No matter how lovely the day or how idyllic the beaches, you won’t find crowds at Cayo Costa State Park.
It is accessible only by a boat and it is a one-hour ferry ride from Pineland, itself a remote spot on Pine Island west of Fort Myers. There are only a few boats a day and the $32 daytrip fare makes it an expensive option if you just want to go to the beach.
That means you can almost guarantee you can walk miles on a perfect beach and have Cayo Costa almost to yourself.
We were lucky enough to snag two nights in one of the 12 rustic cabins for a weekend and thus we re-visited Cayo Costa, one of our most loved spots in Florida, with our two daughters visiting from the north. (The cabins and campsites fill up far in advance so if you want to visit, you need to plan ahead.)
Cayo Costa is Florida in the raw, featuring all its natural beauty and wildlife, from the manatees you may see on the boat trip over to the dolphins playing in the surf to the osprey nesting in the tree snags along the beach.
Cayo Costa State Park’s beaches and shelling are among the best in the state and the 2,426 acre park also features thickly wooded trails for hiking and mountain biking.
Mostly, though, you come here for the solitude and the wildness. There just aren’t many places like this left.
Cayo Costa offers a campground with 30 sites and 12 small wooden cabins without water or electricity. Both the camp sites and the cabins are steps to the spectacular beach and surrounded by native vegetation. (Gone are the Australian pines that used to shade the area.)
The sites have drinking water, cold showers and flush toilets. A mile away, on the dock side of the island, and easy to reach via the tram that circulates back and forth, you can buy ice, cold sodas and charcoal.
On our visit, highlights included many sightings of osprey including on a nest adjacent to the campground, a dolphin quite close playing in the Cayo Costa boat-dock area, a large living conch shell found in the shallow water, views of several stingrays in the shallow surf plus so many fish jumping in the water they looked like popcorn popping.
A few suggestions from our several visits over the years:
- If you are staying in the cabin, don’t bother with air mattresses. There are six bunk beds and each has a plastic-covered mattress.
- Keep in mind you will be loading all your gear onto a boat (often over a railing) and then onto a tram on the island and then out of the tram to your cabin on campsite. This means you want all your items securely packaged to make them easy to move by hand. Don’t make any package too heavy. We found multiple smaller bundles were easier to handle than the folks who packed one trunk-sized duffle bag that could barely be lifted.
- Bring folding chairs, even in the cabins. Without them, your only place to sit is a picnic table or beach towel.
- Once on the island, be sure to walk the beach in both directions. There are nine miles of wild beach here, and this is one of the highlights of any visit. To the north, as you reach Boca Grande pass, the beach is studded with trees turned to whitened driftwood. To the south, a large saltwater lagoon parallels the shore and provides stunning views.
- Don’t miss the inland trails. The eastern end of the island is a lush hardwood hammock with more shade. The pioneer cemetery makes a great after-dark flashlight-hike destination. (It’s located, not suprisingly, on the cemetery trail.)
- You can rent kayaks and mountain bikes on the island. (Kayaks are $40 for a single and $50 for a double for a 24 hour period and are rented via the Tropic Star ferry folks. )
- Be sure to book ahead for the Tropic Star ferry to Cayo Costa ($42 roundtrip for overnight visitors, $32 for children; daytrip price is $32 adults; $25 children 12 and younger.) For overnight stays, the ferry departs Pineland Marina at 2 p.m. daily and leaves Cayo Costa at 1 p.m. Also: Be prepared to pay $10 per night for parking.
- Camper gear is limited to 50 pounds per person, additional gear and oversized items will have additional charges. There is a transport fee of $15 for kayaks and $10 for bicycles. Dogs are $20, must have advance reservations and must be caged or leashed and muzzled.
- Tropic Star also offers water taxi service by advance arrangements. Details: (239) 283-0015
- If you’re seeking nearby lodging before or after your Cayo Costa outing, you can rent cabins from the Tropic Star folks for $90-$95 a night. They’re small, efficiencies that sleep four to six.
- Mound Key, an archaeological island that makes a great paddling destination
- Lovers Key, good for paddling and manatees
- Get copies of the Calusa Blueway paddling maps.
- Exploring Sanibel by bike
- Fort Myers beach, a charming seaside town
- Barefoot Beach in Bonita Beach