Gasparilla, Don Pedro Island and Manasota Key aren’t as famous as other Southwest Florida islands, but they’re gorgeous
Everybody knows about Sanibel and Captiva, the beautiful shell-laden barrier islands on the southwest Florida coast.
But there’s a string of islands that extends north from Sanibel, and these are much less well-known.
Within these islands – Gasparilla Island, Don Pedro Island and Manasota Key – there are three spectacular state parks, all featuring beaches that are among the best Florida has to offer. All three are off the usual tourist path.
On a recent weekend, we found this area well worth exploring, with good opportunities for kayaking, hiking plus shelling and beach-combing. Accommodations, however, are limited, so you may choose to visit this area on a day trip from an adjoining city, like Punta Gorda or Venice.
We stayed in Englewood right on the beach at Weston’s WannaB Inn and found it a great base, but there aren’t a lot of other hotels in the area, especially on the beach.
Stump Pass Beach State Park, Englewood
You’ll never have a crowd at Stump Pass Beach State Park – the parking lot only has 30 to 40 spaces. (That means on busy weekends, you might not find a space or will have to wait for one.)
The park is at the end of the road in Englewood on Manasota Key. It’s a spit of land that extends 1.3 miles with many spots you can stake out to create a near-private beach experience.
In addition to white-sand beach on the Atlantic side, there are the small sandy spots on the Intracoastal side of the island where you can sit, picnic, swim or fish in solitude.
A sandy path runs up the middle of the island, providing welcome shade on hot days. On the day we walked, there were puddles left from the previous tide so we waded and walked. With a combo of beach walking and the sandy trail, we got a work out hiking to the end. But it’s so worth doing.
The path ends at Stump Pass, where broad sandbars attract birds and offer beautiful views in all directions.
The many sun-bleached dead trees give the park its name and make the beach a photographer’s dream. We were lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins swimming in the pass while osprey and pelicans hunted overhead.
Stump Pass feels completely unspoiled and natural. Though civilization is close, you feel like you are in a very wild place.
Don Pedro Island State Park, Cape Haze
On the island south of Stump Pass State Park, there is a little-visited state park reachable only by boat, Don Pedro Island State Park.
While it sounds wild and remote, Don Pedro is sandwiched between two vacation communities on the island (Little Gasparilla Island and Palm Island), so you are never too far from big beach houses in the distances. Oddly, while accessible by car, nearby Stump Pass State Park seemed more isolated.
That’s not to say Don Pedro State Park isn’t worth visiting. Getting there is a fun kayak trip and I found shelling at the one-mile-long beach even better than at Stump Pass Beach State Park. Also, with all visitors arriving by boat, you’ll never see more than a handful of people.
To kayak to Don Pedro, you put in across the Intracoastal at the mainland portion of Don Pedro State Park. If you bring your own kayak, bring a wheeled carrier, as it is a good distance (a long city block) from the parking lot to the boat put-in.
We rented kayaks from HookedOnSups, which delivers and picks up kayaks to the dock here.
When you put in your kayak next to the dock, you see a shaded opening in the mangroves across the Intracoastal. To reach it, it’s an easy paddle with minimal power-boat traffic.
This is the entrance to a beautiful mangrove tunnel with shallow, clear water, and dappled light filtering through the leaves.
The mangrove tunnel leads to a peaceful lagoon inside Don Pedro park. It is a pristine place, unreachable by anything but paddle craft, where the only sounds are ospreys squealing overhead, mullet splashing and the sound of waves from the beach, not visible but not far.
The mangrove tunnel is the only way into and out of the lagoon. On your exit, if you turn right and paddle a half mile, you go under a small bridge and into a bay (We loved that it’s called Rambler Hole!) where you’ll see the dock for Don Pedro Island State Park.
There’s an impressive new dock facility for power boats and a sandy put-in spot for kayaks, hidden behind the dock structure. From the dock, a trail can take you directly to the beach and picnic shelter, or you can take a left to follow the path a distance through the desert-like scrub, over the dunes and out to the magnificent beach at the park’s southern end.
The star of this park is this gorgeous beach, hard-packed white sand full of seashells. (I ended up with more lovely shells — Florida fighting conchs and lightning whelks — than I could easily carry.)
A picnic pavilion overlooking the beach is large enough to accommodate all the visitors the remote park is likely to get in a day. It provides welcome shade and picnic tables and has modern restrooms and water nearby.
