent chairs, umbrellas and kayaks (the concession stand will rent them, too; cash at the stand, card at the shack).

All you have to do is move a little north or a little south of that area, however, and you can have plenty of space to yourself. Further to the north the water tends to collect seaweed and other wrack a bit more. A minor hike to Hurricane Pass brings you to the offshore boat party mentioned earlier.

Like Honeymoon Island, this also is a state park; the Florida Park Service offers a lot of information on its website.

A note to pet owners: Dogs are not allowed on the beach, although leashed dogs are allowed in the park (you’ll have to find another way over besides the ferry, which does NOT allow them). It may be best to keep Rex on Honeymoon Island, which has a dog beach.

Overnight boat camping is available at the marina for an added fee, payable to the ranger station.

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THINGS TO DO

The canals through Caladesi’s mangroves are just big enough for kayaks and canoes to slip through. They are well worth exploring. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

As beautiful and calm as Caladesi Island is, it’s still a day trip. Unless you’re staying overnight on a private boat (there’s no campground for people), you’ll have to leave at sundown and return after 8 a.m.

There are miles of nature trails on the island, making for some good, light hiking. Note that Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes are native to the island, so keep an eye where you’re stepping and reaching.

The island is home to nesting shorebirds and sea turtles during certain parts of the year. Sometimes portions of the beach or nature trail may be closed for this reason, so please be considerate and refrain from disturbing the nests. Gopher tortoises also live on the island, and are a protected species, so don’t touch or harass them, in or out of their buttows.

As mentioned before, kayaks are available at the marina and the beach. Paddling access through the mangroves on the St. Joseph Sound side of the island is good. Motorized boats are restricted close to shore, which is largely designated as a no-wake zone.

Fishing is allowed in designated areas off the beach, but you have to be licensed.

CAFE CALADESi

Beyond those options, the beach is the main event. There are no hotels on the island, and no restaurants other than the concession stand at the ranger station, Cafe Caladesi.

Speaking of which, it’s a decent little eatery, generally open 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a hearty cheeseburger and beer for sale, plus ice cream and other refreshments. You’re not allowed to take the beer off the building’s deck, but it’s still a nice option out here. At $6, the 16.9-ounce bottle of Tucher is a particularly decent deal.

Cafe Caladesi also serves as a gift shop and supply store, with t-shirts, tchotchkes, sunscreen, flip-flops and so on.

NEARBY OPTIONS

While Caladesi Island can feel isolated, it’s really not. The park is only minutes away from several north Pinellas communities, including Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Clearwater.

For a slew of recommended hotels, restaurants, bars and attractions, check out our travel guides for Honeymoon Island and Clearwater Beach.

Cafe Caladesi also serves as a gift shop and supply store, with t-shirts, tchotchkes, sunscreen, flip-flops and so on.

Joshua Gillin is Florida Beach Insider’s Beachcomber-in-chief. When he’s not actively looking for a clear spot on the sand with his family, he enjoys hiking, martials arts, comparing drink specials and shopping for American-made products.
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