You can call it a beach, but Fort De Soto Park is much more than a beach. This much-praised county park - part of the boating community of Tierra Verde - covers five islands and 1,136 acres on the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, and offers activities and amenities to entertain you for a day or more (campsites and abundant hotels nearby enable extended stays).
With so many possibilities, set an agenda that’s full or freewheeling: Rent a canoe, kayak or bike to explore the park’s trails; fish from a pier; visit the historic fort; or simply lounge on the beach named "Best Beach for Families" by USA Today in 2014.
Best Family Beach
The beach that earned Parents magazine’s top honors in 2011 is Fort De Soto Park’s North Beach. Visually, it’s easy to spot (a large pirate ship playground stands near its entrance). But venture onto the beach here to discover the real treasure: a wide tidal pool begging to be splashed in. Kids run between the lagoon and the Gulf; loungers, people-watchers and shell-seekers scatter out along the white sand. Anticipate sea shells of every color and humongous white sand dollars, and collect all you want – as long as they’re no longer alive. Taking live shells and sand dollars is illegal, but the park's gift shop stocks plenty of preserved specimens for collectors.
Fort De Soto Park’s Historic Fort and Museum
At the heart of the park where the Gulf meets Tampa Bay, you’ll find the historic fort and Fort De Soto Batteries that give the park its name.
At ground level, enter old artillery holds and firing galleys that make up the base of the coquina shell fort. You can also view mortar battery cannons aimed over the top of the fort and pointed at Tampa Bay, where invaders would have approached.
Climb the steep stairs to the fort overlook to see the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the world's longest cable-stayed concrete bridge. Before leaving the fort area, stop in at the Quartermaster Museum. Housed in a reconstruction of the fort's old postal building, the museum tells the story of the fort through historic photographs, military documents and Spanish-American War artifacts.
Watch this video about Fort De Soto’s rich history.
Paved and Natural Trails
The number of people using the park's seven-mile, multi-purpose trail on any given day is impressive. Walk, run, push a stroller or snap on your rollerblades – you can even load up to eight people on a covered surrey bike (rent one, or choose from a variety of beach cruisers and other surreys, at the concession area). On foot, the park’s short, flat nature trails can bring you even closer to indigenous flora and fauna.
Paddling and Fishing
Rent a canoe or kayak at the park concession to navigate the two-and-a-quarter-mile paddling trail. Once you’re equipped, ease out into the amber-tinged tidal waters around the island, decorated with mangroves, herons and white ibis.
Your toughest decision of the day may be which pier to dangle your fishing line from – Gulf-side or Bay-side? Go easy on yourself and try your luck at both.