Miles of white sand beaches, an historic fort site (complete with 2 cannons found nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere), and a chance of feeling "away from it all" right next to a major city, this is what you find in Ft. Desoto County Park. To say we enjoyed the place would be a drastic understatement... but what other words can be used?
Located on a strip of five islands (keys) just south of the city of St Petersburg, FL, Ft. Desoto occupies more than 1,100 acres of prime development land spared from condos, restaurants, and hotels. Pinellas County wisely saved this area - and allows FREE use and access to it to anyone. There's no admission charge to anything - just two road tolls totaling 85 cents to get here (and that money does NOT go to the park). If you like, there is an excellent campground here for just $28/night - see my other Ft. Desoto journal entry specifically related to that if you're interested as I've written this one solely to relate "daytripper" activities.
To reach Ft. Desoto, head on I-275 to the Pinellas Bayway - then follow signs. Once here you might wonder where to begin? Most folks want to start at the beach... so you have your choice. For swimming, there are two named beaches. The most popular beach is North Beach - ranked #1 in North America by "Dr Beach" in 2005 and not without reason. You're looking out upon open Gulf of Mexico waters here - plenty of white sand beach (length and width) - and even an internal lagoon section with no waves for younger kids. There are picnic tables and pavilions here too - and oodles of parking. I'm sure in the hot summer months this place is probably packed, but in February - even on a Sunday - there weren't many folks about. There were a handful playing beach football and a smaller handful walking - leaving plenty of "get-away" for those of us who desire it. North Beach offers a small concession stand (open in season) and a gift shop.
At the other end there's East Beach where you can swim or walk the tip of land as it heads into Tampa Bay. You have a great view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance, and occasionally get to watch ships and barges on their way over to Tampa. This is often a less-crowded beach and offers picnic tables, a large picnic pavilion, and great beach walking in addition to swimming.
Did you being your dog with you? Then head to the dog beach (west of East Beach) and let them enjoy the water too - or to the dog park appropriately named "Paw Playground" (fenced in grassy areas where dogs can roam and play).
If you really want the exercise, you can almost walk the entire section of beaches - crossing from one to another only by invisible line (and non-swimming areas) - but you're talking miles to do this. Consider it a longer hike with a really nice view! If you go as the tide is going out you can find a great selection of shells - and even some intact sand dollars. Along the way there are two piers to walk out on or enjoy fishing from. One juts 1,000 ft into the Gulf, the other 800' into the Bay. You also pass by the edge of the historic fort area. All beaches provide changing rooms, flush toilets, and plenty of parking. There are outdoor showers for rinsing.
If you can pull yourself away from the beaches for a stretch of time, there is Fort Desoto itself to explore - an outpost built and active from 1898 - 1910 to guard the entrance to Tampa Bay. The ammo storage area and big guns are still there - two of the big guns are the only two of their kind found in the Western Hemisphere. Most of the other buildings at the post are gone now - but live again on-site in (real) pictures on signs showing where they were and telling what they were used for. Outlines are shown in block on the ground. The Quartermaster Storehouse building has been rebuilt to standard and is open as a museum. A walking path guides you through the area.
There are other trails as well - even one that is "barrier-free" allowing access for all (handicap accessible), and a bird watching area (though the birds aren't confined to that area!). In the winter the park offers various nature walks on some of these trails on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am. Check at Park Headquarters to see the schedule and sign up.
Did you bring a canoe? There's a 2 1/4 mile canoe trail if so... Bring a larger boat? There's a boat ramp for access to the water. We didn't take it, but there's a ferry to Egmont Key State Park for those wanting to head there (extra fee). Another time we'll head out there to see what that's like. I'm told it's quite popular - and don't doubt it.
This park is most likely much more crowded in the warmer months when the water temperature is more compatible with swimming and folks are "heated up" enough to have "beach" on their minds. In the winter we found very few people here - just some retirees, other tourists like ourselves, and on the weekend, a handful of locals simply enjoying the serenity. Don't expect boardwalks packed with restaurants, T-shirt shops and the like here. This is not a resort beach. For that, head north to St Pete or Clearwater Beaches. Here you find pristine nature - kept up very nicely by the County Park and volunteers. It was literally perfect for the recharging of our batteries that we came to Florida for. What a gem. May it always stay that way. Thank you Pinellas County!