After leaving the park, we continued south and paddled around mangrove islands. At this point, if you cross the Intracoastal, you can paddle back to the Don Pedro parking area using the Cape Haze Canal, which is lined with homes. On a windy day, this provided a quieter route than paddling the Intracoastal, which also has power boat traffic.
Gasparilla Island State Park, Boca Grande
On the island that is home to the historic resort town of Boca Grande, this big state park offers miles of beaches and a historic lighthouse you can tour. The park stretches along Gasparilla Island’s southern end, with four parking lots that provide access to the beach. The area served by the first and last lot also have picnic tables and shelters.
At the southern tip of the island is the oldest building on the island, the 1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse, home to a small well-rated museum full of local history, old photos and artifacts. The beach wraps around the lighthouse, offering outstanding views in every direction. The lighthouse itself doesn’t fit one’s expectations—it’s not tall and statuesque. For that, stop at what is called the North Range Light, a lighthouse located at the park’s first parking lot, which is not open for touring.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story about visiting Boca Grande and Gasparilla State Park, which is worth a day in itself.
Across the Boca Grande inlet from the lighthouse is Cayo Costa State Park. Cayo Costa is my favorite island in Florida. It’s a little hard to reach; it requires a lengthier and pricier boat ride than any of the other islands, but it is bigger, wilder and more beautiful than any of the others. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting Cayo Costa.
Planning your trip to the Southwest Florida barrier islands
Stump Pass Beach State Park
South end of Manasota Key
900 Gulf Blvd.
Be sure to bring dollar bills, as you’ll be asked for $3 admission at the honor box. There are restrooms and a picnic table at the entrance.
Don Pedro Island State Park
8450 Placida Road
Be sure to bring dollar bills, as you’ll be asked for $3 admission at the honor box. There are restrooms and a picnic table at this entrance.
Gasparilla Island State Park
880 Belcher Road
Admission is $3 per vehicle and $2 for bicyclists. There is a $6 toll bridge to reach the island.
Hooked on Sups
Cape Haze Marina
6950 Placida Rd.
Kayaks rent for $35 (single) to $50 for a half day. SUPs are $25 an hour; $35 for two hours. Will deliver kayaks or SUPs to both state parks and can suggest good routes.
Where to stay and eat in Southwest Florida islands
These islands attract visitors, but the accommodations are generally in condos and vacation rental homes instead of hotels. Many visitors come back for the season year after year, with Canadians and British well represented.
We stayed at the Weston’s WannaB in Englewood, which is a complex of buildings, some one-story cottage-like structures, others three-story buildings with efficiencies with full kitchens. Most have Gulf views — and the view is spectacular.
The most “Florida Rambler” like place to eat in the area is the White Elephant Pub, where we enjoyed sandwiches and live music outdoors on the Intracoastal across from the beach in Englewood. The White Elephant has tons of history, though it is not touted much at the restaurant and it is difficult to determine what part of the building is historic. It was originally associated with a circus that wintered here and has a colorful history as a bar and casino during the 1920s. It burned down three times, according to the manager. Today, it’s lively, family friendly and popular, with large portions of good food.
Tips on exploring the barrier islands
- The eight-mile drive along the Gulf on Beach Road between Englewood and Manasota Beach Road (where the public road on Manasota Key ends) is beautiful. It’s narrow and quiet with minimal development. We thought it looked like a great bike ride because traffic was not heavy and it’s very scenic, but we haven’t tried it by bike.
- A half hour north of Englewood, Venice is a historic town with beautiful architecture, a charming downtown and more spectacular beaches. Here are five things to discover near Venice and a Florida Rambler guide to the beaches of Venice.
- South of these islands and located on Charlotte Harbor is the vibrant small town of Punta Gorda, which offers more accommodations at moderate prices. Here’s a Florida Rambler roundup of things to do in Punta Gorda.
- One of the best kayak trips we’ve taken in the area was out of Placida, at the southern end of this string of islands, near Boca Grande. Here’s a Florida Rambler report on kayaking exploring this part of Charlotte Harbor by kayak.
- Captiva Cruises operates cruises from the Cape Haze Marina, 6950 Placida Road, Englewood,
to Don Pedro ($20) as well as trips to Boca Grande and Cayo Costa State Park.