Fort De Soto Park

Pinellas County’s biggest public park is ideal for camping, watersports, exploring nature and history, having a picnic or simply stretching out on a quality beach for the day.

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Fort De Soto Park’s North Beach features a saltwater lagoon and a shorebird habitat, plus a good stretch of beach that you wouldn’t mind being marooned on for an entire day. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • There's something for everyone: Beaches, a historic fort, nature trails, playgrounds, a paved trail and more.
  • A dog park and a dog beach.
  • One of the best campgrounds in the entire state.
Cons
  • The long line (for good reason) at the entrance booth on nice days.
  • The parking fee is a little disappointing.

At more than 1,100 acres, Fort De Soto Park, at the southern end of Pinellas County, is large enough to have something for everyone, from the birder to the bicyclist to the beach bum.

This is not, as sometimes thought, a state park (though it’s certainly state park caliber). Fort De Soto is actually the largest county park in the Pinellas system. It’s composed of five keys, the largest of which is Mullet Key, the main island that people most often think of when discussing the park.

There’s plenty to do across the park, but the beaches are a top draw. In 2005, Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman even named Fort De Soto’s North Beach the top beach in the nation.

The park’s name, honoring Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, dates back to 1900, shortly after construction of the military post began as residents clamored for “increased coastal defenses” amid concerns about the Spanish-American War.

At one point there were 29 post buildings, from barracks to a bake house. Today you can explore the fort and its mortar batteries. Climb to the top and you’ll be treated to a fantastic view of Egmont Key, the Gulf Pier and the surroundings. You can learn more about the history with a visit to the Quartermaster Museum and a hike along the nearby trail, which has signs and photos that describe the buildings that once stood there.

The fort is definitely worth a visit, but there is so much more to do and see here — including burying your toes in the sand.

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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.

You’ll need a rental car to get to Fort De Soto Park, unless you feel like giving a taxi or rideshare driver an awfully big fare.

If you’re heading south on Interstate 275, take Exit 17, the Pinellas Bayway exit. If you’re traveling north from Manatee County, you’ll take the 54th Avenue S exit in St. Petersburg and turn left. If you’re staying on one of the gulf beaches, head toward the Don CeSar Hotel and turn to the Pinellas Bayway toward the mainland. There is a $1 toll before you reach the Boca Ciega Bay bridge. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll also pay a $1 toll.

To get to the park, turn south at the stoplight at State Road 679 and travel through Tierra Verde, a community dotted with condominiums, waterfront homes, several marinas and restaurants and some stores, including a 7-Eleven.

This is the only way to drive into the park. It would be easy to exceed the speed limit here, but watch your how fast you’re going. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office sometimes has a deputy parked in the median. Besides, there’s a tollbooth (75 cents) ahead.

After you cross Bunces Pass Bridge and reach Madelaine Key, you’re technically at the park entrance. A boat ramp and the park’s excellent campground are on this first island (more on those below).

The park entrance is open from 6:30 a.m. to dusk every day of the year. Two piers on Mullet Key, called the Bay Pier and Gulf Pier, are open until 11 p.m.

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PARKING

Like many other beaches in parks, the parking situation is normally a worry-free zone. Here you have whole islands at your disposal.

In fact, depending on how crowded Mullet Key is (and really, it can be downright overflowing on the busiest days) there are lots all over the island. Parking on the side of the road becomes an option, if necessary. There’s a map with icons pointing out the plethora of lots on the county website. We’ll explore specific options depending on which part of the island you head to, because there’s a lot to keep straight.

But all that parking isn’t free.

There is a $5 daily parking fee, which is payable at several pay stations with cash or a credit or debit card or at the “entrance station,” two booths on the road leading to Mullet Key. These are staffed until dusk, or even a little earlier, (that’s the time given by the park staff) and the same forms of payment are accepted.

Note that the credit/debit card readers don’t always work. It’s best to bring cash. And yes, you really are supposed to pay the parking fee, even if the park staffers aren’t there.

