By Paul Swider
Published September 30, 2007
Geography: The park is a wildlife refuge cooperatively managed by state and federal agencies, including the Coast Guard. In position at the very mouth of Tampa Bay, the key is a navigation checkpoint with a 150-year-old working lighthouse, but also has gun batteries built in 1898 to defend Tampa Bay and 100-year-old brick roads from when the island was a community. There are no shops available on the island and it is accessible only by private boat.
History: In 1847 as shipping increased, Congress authorized funds to construct a lighthouse on Egmont. The lighthouse was damaged the next year by a hurricane and again four years later, but was restored. At the end of the third Seminole War in 1858, Egmont Key was used by the U.S. Army to detain Seminole prisoners until they could be transported to Arkansas Territory. Confederate troops occupied the island when the Civil War began, but later the Union took it over. Fort Dade was established on Egmont Key when the Spanish-American War was imminent and the island became a small city of 300 residents with electricity, telephones, movie theater, bowling alley, tennis courts, hospital and a jail. The fort was deactivated in 1923, and the island returned to its navigation mission. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Key was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974.
The beach: Being a wildlife refuge, big parts of the island are restricted. It's all beautiful, and you can lie on the sand or swim in the water, but you have to be aware of your surroundings. There is no camping so any trip is a day trip, meaning you should expect to carry all your things, including garbage, when you leave. So it's not South Beach, but it is pure beach and a great place to collect shells.
Amenities: Fishing is allowed in designated areas and there are some lovely hikes through the historic ruins of Fort Dade. There are picnic tables and lots of wildlife to see, but be careful not to cross into restricted zones. There are birds and gopher tortoises. There are bathrooms and food and water, but not a lot of any of them. There's also very little shade, so wear a hat or paint your body in sunscreen. There is also snorkeling on some of the fort ruins that have fallen into the sea.
Drawbacks: It's an island, so it's hard to get there, and once you do get there, the bar's closed. Egmont Key is a state park and a National Wildlife Refuge so alcoholic beverages, firearms, pets and the molestation of birds or gopher tortoises are strictly prohibited. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Please take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. Plan ahead and know the rules. For information about Egmont Key State Park, please call (727) 893-2627.Parking: For your boat, maybe, but even that's pretty restricted. If you boat there, take the Intracoastal route because it's a designated channel on the east and south side of Fort De Soto; if you go to the west, shifting sands could make your life miserable. You can kayak to the island and not worry about draft, but be very wary of ship traffic, unless you enjoy the sport of freighter dodging. In either case, be sure you know where to go, or be safe and take the ferry from Fort De Soto or another provider. The park is only open from 8 a.m. until sundown, so don't push it or you'll be packed into the ferry for 5 o'clock, the last ride to the mainland.
Bottom line: If you're looking for spring break, don't bother, but if you're looking for a serene mental break, this could be the place for a few hours of strolling and exploring.