Ft. De Soto Park in Tierra Verde, Florida; A Local Gem
Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde, Florida; a Local Gem
A visit to Fort De Soto in Tampa is guaranteed to replenish the soul while you immerse yourself in its natural beauty that goes as far as the eye can see. Fort De Soto is the largest park in Pinellas County consisting of 1,136 acres spread throughout five islands or keys, with Mullet Key being the main one.
Ft. De Soto offers 7 miles of waterfront, including three miles of gorgeous white sandy beaches. The park offers the greatest diversity of ecological systems with over 328 species of birds.
The beach also provides sanctuary to the loggerhead sea turtle, which nests between the months of April – September. This pristine natural park feels like you are on a vacation getaway however not far from home. Don’t think you’ll be bored because this park is abundant with activities.
Ft. DeSoto Attracts 2.7 Million Visitors Per Year More than Everglades National Park.
Take your Dog to the “Off-Leash Dog Beach”
Fort De Soto is only one of two beaches within Pinellas County that has an off-leash dog beach.
Every dog is running around, tongue out, frolicking in the water, living their best life because it really is dog heaven.
The beach also has two gated dog parks, one area for small dogs and another for larger dogs. When the sun is beating down a little too hard you can cool your pup off in the dog shower on site or get the sand off them for a clean car ride home.
The water at Ft. De Soto is very calm throughout the year making kayaking or paddle boarding a smooth ride for all abilities. The kayak and paddleboard trail is a 2-3 mile estuary containing brackish water lined with red, black and white mangroves.
Miles and Miles of Biking, Kayaking, and Paddleboarding
Fort De Soto has a 6.8 mile, 12 foot-wide asphalt recreation trail that connects the campground with the North and East Swim Centers as well as the historic fort. Over the years I have taken my bike there several times for a leisurely ride to connect with the outdoors.
It’s a great time to see marine life; dolphins, manatees, sting rays, horseshoe crabs, seahorses, conches, and starfish. If you see any fish jumping out of the water that would probably be mullet, a common fish in the area.
Shell Key Preserve is just north of Ft. De Soto. Shell Key Preserve is one of the county’s largest undeveloped barrier islands that contains a beach, mangroves, and expansive sea grass. Visiting this island feels like you are in the Caribbean with its untouched beaches and turquoise waters. You can launch a kayak or paddleboard from Madelaine Key for a quick paddle there.
If you don’t own a bike, kayak, or paddleboard you can rent them within the park at Topwater Kayak Outpost for a nominal fee. If you would like to launch a kayak from Madelaine Key to Shell Key there are online rental companies for that as well. (You can also take a ferry to Shell Key)
Visit the actual Fort
In 1849 a group of Army Engineers including Robert E. Lee surveyed the area recommending Mullet and Egmont Keys be used by the military for coastal defense. Battery Laidley and Battery Bigelow were developed and completed.
The only remaining four 12-inch M 1890-MI mortars in North America are located here. In 1977, the Ft. De Soto batteries were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Go Fishing & Bird Watching
Fort De Soto has two fishing Piers the Gulf Pier and the Bay Pier. The Gulf Pier is over 1,000 feet and located on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There is a strong current which means there is plenty of bait moving around to attract fish.
There is also a shop at the entrance of the pier that sells frozen bait, tackle, food and drinks. Anglers may catch anything from sheepshead to sharks. It is also a great place for dolphin watching as they are on the hunt for mullet.
The Bay Pier is 500 feet and a very desirable fishing spot due to it being located on the sheltered waters of the Bay. There is less current which allows anglers to use lighter tackle to target more inshore species like trout, redfish and snook. You can also catch Spanish mackerel, lady fish, pompano, and on some occasions tarpon. This Pier also provides a striking view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the longest cable-stayed concrete bridge.
There is plenty of bird watching on the Piers. You will likely see an American Egret sitting, waiting for a handout.
Take the Ferry to Egmont Key
Not only is Egmont Key a wildlife refuge but it is a personal refuge as you relax on this secluded island. Egmont Key is only accessible by boat, so if you need a lift you can use the Ferry that leaves from the Bay Pier.
If you have a boat you can launch off the boat ramp located within the park. Half of the 280 acre island is reserved for wildlife allowing 1,000 to 1,500 gopher tortoises to roam the island.
The Southern part of the island is a bird sanctuary giving you the opportunity to see osprey, brown pelicans, royal and sandwich terns, laughing gulls, and black simmers. Between April and August experience a concert as all the birds roost together.
There are some historical structures on the island like Fort Dade, a military garrison built in 1889 during the Spanish-American War. The Fort includes a carriage brick road, sidewalks, gun batteries, and guard house. There is also a working lighthouse that’s more than 150 years old. This lighthouse played an important role in Florida’s Seminole Indian War and as well as the Civil War.
It’s a tranquil place to sunbathe, swim, walk, search for shells, as well as a great place to take photos. You can also snorkel around the submerged historical batteries of the fort. There are plenty of shady places as well but I wouldn’t forget my sunscreen!
Waterfront Camping Sites for Direct Access
Fort De Soto is one of the most beautiful camping spots in the state with views of blue-green water, mangrove-lined islands, and scenic bridges.
It offers 236 sites, with most of those sites being on the waterfront allowing you to launch your kayak or paddleboard from your own site.
The campsites offer picnic tables, grills, water, electricity, dryers, restrooms, showers, play areas, and a campground market that sells firewood. You don’t have to leave your pets behind on this trip as the campground has special sites for your furry friends.
There is a full-facility boat ramp located near the entrance of the park with plenty of launch ramps and more sufficient trailer parking if you have a larger boat. Additionally, some campsites allow you to anchor your boat off the seawall.
Take a Fun Guided Hike
For some family fun the park offers a free one-hour guided nature walk. The walk explores one of the six different natural communities including the Arrowhead Trail, Mangrove Tour, Campground Tour, Beach Tour, Soldier’s Hole or Bird Watch.
There is also the Barrier-Free Nature trial that offers wheelchair access with six auditory interpretive stations for the visually impaired.
Beach, Beach and Beach…
There are several picnic areas to have a snack, throw a party, or even have a wedding. Lounge in the calm waters as you feel sand dollars at your feet. Don’t let the night fall without catching the gorgeous sunsets, it is pure peace.
Walking through the seagrass as you head to the beach is grounding in and of itself. Take a day to soak up the white sandy beach and instantly decompress.
Fort De Soto is in Tierra Verde, a quiet waterfront community next to St. Petersburg. You won’t want to miss this gem of an attraction!
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