Egmont Key State Park

A fairly remote island full of history and wildlife stands guard at the entrance to Tampa Bay. Just be sure to bring drinking water and cash.

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It takes some effort to get out to Egmont Key State Park, but even if the ferry is packed, the chances are good you’ll be able to find a secluded strip of beach to call your own. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • Historical sites, great for your inner Florida history nerd.
  • Secluded beach, with a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Copious wildlife, ideal for birdwatching.
Cons
  • No fresh water, bathrooms, restaurants or beach stands.
  • Ferry fees and extras can add up quickly.
  • You’re dependent on the ferry schedule unless you have a private charter.

Egmont Key, a tiny island serving as the northern bookend for the channel leading into Tampa Bay, is more day trip than destination, but it certainly offers beach-minded visitors a chance to get away from it all.

The island had been used by native Americans for fishing and shelling as far back as 2,000 years ago. The first architectural changes to the island came in 1848 when the first lighthouse on the western Gulf of Mexico was built to help guide ships past sandbars.

In the 1850s, the key was used as a internment site for Seminole Indians who were being forced to move to the Midwest after the Third Seminole War. Soldiers returning from the war were required to spend 10 days of quarantine at the key's hospital. During the American Civil War, the key was a lookout and supply point for the Confederacy, and later, a Union supply blockade and a refuge for Union sympathizers.

Fort Dade began construction in 1898, near the onset of the Spanish/American war. By 1910, Egmont Key was home to around 300 people and more than 70 buildings, including a local hospital and elementary school for the soldiers children. The key used to be twice its existing size, but shoreline erosion has since moved many original Fort Dade structures into the ocean.

The key was used as a training center during World War I, and officially deactivated in the early 1920s before being reactivated during World War II as an ammunition storage facility.

The key became a national wildlife refuge in 1974, and during the summers is home to more nesting birds — around 40,000 — than any island in Florida. The state established the park in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989.

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GETTING THERE

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.

Egmont Key is a sandbar island out in the Gulf of Mexico, and is a little less than two miles across calm waters from the southernmost end of Pinellas County’s Fort DeSoto Park.

You'll need a car to get to Fort DeSoto Park. It will take approximately 20-30 minutes from downtown St. Petersburg. A rideshare like Uber or Lyft will cost about $60 round-trip.

The exit to the park is the last highway exit before you go on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. You'll hit two tolls by the time you reach the park, so have about $2 of quarters handy.

Park admission is $5 per vehicle, which can be paid with Visa, Mastercard or cash. You’ll still need to get to Egmont Key, however, and that means you'll need a boat. If you happen to have a boat or know someone who does, it’s about a 20-minute trip.

Kayaking is an option for moderate to experienced paddlers and will take approximately an hour to 90 minutes. If you're a beginner kayaker, better to pick a closer destination or explore the park shoreline; open ocean currents can prove challenging and tiring if the weather turns.

Otherwise, you'll want to book a seat with a charter boat that runs to and from the island. Depending if it's season, the trips last about three to four hours, although the captain will sometimes run an early boat back to the Park if things get busy.

Fort DeSoto Park has contracted with the fishing charter Hubbard's Marina. They’re based in Madeira Beach, but their ferries leave from the park.

You can also schedule a trip with Dolphins Landing Charter Boat Center and Island Boat Adventures, which also have a designated Egmont Key trip that you can join with other tourists. All three offer snorkeling options off the island. Dolphins Landings and Island Boat Adventures depart from St. Pete Beach. Dolphins Landing won't run in fall and winter.

Keep in mind that camping, alcohol, glass bottles and pets are not allowed on Egmont Key. Animals aren't permitted on the ferry, either.

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PARKING

You can’t drive to Egmont Key, so it’s not an issue there, but Fort DeSoto has plenty of parking. If you elect to take the ferry, there is a giant parking lot that faces the water at Bay Pier. Parking is free. There’s also bathroom facilities, outdoor showers and a covered pavilion next to the parking lot if the family needs to repack, refresh and regroup.
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TAKING THE EGMONT KEY FERRY

After taking the ferry to the island, you can explore Fort Dade, the crumbling base that once housed 300 soldiers. If the conditions are right, the ferry also can take you to snorkel through the ruins, which are sliding into the ocean. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Because the Hubbard's Marina runs the official ferry for the park (and also the cheapest, at $20 a trip), I'll focus on that one.

The ferry launches from the first pier your reach once you’re inside Fort DeSoto Park — that’s the one on the southeastern side of the island, not the one near historic Fort DeSoto on the southwestern side. Turn at Bay Pier and you'll see a trailer with the marina’s logo printed on it.

A ferry ticket is $20 per adult, or $10 for children 11 and younger. Tips are expected from the crew, so throw in a few extra dollars.

Even though ferry reservations can be booked at the outpost at the park, seats usually fill up so quickly that it's a good idea to book a reservation a few days ahead by calling Hubbard's Marina. They have been known to schedule more trips back and forth if business is booming, despite what the website says, it's a good idea to call the office anyway.

The other reason it might be valuable to book ahead of time is that making a reservation through the office lets you put the tickets on your credit card. Otherwise, hit the ATM before you go because the park kiosk is cash only. Speaking of which ...

A NOTE ABOUT CASH

Before you head out for your day at Egmont Key, it's a good idea to go to an ATM and get cash. The number of cash-only purchases adds up pretty quickly, especially with multiple members of the group.

Didn't reserve your ticket? Cash. Want to do that additional snorkeling trip while out on water? Cash. Want to get a Coke and some pretzels from the boat’s snack bar? Cash. Care to tip the boat captain after the trip? Cash. Do yourself a favor and stash some bills in your wallet before you get on the water.

