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South Florida hidden beaches: Salty, sandy adventures

It’s easy to find a beach in Florida. It’s harder to find a hidden beach, a beach where you experience a sense of discovery and delicious isolation.

Once upon a time, South Florida was full of hidden beaches. But then we moved here – millions and millions of us.

So now it takes some effort to find a wild, secret, uncrowded beach in South Florida.

Over many years, I’ve found six special hidden beaches in South Florida, and as I walked the sands at each one, I admit, I have been tempted to keep the discovery to myself.  (So don’t tell anyone about these, OK? )

Three of these beaches are an adventure to reach (they can only be accessed by boat or by wading across a lagoon);  three are county or city parks and thus not known outside the region.  All are that rare thing in South Florida: A wild place that hasn’t been spoiled.

Beaches that are hidden because you can only reach them by boat

Starfish on Cayo Costa island

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

The most remote and hardest  to reach of these beaches in Cayo Costa, and yet all it takes is an hour boat ride.  Cayo Costa State Park near Pine Island is not only the most remote of these hidden beaches, it’s also the most expansive.  There are more than nine miles of beach and the sand is laden with shells and dotted with bleached drift wood.  There’s no disputing it: It’s unforgettably gorgeous.

You can explore Cayo Costa on a day trip or stay overnight. There’s boat service from several locations. You can take a Tropic Star ferry from Bokelia, a small town on Pine Island, which is west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. (Fares are $35 for daytrippers and $50 for campers.)  There’s also the Island Star ferry run by King Fisher Fleet out of Punta Gorda.  The King Fisher docks are a few minutes off I-75 and offer free parking.  The day trip gives you three hours on the island; tickets are $35 (campers are $10 more).

Cayo Costa is remote and wild: No snack bars, no diversions, just beach, nature and you.  You can camp on Cayo Costa or stay in a tiny rustic cabin without electricity or running water. Evenings on the heavily wooded island are magical, although  in summer  that magic is likely to include lots of mosquitoes and no see ums.  November to April nights are highly sought after, so book ahead on ReserveAmerica.  Here’s a look at the Cayo Costa experience.

Highly experienced kayakers can paddle to Cayo Costa, but it’s a long way over open water and is generally recommended only for those camping on the island, who don’t have to make a round-trip in one day. Here are some resources on kayaking to Cayo Costa from the Calusa Blueway site.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park

Hidden beach at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Florida

The hidden beach at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park can only be reached by boat.

St. Lucie Inlet is also on a barrier island, this one on the Atlantic coast, but it’s a lot easier to reach.  To find St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, you do have to paddle a kayak or arrive by boat, but it’s only a third of a mile across the Intracoastal.  (Want more paddling? There is a great kayak trail on and around the island.)

The beach, though, is the reward.  From the Intracoastal, a shaded boardwalk crosses the island and opens to a wide, wild and pristine beach that goes on and on. The state park’s beach is 2.7 miles long, but the southern boundary is with Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, and thus the beach actually continues uninterrupted for more than five miles total. Because it’s hard to reach, this is a beach where you’re likely to find a section you don’t have to share with anyone.

Rangers will zip you across the island on a golf cart if you have beach gear and near the beach is a large covered picnic pavilion and restrooms.

Beaches that are hidden because they are little known county parks

Clam Pass Beach Park in Naples, Florida

The pass at Clam Pass is the river like body of water on the left. You can float in or out of the pass as the tide carries you on a “lazy river” like ride.

We only discovered Collier County’s delightful  Clam Pass Park in Naples because we were staying at the Naples Grande Beach Resort,  for which this is the hotel beach. Though it’s little known, Clam Pass Park is public with a parking lot ($8) and a tram that crosses a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp.

Clam Pass has fine sugary sand like all Naples beaches, but what makes it especially fun is Clam Pass – the smallest, shallowest pass on the Gulf Coast.   The pass is a narrow river-like opening in the mangroves, shallow enough an adult can stand at the center except at the highest tide. If you float in the waters of the pass, you are gently swept away by the tide. If the tide is coming in, you float into a shallow mangrove-fringed lagoon. If the tide is going out, you float out into the Gulf, which remains shallow for a great distance.  It’s a natural “lazy river” adventure, where the pull and depth of the water is safe but still fun.  (The currents in larger passes can be extremely dangerous.)

If you swim or wade across Clam Pass, the beach north extends for miles, lined with seagrape trees and foliage.

Barefoot Beach Preserve

Barefoot Beach sanddollar

Lucky visitors find sand dollars at Barefoot Beach in Bonita Beach.

Travel a little further north and you’ll find another spectacular county park: Barefoot Beach Preserve in Bonita Beach. To reach this beach, you wind through a lush residential neighborhood of million-dollar homes.  When you reach Barefoot Beach, you feel like you’re in a private enclave.

Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, has named Barefoot Beach to his top 10 list in past years, but, fortunately, it remains unspoiled.

Barefoot Beach is 342 acres of natural land and you can walk a mile along the beach to the end, where you reach the swift currents of Wiggins Pass.  (Across the pass lies the very nice Delnor-Wiggins State Park.)

Tigertail Beach

Tigertail Beach on Marco Island is another Collier County Park, and it’s also an adventure to reach. A dozen years ago, this beach was an off-shore sandbar. The winds of Hurricane Wilma in 2005 piled sand on the southern end of the sandbar, and today what is called Sand Dollar Island is connected to the mainland.

The big view at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island

Nothing but sand, sea and clouds at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

The park is popular with locals for its split personality. On one side of the lagoon, you pay $8 to park and come to a clean and well-kept park with changing rooms, a first-rate snack bar, picnic tables, a great playground and a concession stand that rents kayaks, stand up paddleboards and other beach gear.

On the other side of the lagoon, you leave development behind.  A wild sandspit extends three miles north, a beach with soft white sand, scads of shells, dolphins swimming off-shore, ospreys squealing overhead and so many shore birds that it’s a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

But the adventure is crossing the lagoon itself.

The lagoon is about 50 yards across and at high tide, the water comes up to about your waist or chest at the buoy that marks the cross-over point. The bottom of the lagoon is a squishy, grassy mud. You don’t sink, but you do have to overcome the “yuck” factor.

Crossing the lagoon, people hold their belongings over their heads and laugh as they feel the ooze between their toes.

If that’s not your idea of fun, you CAN walk about 20 minutes around the lagoon to the south to reach the beach. If you bring small children, consider pulling them on a beach float or renting a kayak or paddleboard.

Beaches that are hidden because they are off the main drag

Secret beach: Hobe Sound NWR sea oats

Sea oats line five miles of wild beach at Hobe Sound NWR.

When I discovered Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge , I felt like I had won the lottery.

We were bicycling the beachfront road on ritzy Jupiter Island, which dead-ends into Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing on the signage indicates there’s a public beach at the end of this road, and after 30-plus years of exploring Florida’s southeast, I had never heard about this beach.

So when we got there, we were stunned to discover we had stumbled onto the entrance to more than five miles of wild, broad unspoiled sandy shore.

The Hobe Sound beach extends north more than two miles where the equally pristine St. Lucie Preserve beach begins.

Parking is $5, restrooms are portapotties and there are no picnic tables or amenities. What you will find is miles of beauty and solitude.

South Florida’s hidden beaches:

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One Comment

  1. David Walker says:

    Thank you for this post. I want to visit them all!

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