Fort Desoto is one of the best beaches in Florida. To make it even more official, Fort De Soto was once named the “Best Beach in the entire United States” in 2005 by “Dr. Beach” Stephen Leatherman.
The water is clear, the sand is amazing, and there is a huge amount of parking. Plus, it offers an excellent campground.
Camping at Fort De Soto is unique because it offers a lovely camping experience in the middle of a highly developed urban region.
Many people mistakenly refer to Fort De Soto as “Fort De Soto State Park”. It is actually not a state park, it is a Pinellas County Park. But, it is an easy mistake to make, because the park feels like a state park in many ways. Fort De Soto Park is enormous. It covers well over 1,000 acres and has a variety of ecosystem habitats.
Fort De Soto has a lot to offer:
- Excellent Tent and RV Camping
- Excellent bird watching and wildlife
- A wide range of natural environments
- Long, often uncrowded beaches
- Extremely large parking areas
- Low-cost parking compared to other beaches
- Excellent camping near the beach
- Dog-friendly beach and park
- Historical military fort
- Family-friendly playgrounds
- Running and bicycling trails
- Excellent boat ramp facilities
- Excellent fishing piers
- Great views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge
- Nice shower and bathroom facilities
- Two fishing piers: Bay Pier and Gulf Pier
- Habitat for migratory birds and native shorebirds
- Access to the beautiful island of Egmont Key
There are some downsides to Fort De Soto. Bad things:
- Can become crowded on weekends, holiday weekends and other events
- Toll roads on the way to the park
- Daily parking fee
The drive to Fort De Soto is lovely and takes visitors over several bridges with beautiful views over the surrounding waterways.
It costs $5 to park in Fort De Soto. That fee is good or all-day parking.
Visitors can pay in-person at the entrance of the park when it is staffed. When it is not staffed there are automated payment booth machines.
Both the in-person toll booth and payment machines accept cash, debit and credit cards. The card reader machines are not always reliable so visitors should bring cash as an emergency back-up.
Visitors can also buy long-term passes for one year or six month durations.
Fort De Soto Park includes five separate islands, or keys. They are: Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Bonne Fortune Key and the largest island, Mullet Key. Combined the islands cover 1,136 acres and have more than six miles of beaches.
Fort De Soto has a relatively long history.
It has been used for hundreds of years as a military post, although it has never been involved in any battles.
The historic fort includes 29 different buildings which served the fort’s operations and the soldiers who were stationed there.
There is a small museum in the park and there are interpretive signs which explain the building functions and history of the fort.
Amazingly, visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the fort and go down inside the fort. Both are awesome experiences. The high vantage point on top of the fort offers beautiful, sweeping views of the beaches and Gulf of Mexico.
Most people agree that the north beach in Fort De Soto is the best beach in the park.
The sand is very nice. It is soft and generally easy to walk in. It feels more like clean beach sand when compared to other areas in Fort De Soto, like the easternmost point, which is darker, feels more squishy and filled with organic material.
The north beach section is extremely large and very long, so even on busy days it feels the least crowded of any beach in Fort De Soto.
The north beach continues for a long distance and eventually ends at a deep water channel which separates Fort De Soto from the neighboring Shell Key Preserve.
There are many amenities spread around the north beach area, including playgrounds, picnic shelters, barbeque grills and restrooms. Some restrooms have both indoor and outdoor showers, while others only have outdoor showers.
There is also a concession stand which sells snacks and rents beach equipment like umbrellas and chairs.
East Beach is a popular spot for families. There are many covered picnic shelters and barbeque grill stations. There are also playgrounds and large, grassy and shaded areas for families to spread out and play.
Spacious bathroom facilities offer both indoor and outdoor shower facilities.
The beach here is nice, but not as beautiful as the beaches in the north beach section. The sand is darker and tends to have more organic material.
The easternmost point of Fort De Soto is a great place to see and photograph the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
It is usually less crowded than other parts of Fort De Soto because the beaches are less attractive and less sandy.
Many people enjoy the easternmost point for water sports. Kayaking, fishing, kitesurfing and windsurfing are all popular in this section of the park.
The Bay Pier extends for 500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Bay Pier is where the Egmont Key ferry loads and unloads passengers. The round-trip ferry cost is $20.
It has amenities and facilities for fishermen, including a concession shop and bait house.
There is also a fenced dog park with separate sections for large and small dogs. The dog park has amenities for dogs, including a dog wash area.
There are also restrooms, barbeque grills, picnic pavilions and beaches nearby.
This section of the park has a dog-friendly beach section and a totally enclosed, fenced-in dog park.
Fort De Soto is one of the best campgrounds in Florida.
The campground has more than 200 campsites with water, electrical hookups, a grill and a picnic table. There are also RV dump stations on-site. The restrooms and bath houses are modern and have shower facilities.
The campsites in Fort De Soto are extremely popular and can be difficult to arrange because they are typically reserved many months in advance.
The park does reserve some campsites for last-minute “walk-in” campsites which are released on Friday morning of that weekend.
Cover photography by Luiz Cent