An annual Fort De Soto Park parking pass costs $75, a six-month pass $45.

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BEACH SCENE

North Beach is a big draw, with its picnic facilities and huge parking lot. It still manages to fill up on some days, though. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Fort De Soto is popular with outdoor enthusiasts, aspiring ornithologists, dog lovers, families and more, drawing more than 2.7 million visitors annually, according to the county website.

It offers several beaches, each with their own amenities, or lack thereof. Which beach you choose depends on what you’re looking for.

First, some things to keep in mind out here:

  • Alcohol is not permitted in the park, and there’s a hefty fine.
  • Cell phone service is spotty at best, which is a good thing, right?
  • The seagulls are ravenous, so protect your food.
  • Trash cans are abundant, so don’t litter.
  • Signage is good throughout the park. They’ll help you find things and learn things.

After passing the entrance station and reaching the V-shaped Mullet Key, you’ll find yourself at a stop sign, facing park headquarters, a gigantic American flag and two choices: right or left on Anderson Boulevard.

EAST BEACH

If you turn left, you’ll see clearly marked signs to the right pointing out East Beach and its ample parking lot.

There are covered shelters that are, like many of the the island’s picnic shelters, available for rent. You’ll also find grills, a playground with swings and a jungle gym, and lots of picnic tables, palm trees and shade. This is a good spot to let children run around, with plenty of grass. Just make sure they have on shoes to protect them from sandspurs.

There are about a half-dozen showers in the restroom, which is convenient for cleanup. There also is an outdoor shower.

The beach faces the entrance to Tampa Bay and and goes on for quite a distance. It’s pleasant and quiet, but you won’t find powdery white sand. It’s more an amalgamation of small shells and bits of seaweed — granular in texture. The water is fairly close, about 35 feet away. There is no lifeguard, but swimming is allowed.

Walk northeast or southwest from the main beach for a spell and you’ll find narrow strips of sand that are practically deserted, as well as some nature trails that are usually very peaceful even when the beach is cheek-to-jowl.

Nature walks are offered periodically throughout the park. More information is available here.

EASTERNMOST POINT

If you drive past East Beach and the left turn for Bonnie Fortune Key (which houses park maintenance buildings), you’ll continue to the end to reach the easternmost point.

It’s a great place for a Sunshine Skyway bridge photo and some solitude, but there isn’t much in the way of traditional beach here There is room to spread out your towel or blanket, and it would probably be a good kayak-launching spot on a calm day. On windy days it’s popular with kitesurfers.

There’s not so much a parking lot here as a turnout off the traffic circle, so grass and sand it is. This is the beginning or end, depending on your perspective, of the paved trail that runs parallel to the water all the way to North Beach, on the other end of Mullet Key.

On busier days, the beach near Bay Pier can be quite crowded.
[Florida Beach Insider photo]

BAY PIER

Back to that stop sign inside the entrance: Turn right on Anderson Boulevard and you’ll find Bay Pier several hundred feet away on your left. Parking is plentiful, but the lot does fill up. There is overflow parking across the street, in the grass.

“Bay Pier” is a bit misleading. Yes, there is a 500-foot fishing pier complete with bait, fishing equipment, beach toys, souvenirs and snack bar fare for sale in a small shop midway down the pier, and a soda machine outside. But you also can find restrooms, a covered shelter, several grills, picnic tables, a beach for people, a beach for people and their dogs and a fenced-in dog park.

The ferry to Egmont Key picks up and drops off from here, too. There’s an information booth nearby. The ferry takes visitors to Egmont Key State Park to the southwest several times a day in season. It’s a $20 round trip. Read more about the trip in our Egmont Key State Park travel guide.

The dog park, to the south of the parking lot, has two areas: one for big dogs and one for small dogs. Both have benches, water fill-up stations and a washing station. There also are free doggie bags for, well, you know.

A sign outside notes that the Fort De Soto Paw Playground was honored as a top 10 U.S. dog park in 2006, and behind the dog park is the dog beach.

