Fort De Soto
By Paul Swider
Published September 30, 2007
Geography: The park comprises 1,136 acres of dry land on five interconnected islands. It is the largest of the county's parks and, while it has parking lots and snack shops, it also has large portions that are virutally undisturbed from the time indigenous people and Spanish explorers trod its shores. Its islands, in fact, form the shape of an arrowhead thrust into Tampa Bay, but that shape also provides sheltered waters ideal for canoes and kayaks.
History: Recorded history goes back more than 150 years when a group of U.S. Army Engineers, including a young Robert E. Lee, surveyed the coastline. The islands and adjacent Egmont Key were used as Union observation sites duing the Civil War to enforce a shipping blockade, and fortifications were later built, but no shots were ever fired in anger from the the fort. A museum recounts the history and life of the fort up until the time it became a park in 1962. The county bought the property from the federal government twice, selling it back during WWII to be used for bombing practice, including by the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
Beach: The broad sands of the park are the reason most people come to visit and were why the nearly 3 miles of beach were rated in 2005 as the best in America. The entire western and southern shores are beach, though the latter tend to be a bit more rocky than the fine quartz sands of the west. On holiday weekends, parking lots fill and even the entrance road can back up. But at other times a visitor can walk almost all alone searching for shells. There is also a segment of beach near the fort where dogs are allowed to run off a leash and even swim.
Amenities: Most of the park's 3-million annual visitors come to swim, but the park has many other attractions, including an 800-foot-long boat ramp facility with 11 floating docks, a 238-site campground that includes places to moor a boat next to a campsite, two fishing piers with snack bars and live bait, trails for canoes, kayaks and hikers, but also a nearly 7-mile paved path for cycling and in-line skating, and facilities for large groups and special events. The park's location out in the water and along flyways make it an ideal place for birders, who have identified some 300 different species within the park. The park's near-pristine environment has also made it a favorite as a film set, so visitors can often see crews working the palmetto scrubs, knitted oak forests or mangrove-lined waterways for perfect shots.
Drawbacks: During peak times, the beaches and trails may not be overrun, but maneuvering into and out of the park can be a hassle. If you must go on a holiday weekend, get there early and plan to stay late, but otherwise aim for off-season or weekdays so you can relax for the entire trip. The park also lacks some fancy facilities, like upscale dining or the availability of alcohol, but most visitors consider this a plus because the focus is on nature, not consumption. You can pack in your whole trip, but there are rentals of everything from bikes to beach umbrellas, so the visitor with only car keys and a towel can still enjoy. Those seeking a clothing-optional experience will be disappointed in this beach. Right now, entrance is 30 cents per car, but that may rise in the near future.
Parking: There are nearly 3,000 parking spaces and they can fill up, but with overflow parking on grassy areas, the park has never had to turn anyone away.
Bottom line: This park is a rare find for everyone from the most ardent sunworshipper to the history buff, boater, fisherman or sportster. Facilities like this are usually found in remote areas far from big cities, but this one is just a couple of traffic lights off a major interstate. You haven't visited or lived in the Tampa Bay region until you've been to the fort.