Beaches / Camping / Lodging / Southwest Florida

At Cayo Costa State Park, you live your dreams of a private island

Remote and romantic, Cayo Costa is destination for camping and rustic cabins

~ CAYO COSTA –There’s no wifi. The bugs can get bad. And if snakes bother you, you’ve come to the wrong place.

All true, and yet I am not alone in considering Cayo Costa State Park a slice of paradise — partly for those very reasons.

One of the best Florida beaches: Cayo Costa

Driftwood gives Cayo Costa beach a wild look. (Photo by Crow Bead via Flicker)

Shells at one of Florida's best beaches: Cayo Costa State Park

Heaps of shells on Cayo Costa State Park’s beach (Photo by Andrea Westmoreland, via Flickr)

Cayo Costa is an island with more than nine miles of unspoiled Gulf beaches piled with seashells. You can only reach it by boat, and the ferry’s cost ($32 for daytrippers; $42 for those staying in cabins or tents) keeps the crowds away.

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.

To reach Cayo Costa, you take a Tropic Star ferry from Pineland, a small town on Pine Island, which is west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. There also is a daytrip from Punta Gorda from the King Fisher Fleet.

Shifting sand and water on Cayo Costa State Park

Shifting sand and water on Cayo Costa State Park (Photo by corto.maltese via Flickr)

Tropic Star ferry to Cayo Costa Island

Tropic Star ferry to Cayo Costa. As the boat approached, one passenger exclaimed: What’s this? Thailand? The Tropic Star’s website prefers to compare the boat to the African Queen.

Loaded ferry to Cayo Costa

Gear is piled high on the Tropic Star ferry to Cayo Costa State Park.

Small wooden cabins on Cayo Costa are as cute as a button.

Small wooden cabins on Cayo Costa Island are as cute as a button.

Inside of Cayo Costa cabin

A view of the interior of a cabin on Cayo Costa State Park.

Trail on Cayo Costa Island, Florida

Trails on the eastern side of Cayo Costa Island ark are shaded by oaks.

The road on Cayo Costa

A tram takes visitors on this road from boat dock to beach on Cayo Costa State Park.

Starfish on Cayo Costa island

The starfish was one of many treasures found walking the Cayo Costa beach.

Live conch along the beach on Cayo Costa State Park

We found a live conch in the clear shallow waters along the Cayo Costa beach.

Driftwood on Cayo Costa beach

A closer look at driftwood on the Cayo Costa beach.

Cayo Costa daytrippers can enjoy the beaches and trails, but there’s nothing like having the island to yourself after the day folks have gone home. They miss out on watching the sunset and then the stars, which shine brightly in this remote locale

To stay overnight, you need to reserve a primitive cabin or campsite via Reserve America. Dates book up fast during the less buggy times of year, so plan well in advance.

I’ve stayed in the cabins several times; it’s a little like camping but with a bed and a roof overhead. Cayo Costa cabins are basic one-room wooden structures without electricity or running water. There are three sets of bunk beds, a picnic table inside, a picnic table outside and a fire circle with grill top just outside. There’s a central bathhouse with cold showers and restroom facilities.

To stay on Cayo Costa island, you must bring everything: Lots of food, all cooking utensils, bug spray and sunscreen. There are no stores and no restaurants. (My daughter and three college roommates discovered the impact of this when they left their cooler on the boat, and had to subsist until the next day’s boat on other food they had packed, which consisted of potatoes, Tostitos, salsa and a bottle of rum.  They learned potatoes take a long time to bake in a fire.)

You can rent kayaks from the folks who operate the ferry and bikes for half or full day rental from the ranger station.

Exploring Cayo Costa island is the major activity. You can walk the beaches for hours, finding a great variety of sealife, including sand dollars and myriad shells. For hours, the only sign of civilization you might see will be boats at sea.

The trails wind through the thick vegetation with periodic scenic water views. We loved crossing paths with a family of feral pigs, which legend has are descendants of those kept by early Spanish explorers.

After dark, we took our daughters on a spooky flashlight hike to the pioneer cemetery. Harbor pilot Captain Peter Nelson, who died in 1919, is buried here with a stone that reads, “After Life’s Fitful Fever He Sleeps Well.”

It seems an appropriate message on this island, where for at least a few hours, we escape the fitful fever of our modern life.

Day tripping to Cayo Costa:

King Fisher Fleet cruises across Charlotte Harbor from Punta Gorda several days a week. It’s a two-hour boat ride and you get a taste of the island with a few hours stop. It’s $30 per person with an extra fee of $10 if you’re camping or cabining. Boats leave at 9 a.m.

Tropic Star leaves from Pine Island and runs every day. You get more time on the island with this trip, with less time on the water, though the location is more out of the way. It’s $32 per adult/$25 children. Boats board at 9 a.m.

 

Overnight on Cayo Costa:

  • 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 Cayo Costa, 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 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 adults/$32 children for roundtrip for overnight visitors.)  Also: Be prepared to pay $10 per night for parking.
  • If you’re seeking nearby lodging before or after your Cayo Costa outing, you can rent cabins from the Topic Star folks for $90-$95 a night.    They’re small, efficiencies that sleep four to six.

Useful Cayo Costa links:

What’s near Cayo Costa Island:

Sunset is one of the big events during a stay on Cayo Costa State Parki.

Information updated 2/13/2015

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