A NOTE ABOUT SHOES

If you own decent closed-toed, treaded water shoes, this would definitely be the place to wear them. Even old sneakers would help you tromp through hot sand, coarse sea grass, palm fronds and around the island trails. The ferry discourages flip-flops on the boat, but won't stop you if they are the only shoes you brought. That said, boat ramps are steep and slippery, so better to wear treaded shoes and use your head when it comes to safety.

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BEACH SCENE

Egmont Key is a narrow, hot dog-shaped island just 1.6 miles long, with one side facing east into Tampa Bay, and the other side facing west out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The bayside beach isn't worth writing home about. Seaweed lines the shore. You can see industrial freighters moving in the distance. The shore is rocky, narrow and smells vaguely of seaweed and motor oil.

The ferry drops you off on the Tampa Bay side, which may wilt your optimism and expectations. But wait!

Take a quick, 10-minute walk to the Gulf side of the island, and you will discover why people put in such effort to make the trip. The beach is white and sandy, the water calm and bright blue, and the view from the shore is so expansive and unbroken that it feels like you can look across the entire Gulf of Mexico.

The key is scruffy, enduring Florida at its best, so don't expect lush tree cover and plentiful shade. The key palmettos and scrub brush thrive in the heat just fine, but visitors should bring an umbrella or extra sunscreen to endure the Florida sun.

The further you walk along the key, the more the crowds and boat traffic will thin. The old Fort Dade power plant, now reduced to pile of concrete rubble that sits along the shore, is a good marker for about halfway down the island. It's on either side of this halfway point that things will be the quietest. Then you can look out at the neverending ocean and live out your abandoned, survivalist castaway dream.

Because of the extra effort to get to Egmont Key and the no booze rule, visitors are usually people curious about this beautiful, rugged, piece of historical Florida and are less so gaggles of spring breakers ready to do keg stands on the shoreline. (Don’t quote me on that If you go during spring break.) Families also come to show Egmont Key to their children and to spread out on the beach.

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PLACES TO STAY

You’re not allowed to stay on Egmont Key, but there are plenty of places in nearby communities. Consult our Insider’s Guides for Pinellas County locations for suggestions.

THINGS TO DO

The lighthouse on Egmont Key has been a feature of the island since 1848. The current structure isn’t quite that old, but it does still operate. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
FORT DADE

The reason why most people come to Egmont Key is to walk through the streets of Fort Dade and imagine what life was like for the more than 300 people who lived on key at the turn of the century. A walking tour of the island won't take you longer than an hour if you have on good walking shoes and water bottle.

LIGHTHOUSE

The most striking historical building on the key, the 87-foot lighthouse is still active today, guiding ships in and out of Tampa Bay. After the original 1848 lighthouse was severely damaged from a hurricane, it was rebuilt further inland in 1858. The lamp house was replaced with a beacon light in 1944. The structure was one of the last remaining staffed lighthouses in the United States until it was automated in 1989. The lighthouse is now managed by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The lighthouse is closed to visitors, but every November the Egmont Key Alliance offers tours through the lighthouse for their Discover the Island fundraiser.

SUNBATHING

Laying out on the beach and playing in the bright blue surf on a hard-to-reach beach is a popular activity, of course. But be warned! There is no shade near the shores, so if you don't bring an umbrella or your best SPF, you're going to fry.

WILDLIFE

Count all the sunning gopher tortoises you see hanging among the trail growth, but don't touch! They are a protected species under Florida law and it's a fine to harass one. Or if you're more a birdwatcher at heart, roam around the island to see the more than 40,000 nesting birds who call the key their summer home.

SNORKELING

If weather and tides permit, the ferry captain will offer a snorkeling trip at the grass flats off the tip of the key. Occasionally, snorkeling will also be offered at the sunken forts, a group of Fort Dade structures that slid into the ocean as the shoreline eroded. Snorkeling is $15 per person, with an additional $5 for gear.

Skip this trip if it's your first snorkeling venture. It's a better idea to go in with some experience and swim stamina for open-ocean swimming.

The boat will also rent you the gear if you want to go snorkeling from the shore, but don't get your hopes up on seeing much. The kicked-up sediment from the waves means pretty poor underwater visibility.

FISHING

Fishing seems to be a blurry issue. The Marina said no fishing is allowed on the key, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is "only in certain designated opened shores of Egmont Key." It might be better to fish from the Pinellas Bayway.

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

Egmont Key has no amenities, no bathrooms, no fresh water and no places to eat. So if you want to enjoy a picnic on the island, you have a few choices. Ideally you can bring a packed lunch. The ferry will allow you to bring food and drink as long as there is no glass and no alcohol.

If you make your ferry reservation ahead of time, you can purchase a sandwich, chips and drink combo for $10 that will be given to you during the trip. If you forgot your water or just want some M&Ms, you can purchase drinks and snacks from the ferry captain for a fee as well.

If you forgot to pack a lunch ahead of time and are already en route to the park, there is a 7-Eleven and a Subway on the island of Tierra Verde where you can grab some food, snacks and drinks before you hit the ferry.

Because there is very little shade on the island, take extra care to drink a lot of water.

After you're done with your Egmont Key adventure, you'll have to drive back out to Tierra Shores to hit some eateries.

There is a smattering of pizza, chinese and quick-eat places along the Pinellas Bayway, but if you want to kick your feet up and treat yourself while examining your new tanlines, there are a couple of good options.

BILLY'S STONE CRAB, SEAFOOD & MORE

As the name implies, this Tierra Verde staple offers fresh seafood, shucked oysters and cold beer.

THE ISLAND GRILLE AND RAW BAR

Fresh oysters come daily to this beach haunt, which sells them for 75 cents apiece during their happy hour from 4 to 6 pm.

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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