Old forts, beautiful island beaches, and miles of sun-kissed shoreline.
Before our family takes off from Florida in a couple months on our grand adventure, we wanted to get in some last-minute exploring around our area. When thought of places to visit, Fort De Soto Park topped my list. We hadn’t visited the park in several years and we were more than ready to go again.
Fort De Soto Park encompasses five barrier islands, or keys, on Florida’s gulf coast. This 1,136-acre property has had an interesting history as a home to Native Americans, stomping ground for Spanish explorers, a military outpost, quarantine facility, bombing range, and the target of a hurricane.
The most stunning part of Fort De Soto is the coastline. For the best view, we went to the top of Battery Laidley, where we could see the shimmering sapphire waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The islands that make up Fort De Soto Park have several miles of pristine, white sand beaches, inviting visitors to linger for a while. You can relax on the sand, swim, search for seashells, go for a walk, and watch the variety of seabirds diving in and out of the waters.
Fort De Soto’s archeological history dates back to the time of the Tocobaga Indians from around 1,000 A.D. to 1,500 A.D. These natives used dugout canoes to reach the barrier islands where they collected seafood and plants. Evidence of their existence came from mounds they constructed in and around the islands with their cast-off garbage, such as animal bones, tools, and broken pottery.
Spanish explorers arrived in the area around Tampa Bay in the mid-1500s, effectively marking the beginning of the end of the Tocobaga people. For the next several hundred years, the Florida territory was under Spanish control, with a brief period where they ceded to the British, then back to the Spanish. In 1845, Florida officially became a state. It wasn’t long afterwards that the U.S. military sought strategic islands like Fort De Soto to defend coastal areas.
From 1898 to 1900, the U.S. Army constructed Fort De Soto on Mullet Key as a sub-post of the larger Fort Dade on nearby Egmont Key. These posts off of Tampa Bay became one of the United States’ major lines of defense during the Spanish American War because of its proximity to Cuba.
Though this area feels like paradise today, soldiers despised their assignments here. The environment was hot and humid, full of nagging insects, and downright miserable.
At the turn of the century, in 1902, the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service used a 271-acre plot on Mullet Key to check incoming immigrants for disease and to quarantine sick people.
During World War II, the military used Mullet Key again, this time, as a bombing range. By May 1963, Pinellas County purchased the island and had it dedicated as Fort De Soto Park.
The U.S. Army completed this historic fort in 1900. They built the walls of Battery Laidley and Battery Bigelow with a fortified concrete that used a mixture of stone, sand, and shells, which are visible in the walls today.
In order to further support the structure, they built the walls between eight and twenty feet thick, with a ceiling five-feet-thick, and surrounded the building with sand and other natural materials to camouflage it from potential enemies.
In addition to the imposing weaponry on the island, there were twenty-nine other buildings constructed of wood. These structures included the barracks, post exchange, hospital, bakery, mess hall, quartermaster storehouse, stable, wagon shed, and civilian quarters. Hurricanes tore through the islands in the 1920s and 1930s, destroying many of the buildings, leaving only partial foundations visible today.
Though Fort De Soto never fired its weapons in combat, the mortar batteries stand as a window into Florida’s past.
Fort De Soto staff and volunteers reconstructed a replica of the Quartermaster Storehouse beginning in 1999. They used old U.S. Army building schematics to make it as historically accurate as possible, with a few modern upgrades such as insulation, air-conditioning, and a fire protection system.
The staff reconstructed the museum to look much like the original quartermaster storehouse would have looked a hundred years ago.
Visitors entering the museum can view displays about the history of the islands. There are also interesting artifacts, and a small room that shows the type of supplies the quartermaster would have had. This museum is free to visit.
If you love fishing, it doesn’t get better than this. Fort De Soto has two fishing piers. The first is a 1,000-foot pier that stretches into the gulf. The second is a 500-foot pier that extends into the bay. During our visit, both piers were loaded with folks fishing these waters. Each pier has a concession stand and bait shop.
The state of Florida requires a fishing license for those partaking in this activity. Click here for more information.
Hiking, Biking, and Interpretive Trails
There are several recreational trails available at Fort De Soto. The first is the 2,200-foot-long Barrier-Free Nature Trail, designed with accessibility in mind. Naturalists and local volunteers worked together to create this trail for use by all people, including those with wheelchairs.
Two other nature trails are an easy three-quarter mile and one mile, and allow visitors a close-up view of the native plants on the islands. The park has a 6.8-mile asphalt trail for walkers, cyclists, strollers, wheelchairs and scooters.
Ready to step off land? Fort De Soto has a 2.25-mile water trail for canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boards.
The park provides a boat ramp to the right after you enter. There’s a large parking area near the ramp for ease of loading and unloading your boat from the trailer. Keep in mind there is an additional Boat Ramp Fee that is not included in park admission.
If you’d like to stay overnight at Fort De Soto, the park has a 236-site campground available. The campground is split into three different areas with the following accommodations:
Area 1: Includes sites 1-85 for those camping in tents, Class B vans, a pop-up camper, or trailers under 16 feet.
Area 2: Includes sites 86-164. This area can accommodate rigs of all sizes*. It is the only pet-friendly part of the campground.
Area 3: Includes sites 165-236. This section can accommodate rigs of all sizes*.
*I have a neighbor with a 40+ foot fifth wheel who drives semi-trucks for a living. He barely made it into this campground, and said because of the tight squeeze, he wouldn’t attempt to camp there with an RV that big again.
This campground has several amenities available, such as a dump station, bathhouses, laundry facilities, and a camp store. To see more campground information, click here.
Battery Bigelow being consumed by gulf waters
Gift Shop/Concession Stands
Gift shops/concession stands are available at North Beach and near the fort. These shops sell food and drinks (your typical burger, nuggets, fries, and ice cream), souvenirs, gifts, beachwear, and beach toys.
Check out these concession stands, the bike shop next to the fort, and the kayak stand for information about bike and kayak rentals.
A Place for Fido
When you head to Fort De Soto Park, don’t forget to bring your canine companions. The dog park has a fenced-in area large enough for even the biggest dogs to run. A short path connects the dog park to the dog beach where dogs can play leash-free in the water.
Ferry Service to Egmont Key
Egmont Key State Park is visible from Mullet Key, but you can’t get there on foot. If you don’t want to paddle your way over to this state park that once housed Fort Dade, you’ll need to take a private boat, or the ferry. You can find more information about the Egmont Key Ferry here. These tours are offered through a third-party company. Prices for the ferry service are not included in park admission.
The restrooms and gift shop/concession areas are wheelchair accessible. The fort is also accessible thanks to the long ramp that leads to the top, and the concrete surface surrounding the lower level.
Fort De Soto Park is open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset. The Quartermaster’s Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
$5 per vehicle payable by credit card at the parking lot kiosks or by using the Flowbird app. If you pay via credit card, the machine will ask you to enter your license plate number.
There’s so much to do at Fort De Soto that we could have easily spent days here. And if it wasn’t so difficult to get a site at the campground, we would have. From its interesting history, to its stunning beaches, and all the things there are to do here, you won’t want to miss a trip to Fort De Soto.
Have you visited this park before? Or the neighboring Egmont Key? Would you visit this place? Leave a comment below. We'd love to hear from you!