People sans pets can enjoy the beach on both sides of the pier. (The dog beach stops about 150 feet short of the pier.) There are several hundred yards of it, though you’ll be at water’s edge in about 35 feet. Be mindful of the “No Swimming Dangerous Currents” signs.

Wandering through historic Fort De Soto really conveys the fact that soldiers stationed here were not on vacation.
[Florida Beach Insider photo]

THE FORT AND GULF PIER

To reach the actual fort, the 1,000-foot Gulf Pier and the Quartermaster Museum, go southwest past the Bay Pier parking lot until you see signs for “Gulf Pier/Historic Fort” a few hundred feet down the road. You’ll have to drive some distance down the access road before you reach the very large parking lot, which even manages to offer some shaded spots.

Now you’re at the midpoint of Mullet Key’s V shape. From here you can walk to the fort, the museum, the fishing pier (a supersized version of the Bay Pier) with more bait, fishing equipment, beach toys, souvenirs and snacks for sale, a restroom, a covered shelter, picnic benches and the beach.

To get to the top of the fort from the parking lot, you’ll ascend a ramp. It’s a bit of a hike, but there is a bench midway up if you need to rest. There is another bench at the top, as well as viewfinders you can pop a few quarters in. There is a set of stairs on the opposite side of the top of the fort.

Facing the Gulf of Mexico proper, the beach gets less shelly and much more beachy around here, and it can be accessed by two wooden boardwalks. There is some beach to the left of the pier, but to the right it stretches north virtually as far as the eye can see.

SNACK BAR/GIFT SHOP

North of the fort is the largest snack bar and gift shop in the park. It’s a short hike from the fort and pier, but if you’re driving down Anderson Boulevard, you can turn in when you see the “Snack bar/gift shop” sign.

The parking lot is considerably smaller than the fort’s main lot, but you can park in the grass along the main road when it’s full. You can get to the beach from several cut-ins in the grass.

This is a good place to grab food to enjoy at a picnic table. You also can buy things you might need (suntan lotion, a new bathing suit, a T-shirt) and might not need (magnets and other tchotchkes). On weekends the snack bar sells annual or six-month parking passes — you can purchase a pass at park headquarters on weekdays.

It’s a fine area from which to visit the fort and the beach, which widens out considerably near here. The sand starts out rough, but again softens and gets white and powdery as you near the water.

Out back you can rent chairs and umbrellas, as well as bikes. There also is a restroom and an outdoor shower.

Egmont Key is clearly visible, as are the Gulf Pier and a tower that stood several hundred feet tall until Hurricane Irma lopped most of it off. (Depending on the tide, you can sometimes see pelicans and other birds perched on the toppled part.)

SHOREBIRD HABITAT

To the north of the snack bar/gift shop lot, but just before you get to North Beach, there’s another parking lot on the western side of the road. This lot features a circular slab of concrete with an outdoor shower and bench, plus a few picnic tables and a restroom.

If you follow the paths out to the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll come to a lagoon with room for a few people that is quite pretty. Warning: Do not attempt this without shoes. I got about 2 feet in, barefoot, before being felled by sandspurs. It took about 10 minutes to remove them all.

Across the lagoon is a shorebird habitat that is supposed to be off limits to people, and extends past a small inlet to a section of North Beach that often is roped off during mating season.

More than 300 species of birds have been documented at Fort De Soto. You can keep track of the species common to this section of the beach, as well as the rest of the park, with this downloadable checklist.

NORTH BEACH

This is it, folks — the main event. If you’re searching for fine white sand that sparkles in the sun and feels fabulous under your feet, and beautifully hued water worthy of a postcard, you’ve found it.

North Beach is the biggest of the bunch at Fort De Soto, and particularly popular with families. Ten covered shelters, picnic tables, grills, swings, several playgrounds (including one that resembles a pirate ship), restrooms, indoor showers, outdoor showers and lots and lots of sand ... it’s all here. There’s also a snack bar with a large patio and souvenirs. You can rent chairs and umbrellas too.

