Fort DeSoto, An Urban Jewel

for Eco Florida Magazine

Located in one of the most densely populated areas of the state, Fort DeSoto Park is literally an island refuge from the hectic commotion of our urban lives. Remote but not isolated, Fort DeSoto is located only a few miles from downtown St. Petersburg, at the foot of Tierra Verde Island. The cluster of five Keys that comprise the park form the northern entrance to Tampa Bay.

From here you can watch the sunrise over the arched span of the Skyway Bridge, and see it set in the Gulf of Mexico. You can watch sailboats tack about on Tampa Bay, and see the ships that come and go in the bay’s main shipping channel.

The park offers camping, hiking trails, picnic areas, miles of beautiful beach, great fishing in deep water or shallows, paddle trails for kayaks and canoes, and seven miles of paved trail for biking and skating.

“Dr. Beach”, Steve Leatherman of Florida International University, traditionally rates the beaches at Fort DeSoto among the Top 10 in the country.

The park is also a popular birding location. Over 280 species have been identified there. It will be included as one of the prime locations on the Great Florida Birding Trail when the Gulf Coast part of the trail opens later this year. The best times for birding at Fort DeSoto are spring and fall, the peak migratory season.

These features, combined with the park’s natural beauty and proximity to the city make for big crowds on weekends. Memorial Day weekend drew 35,000 people. Traffic funnels into the park through two tollbooths and one drawbridge, so be prepared for delays on weekends.

Nearly three million people visit Fort DeSoto every year.

“We’re being loved to death”, laughs Park Supervisor Jim Wilson. He says the crowd numbers on holiday weekends tend to spike higher every year, but during other times there are still opportunities to find moments of sandy seclusion on DeSoto’s beaches.

“You can come out here on weekdays, even some weekends, and have a stretch of beach to yourself.”

There are 233 campsites, and they are a tough ticket at almost anytime of the year, but particularly in the winter.  Reservations are accepted only a month ahead of time, can only be made in person, and payment is only by cash or traveler’s check. Even with these tight restrictions the park is a sell-out most of the year.

RV’s dominate the campground in the winter months as “snow birds” pack into the park.  Tent campers find it fairly comfortable even in the summer months because of the steady gulf breeze, which also helps keep mosquitoes at bay. Each campsite has a degree of privacy from borders of natural vegetation, unlike many parks where campgrounds have been stripped bare.

The rest areas in the campground have hot showers, washers and dryers.

Pets are allowed in the park, but not in the campground.  There is a fenced dog park near the bayside fishing pier.  There is also a “no leash zone” for pets to roam near the Arrowhead Picnic area.

The protected waters of Mullet Bay make for great kayaking.  There are numerous small islands that dot the waters around the park that make for easy paddle destinations.  Shell Key is a popular landing, and is even used for primitive overnight camping. The park has a two-and-a-half mile canoe trail through the mangroves.  Dolphins and manatees are fairly common in these waters.  Most of the protected water in the park is too shallow for boat traffic, and there are restrictions on speeds and wakes for boats and jet skis, making it a safe and quiet haven for paddlers.

Canoes and kayaks can be rented from a vendor at the park.  Make sure to stop at the park headquarters and pick up a discount coupon. A private outfitter, Sweetwater Kayaks, is located on the main road leading into the park.  It offers kayak rentals, guided tours, and paddling lessons.

The bay waters around the park are brushed clean twice daily by fast currents and tides that are typical of large bays and inlets.  This helps promote beautiful sandy beaches and a healthy fish population, but limits swimming to two locations where lifeguards are on duty.  No swimming signs are posted in other areas, although they are largely ignored.

Fishing is an immensely popular activity at Fort DeSoto.  The shallows offer up Trout, Snook, Red Fish and Flounder.  Out in the waters of the bay and Gulf, you can hook into Pompano, Tarpon, Mackerel, Kingfish and lots more.  There are two fishing piers in the park, one fronting on Tampa Bay, the other jutting into the Gulf of Mexico.

A short drive away is St. Petersburg Beach, where you will find plenty of restaurants and grocery stores just in case you don’t have much luck with the rod and reel.

Other attractions within a short drive include the Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg, the St. Pete Pier, Ybor City in Tampa, plus professional baseball, football and hockey games.  During February and March, at least 6 major league teams hold their spring training camps within an hour’s drive of the park.

As the name implies, Fort DeSoto was once a military garrison, complete with cannons and mortars to protect Tampa Bay from attack.

Robert E. Lee and U.S. Army Engineers first surveyed the area for a fort long before the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1898, 50 years after Lee’s recommendation, that construction finally began following the outbreak of the Spanish-American. It took 8 years to complete.  The war was long over, and the garrison was in place less than a decade when the military pulled its men and guns out.  By 1914 the only people left were a lonely army sergeant and a game warden.

A shot was never fired in anger from Fort DeSoto’s arsenal.

The fort became a bombing range during World War II.  After the war, Pinellas County bought the five Keys from the military and began planning for a park, which finally opened in 1963. Today Fort DeSoto is largest park in the Pinellas County park system.  It covers 1,100 acres and has about 3,000 acres of submerged shallows.

During the summer of 2002 work is being completed on a new fishing pier into the Gulf of Mexico. Cement from the old pier was broken up and deposited as five artificial reefs within angling distance of the new pier. Park officials say fish populations are already on the increase around the new reefs.  The new pier is expected to be open by the fall of this year.

How To Get There

Fort DeSoto is located west of I-275 at exit 17, the Pinellas Bayway, in St. Petersburg.  At the second light, turn left (south) onto Rt. 679, and follow that for several miles onto Tierra Verde Island.  The road dead ends into the park.

Driving times:

Two hours: Orlando
One hour: Lakeland, Sarasota
Less than an hour: Tampa, Bradenton, Clearwater


Information about Fort DeSoto can be found at the Pinellas County website.

Friends of Fort DeSoto (volunteer support group):

Canoe Outpost (on-site, vendor for kayak rentals)

Sweetwater Kayak (off-site, private outfitter)

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