Last updated on January 5th, 2021 at 08:22 am
I had always imagined Egmont Key, an island in the mouth of Tampa Bay, to be a place far from the crowds: remote, wild and natural, and it has always intrigued me.
We loved our day on Egmont Key, but it wasn’t what we expected.
It’s a popular destination for people arriving both by ferry and private boat, so it isn’t empty. And while the beach is beautiful, it really isn’t any nicer than the beaches of Anna Maria Island to the south or Pass-a- Grille to the north, and it is far from deserted.
What is special, though, is the intriguing history you experience here. If you like visiting crumbling old forts or ghost towns in a jungle, as I do, then Egmont Key makes a splendid adventure.
Egmont Key is preserved as Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge and is jointly managed with the state, which operates Egmont Key State Park here.
But be prepared, because while plenty of people may be on the island, Egmont Key is remote. It has no cars, no drinking water and no bathrooms. You must arrive by boat and, no, you can’t camp overnight.
If you take the ferry, your ticket will be $25 plus admission to Fort DeSoto Park, from which the ferry leaves, so this isn’t an inexpensive outing.
So is it worth it and why would you go?
Here are a five things I loved about Egmont Key:
- Exploring Fort Dade, which is in a state of romantic ruin.
- Walking the fort’s beautiful red brick roads, which are now lanes through a jungle.
- Encountering so many gopher tortoises. They’re everywhere and when you meet them on the brick roads, they stand their ground.
- Enjoying a picnic at the beach, where we overlooked ruins of Fort Dade’s power plant being engulfed by the Gulf.
- Seeing the simple historic cemeteries by the picturesque lighthouse, where Civil War veterans are buried on one side and lighthouse keepers and their families on the other.
The story of Egmont Key and Fort Dade
Egmont Key is about 1.6 miles from Fort De Soto Park at the bottom of St. Pete Beach, and it’s also about 1.6 miles long.
Much of the bayside waterfront and the southern half of the island is off-limits as part of the bird habitat of Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge.
Some 25,000 bird pairs nested on Egmon Key in 2020 with 20,000 of those being laughing gulls. Other species include royal and sandwich terns, brown pelicans, black skimmers, and American oystercatchers.
Egmont Key was home mostly to birds up to the middle of the 1800s. Man’s presence was limited to a lighthouse, Seminole Indians imprisoned here during the Third Seminole War and the Union Army occupying it during the Civil War.
In 1898, however, as the Spanish-American War threatened, Fort Dade was built on the island and remained active until 1923. It is these ruins of Fort Dade that you now are allowed to wander.
At its heyday, Fort Dade had 300 residents, red brick roads, electricity, telephones, a hospital, jail, a movie theater, bowling alley and tennis courts. Except foundations and ruins of the sturdy fort batteries, it’s all gone now.
Visiting Egmont Key State Park
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we had booked the 11 a.m. ferry to Egmont Key. At this time of year, the company generally runs one ferry a day. But because of the holiday weekend, they had added several other trips, including a 10 a.m. ferry and an 11:30 a.m. ferry.
The Egmont Key ferry is open-air and two-thirds under roof. The trip to the island is about 20 minutes. The ferry ticket allows a three-hour visit with a specific time to board for your return.
In addition to visitors who arrive by ferry, other visitors arrive by power boat, anchoring off the beaches. There were probably 100 power boats on the day we visited, so this was not exactly a deserted island.
The 49-passenger ferry arrives on the bay side by the lighthouse and you can begin your exploration in any direction. Some people immediately staked out spots on the nearby beach. We started with the trail past the remains of Fort Dade.
The three original Fort Dade batteries are pretty much intact. (Well, one is falling into the Gulf.) Climbing the stairs to the top provides nice views over the sand dunes to see the many shades of blue in Tampa Bay. There are cool thick walled rooms inside the battery in which you can roam. We saw kids quite thrilled to explore this space.
These massive bunkers are built into the ground, designed to be invisible by an attacking navy, who would be raked by fire from their disappearing guns. (The guns “disappear’ when a mechanism allows them to retract into concrete pits after firing. This is a nice trick, made obsolete by the invention of the airplane.)
The guns, however, are gone. Some have been moved to Fort De Soto, the park from which the ferry leaves. (If you are a military history enthusiast, you will want to visit both Fort Dade on Egmont Key and Fort De Soto.)
The complex, once an impressive facility, burned to the ground in 1925 in a fire intentionally set by federal agents trying to smoke out rum runners and others.
Today, pathways take you past the three batteries, which you are free to wander and explore. Walking further, you come to the red brick roads through the ghost town of the community built around the fort.
What makes it come alive is the extensive signage identifying what every structure was, from the tennis court for the officers to the morgue.
The only residents now are gopher tortoises and mosquitos. I don’t know if the mosquitos are a year-round presence, but they were vicious at the end of November. Bring bug spray.
Tips for your visit to Egmont Key
If you come by ferry, you have three hours so you have to decide your priorities. We chose to walk in the historic fort area and have a picnic on the Gulf beach, but we didn’t have time to look for shells or shark teeth or swim.
We loved our picnic site. It was about a mile from where the ferry lands, on the Gulf-side, next to ruins of the power plant, which are being swallowed by advancing water. We found shade in the trees that line the beach and spread our beach towel on the sand, enjoying the picturesque scene of waves and ruins.
There are picnic tables in a grove of trees not far from where the ferry lands.
The ferry boat ride is only about 20 minutes, but it is a pleasure, with views of sailboats, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the lighthouse on Egmont Key and the skyline of St. Petersburg.
Wear shoes that can get wet, as you may have to step into the surf getting off the boat on Egmont Key.
You cannot bring alcohol, glass, pets, kites, or drones to the island because it is a wildlife preserve and these items are prohibited.
From spring to fall, Egmont Key is a popular place for snorkeling. Few snorkeled on our late November visit, when Gulf waters were a chilly 68 degrees. You can rent snorkeling gear on the ferry.
The Egmont Key ferry is $25 for adults: $12.50 youth 3-11. Reserve tickets here.
Can you kayak to Egmont Key? Yes, experienced paddlers with the right kind of kayak in the right weather and knowledge of tides and currents do make the trip. Here’s an excellent kayak trip report.
Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde, FL 33715. Here’s a FloridaRambler.com story about the park. The park, from which the ferry leaves, has terrific camping, beaches, bike paths and more. It’s worth several hours of exploration.
Other things to do near Egmont Key State Park
We loved staying in a vacation rental in a nearby Old Florida beach town, Pass-a-Grille.
Pinellas Trail: On the west side of Tampa Bay is one of the most progressive and appreciated rails-to-trails projects in all of Florida. The 37-mile Pinellas Trail starts in Tarpon Springs and runs south through downtowns and neighborhoods in Dunedin, Clearwater, Largo, Pasadena and into downtown St. Petersburg. There’s a spur north of Dunedin that goes out to beautiful Honeymoon Island. This is a multi-purpose trail for hikers, bikers and roller skaters. Read more in this Florida Rambler article: Treasured St. Pete bike trail.