There’s also bountiful parking. The parking lot is so large, in fact, that there are four entrances from Anderson Boulevard.

(Arrowhead Picnic Area is essentially across from the lot, featuring more shaded picnic tables, grills, restrooms and waterfront benches. There’s a lot fewer people most of the time, and even a self-guided nature trail with signs.)

The sand on North Beach is so soft, it’s kind of hard to walk in. But that’s what makes it so wonderful: that powder, that volume, that sinking feeling.

Lifeguard staffing is seasonal here, but even if there is a “No lifeguard on duty” sign, there may be a lifeguard in one of three lifeguard stands.

If you walk north along the water, past several pieces of driftwood, you’ll see the beach goes on and on, to the end of Mullet Key and views of an offshore sandbar and Shell Key Preserve. Take a stroll, and take your time. You’ll find lots of shells, maybe even some sand dollars, and see a variety of shorebirds. It’s the quintessential Florida beach experience.

The mangroves throughout the islands make for a great place to go kayaking.
[Florida Beach Insider photo]
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SHELL KEY PRESERVE

North of North Beach is Shell Key Preserve, an 1,800-acre wildlife preserve that is open to visitors, but has no amenities whatsoever — including no restrooms. It’s a popular kayaking destination, thanks to its proximity to Fort De Soto Park and a wide swath of waters where boats with engines are not allowed. It’s also great for observing wildlife, as long as you follow the rules. You can camp on Shell Key overnight, but you need to pack all your own gear, food and water.
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CAMPGROUND

There are 236 campsites at the campground at Fort De Soto, which is south of the boat ramp inside the park entrance. The sites run along Mullet Key and St. Christopher Key, and are arguably some of the best camping in Florida.

Some are on the water. Some are for RVs. Some are for tents. Some can accommodate pets. But they are all very, very popular, and they book up quickly. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance, but Pinellas County residents get seven months — and the locals just love coming to Fort De Soto for camping.

Ten percent of the campsites are held back for walk-ins, who can reserve them online starting at 7 a.m. Fridays (the campground office isn’t open until 9 a.m.; in the old days you had to line up for first-come, first-served campsites). You’ll have to be fast to make the reservations, so create your username and password in advance. Remaining sites can be reserved at the office after 9 a.m.

Amenities at the campground, which is full of shaded sites and thick foliage, include picnic tables, grills, ash containers, washers, dryers, a playground and restrooms with showers. The waterfront sites are within easy walking distance of the sandy shoreline, where you can stroll looking for whelks and the odd starfish unhindered.

There’s a camp store, too, which sells a variety of items, including Smorstix for marshmallow roasting. You can also rent a bike and use the ATM here.

Like most campgrounds, this one has wildlife, but the biggest problem you’ll likely face would be hordes of raccoons scrounging for any and all food you’ve left out. Put leftovers in your car or a even a bear can, because snaps, zippers and Velcro are no impediment to those expert thieves.

PLACES TO STAY

Unless you’re camping, the park doesn’t offer any lodging. It’s a fabulous day trip from any nearby community. Check out our other Pinellas County beach communities here for suggestions nearby.

There are some condo rentals available on Tierra Verde. The Tierra Verde Marina Resort, which recently changed owners, is working on opening a boutique hotel.
Boats line up for the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, an annual race for small boats from Fort De Soto Park to Key Largo. That’s the Sunshine Skyway in the background. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Fort De Soto Park is the site of a number of annual races, including the Fort De Soto Triathlon and the Lycra and Lace Women's Triathlon. There are also boating events, like the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, an annual race from the park to Key Largo in kayaks, canoes and small boats. The number changes so often that it’s best to keep an eye out for events in the park around the time you’d like to go.

Do be aware that while good weather days are a big draw at Fort De Soto Park, spring break and holidays are another matter entirely. On the worst days, S.R. 679 will be backed up all the way to the Pinellas Bayway. Prepare mentally for the traffic backup and exercise patience. You’ll get there eventually, and it will be worth it.

WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS

TOPWATER KAYAK

Located almost directly across the street from the Bay Pier, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards here seven days a week. There’s even a laminated sheet you can take with you as you navigate the watery trail. There also are numbered signs. (I like to stop near No. 11, toward the end on the far side of an island of mangroves, to snack and relax.) It’s not uncommon to spot manatees during your paddle, as well as other wildlife.

THE PEDALING PELICAN

You can rent a variety of bikes, including covered contraptions, at this spot next to the fort and behind the main snack bar/gift shop. Look for the small thatched booth and brightly colored bikes with baskets.

THE RECREATION TRAIL

Fort De Soto has more than 6 miles of asphalt trail, running from south of Bunces Pass Bridge to the main stop sign and then in both directions parallel to the water from one end of the park to the other. It’s a fantastic place to bike and skate, and there are benches — some of them in the shade — every so often.

BOAT RAMP

As mentioned previously, there is a boat ramp immediately south of Bunces Pass Bridge, on the right-hand side. The entrance is marked by large metal anchors. There is a charge to use the boat ramp ($6) or to park there ($5). There are several pay stations, and if you really are visiting often, an available annual pass. The boat ramp has restrooms, picnic benches and nearly a dozen floating docks.

TIERRA VERDE BOAT RENTALS

If you want to rent a boat, this place at Tierra Verde Marina can help, with rentals that range from hourly to daily.

TAMPA BAY FISHING ADVENTURES

Capt. Treg Renoud will take individuals and groups as large as six people out into the bay and beyond for charter fishing. His 25-footer departs from the boat ramp.

ISLA DEL SOL YACHT & COUNTRY CLUB

This members-only club is at the turnoff for State Road 679 on the Pinellas Bayway, before you get to the park. It has a golf course as well as other amenities, such as a tennis club and its own harbor.

As you can see from this aerial view, the mutts just love to frolic in the water at the park’s dog beach.
[Florida Beach Insider photo]

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

There are several snack bars at Fort De Soto, which offer standard grill-and-fryer fare. But you have some food options before you get to the park, too. There’s a Publix at 34th Street and 54th Avenue South in St. Petersburg, for starters, as well as a Subway in a strip mall on the north side of the Pinellas Bayway. There are more once you’ve turned on to State Road 679. A couple of the better ones:

ISLAND GRILLE & RAW BAR
Seeking fruity cocktails, oysters, tuna steaks and a delightful outdoor patio in a setting complete with boats? This is the place.

BILLY’S STONE CRAB, SEAFOOD AND MORE

This restaurant has been around for more than 40 years. Enjoy fresh seafood and Billy’s House Salad, which includes olives and Parmesan cheese and is topped with a delicious house-made vinaigrette.

TONY & NELLO’S SOUTHERN ITALIAN CUISINE & GRILLE

From garlic rolls and antipasto salad to shrimp primavera pizza, you can stop here to fill up on your way to Fort De Soto or get your food to-go.

Dawn Cate is a Florida native and a Florida Gator who grew up in the Tampa Bay area. She joined the Tampa Bay Times in 1990 and currently edits the Personal Best and LifeTimes sections, among other duties. She enjoys music and has a bad case of wanderlust. When she's not traveling, she can often be found skating, paddleboarding or taking in a nice sunset at Fort De Soto Park.
lschillinger says:
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The North Beach is a fabulous alternative to (much) more crowded spots like Clearwater Beach. Because of its somewhat remote location and a $5 park entrance fee, it's usually not very crowded. It's a beautiful spot to enjoy a less crowded and more natural Florida beach with perfect white sand. Picnic pavilions with grills can be reserved for larger groups and there are showers and bathhouses. The campsite boasts waterfront sites (reserve early). And there is a wonderful bike trail which goes the length of the park (7 miles) and is smooth and wide for rollerblading too. We love Ft.Desoto!
kmctavish says:
starfish starfish starfish starfish starfish
A lot of beach area and space to spread out the beach blanket with picnic pavilions close to the water

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