Bring your kayak, bike and camping gear because Fort DeSoto has it all
~Consistently ranked among the best of Florida’s beaches – indeed, among the best in the nation – is the beach at Fort DeSoto Park on the southern tip of Pinellas County, at the entrance to Tampa Bay, in St. Petersburg.
Fort DeSoto Park is wrapped in three miles of beautiful white sand beaches that draw more than 2.7 million visitors every year.
The park is made up of five islands totaling 1100 acres, anchored by the main island, Mullet Key, where the park’s namesake fort and main beaches are located.
The North Beach is probably the most popular for shelling, swimming and picnics, although we always leaned toward the less-crowded East Beach on Tampa Bay, which is more convenient while camping in the park’s splendid campground. Both beaches have ample parking.
The sunset views from Fort DeSoto’s North Beach are unmatched, and there is an incredible view of the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay from the East Beach.
There are 10 picnic shelters on the North Beach, along with six restrooms, a food concession and gift shop, while the East Beach has three shelters and a bathhouse. The nearest food concession to the East Beach is at the Bay Pier, which also has a bait shop.
Fort DeSoto has a $5 beach parking fee in addition to the 50-cent toll on the Pinellas Bayway to get out to the islands.
There are two fishing piers, the Bay Pier, which is 500 feet, and the 1000-foot Gulf Pier, which is located next to the fort and museum and also has a bait shop.
In addition to the beautiful beaches, Fort Desoto Park features a campground with 238 sites, many of them on the water with one section set aside exclusively for tents.
Kayaking is extremely popular offshore of Mullet Key, in and around the islands, and into adjacent Shell Key Reserve. Kayaks can be rented at the Topwater Kayak Outpost on the bayou located between the Bay Pier and Gulf Pier. Rates start at $23 per hour with substantial discounts for additional time.
Kayaks and boats offer access to more pristine beaches on offshore islands, such as those at Egmont Key State Park, just offshore, although you have to cross an open bay. A day ferry ($20) is also available to Egmont Key from the Bay Pier at Fort DeSoto.
You can launch your own kayak or paddleboard at the outpost — or at the boat ramp near the entrance to the park. The boat ramp is huge – 800 feet with 11 floating docks – designed mostly for motorboats. There’s a parking fee of $6 with a trailer ($5 without), and seasonal permits are available.
Aside from the beaches, campground, kayaking, fishing and boating, Fort DeSoto has a 7-mile paved bike trail and two nature trails, one of them more than two miles long.
Fort DeSoto is noteworthy for it’s birding, especially during the spring and fall migrations. For a bird list and guide, you can download this PDF.
And possibly the best feature for those with pets – there is a dog park with beach access near the Bay Pier. Two fenced-in areas separate big dogs and little dogs.
Fort Desoto Park is open every day from 7 a.m. until sunset.
Visitors to this beach and park rave about it on TripAdvisor. So will you.
Mullet Key had been a military outpost since the Civil War, when Union troops manned the island in an effort to block ships of the Confederacy from entering Tampa Bay.
But the fort itself wasn’t built until the Spanish American War. Uniquely, the fort was built out of shells and concrete because the rock intended for its construction did not arrive by ship in time. It was completed and named after Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto in 1900.
All that remains of Fort DeSoto today is one of the two original mortar batteries with four of its guns still in place.
The fort was all but abandoned in 1910, although a caretaker force was in place until World War II, when it was used as a bombing range for MacDill Air Force Base.
Pinellas County purchased the fort and surrounding islands in 1949, and it was established as a park in 1962.
Planning a visit to Fort DeSoto
3500 Pinellas Bayway S.,
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