The beaches of Fort Desoto consistently rank among the best beaches in America, and campers love this campground with half of its site on the water.
This public park, maintained and operated by Pinellas County, is spread over 900 acres on five interconnected islands with seven miles of waterfront, including three miles of some of the prettiest sandy beaches in Florida.
Nearly half of the 233 campsites in the campground are waterfront, allowing you to launch your kayak or canoe from your site. And the paddling opportunities are endless. There is a 2.25-mile designated paddle trail, but the real fun is exploring Shell Key and the other offshore islands.
If you have a larger boat, a full-facility boat ramp is located near the entrance to the park with plenty of launch ramps and more-than-ample trailer parking. Campers in Area Three (Sites 166-195) are allowed to anchor off the seawall. (There is an overflow parking area in the campground where you can leave your trailer during your stay.)
You’ll also find a 6.3-mile paved bicycle trail, nature trails, two fishing piers and the ruins of a fort built during the Spanish-American War.
Tenters can get away from the RV crowd on their own island, where 85 sites are set aside.
My wife and I have been visiting this park for years. In addition to the park amenities, we enjoy its proximity to Tampa, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County’s lovely beachfront communities.
And then there is the Pinellas Trail, a fantabulous multi-purpose paved trail that extends 47 miles atop a long-abandoned railroad bed from Tarpon Springs on the north to downtown St. Petersburg, with a spur that shoots out across the Dunedin Causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park.
This trail is the granddaddy of rail trails in Florida, and its creation set off a flurry of redevelopment of idle railroad beds across the state to preserve greenways while affording safe recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. An average of 70,000 people on bicycles, rollerblades, on foot and in wheelchairs utilize the Pinellas Trail each month.
Reserving a campsite
Although there are 233 sites, they fill up early in the peak snowbird season from January to April, so campers should plan ahead and take advantage of the “off season” lulls. Rates are modestly lower during the off-season, as well.
The best time to reserve a campsite at Fort DeSoto is in the fall, when the weather is ideal for camping, biking and kayaking, and waterfront sites are more available.
Tent campers get special treatment: 85 campsites are set aside on their own little island, away from the RV crowd. But almost all of the sites in the campground are tent-friendly with a decent buffer between sites.
Pets are welcome only in designated camping Area Two (Sites 86-164) near the entrance, and for your planning purposes, these campsites are often the last to sell out.
The park sets aside an undisclosed number of sites for walk-ups, but don’t count on any being available in peak season. RVers near the end of their reserved stay, flock to the park office at 8 a.m. and stand in line for open sites to extend their visit.
By design, locals have the advantage here because they can drive over to the park and reserve before packing up their gear at home. Pinellas County residents also benefit from a new park policy that allows them to reserve a site up to seven months in advance.
The reservation window for non-residents is six months, and the phones start buzzing on the mark, so call early and call often.
By Phone: (727) 893-9185 or Online at https://public.co.pinellas.fl.us/parks/ParksMain.jsp
Rates (including taxes) as of Oct. 2011:
May 1-Dec. 31 –
Tent sites, $33.60; Waterfront, $37.53;
RV sites, $39.20; Waterfront, $41.44
Jan 1-April 30
Tent sites, $37.53; Waterfront, $39.77
RV sites, $43.13; Waterfront, $45.53
Maximum stay: 14 days. During the off-season, it’s possible to extend for another 14 days if sites are available.
Cancellations: There are no refunds, but if you must cancel, the park will give you a credit that you can use up to one year after the cancellation.
Related articles on Florida Rambler
Florida’s Best Beaches: The All-Time Top 10
Best Camping Near Tampa: 9 Choice Campgrounds
St Petersburg: City of the Arts
Shell Key Preserve — Accessible only by boat.
Fort Desoto — Official Pinellas County site
Fort De Soto park map — Download PDF file
Pinellas Trail — Official Pinellas County site
Pinellas Trail — Rails To Trails
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.