Fort De Soto County Park | St. Petersburg, FL

fort de soto batteries and military post historical marker

You ever wake up and feel like you just don’t want to do what you should. That is what happened to me one morning in January. I woke up and just knew I wasn’t going to be able to motivate myself to do schoolwork so instead of the day being a complete waste I decided to go check out Fort De Soto Park. Unlike Myakka River State Park, Fort De Soto Park is operated by Pinellas County and is the largest park within county’s system. The park is spread over 1,136 acres and five connected islands: Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Bonne Fortune Key and Mullet Key. The land the park sits on was originally inhabited by the Tocobaga Native Americans. In 1539, Hernando De Soto, the park’s namesake, landed in the southern portion of Tampa Bay launching Spain’s eventual conquest of Florida. In 1849, a group of US Army engineers, including Robert E. Lee, recommended that the area be fortified to help defend against attacks from sea. During the Civil War the land was used to help the Union blockade of Tampa Bay. In 1900, Fort De Soto officially got its name when it became a subpost of Fort Dade which was located on nearby Egmont Key. Actual construction of the fort began in November 1898 and finished in 1906. In its entirety the fort consisted of 29 buildings including, barracks, hospital, guardhouse, blacksmith and carpenter shop and an administration building among others. While the fort was finally completed in 1906 it was only active until 1910 when the majority of troops were moved to Fort Morgan in Alabama, with mosquitoes and the summer heat being the main motivators in decision to move elsewhere. By 1914, only two people remained at the fort, a sergeant and a game warden both in caretaker roles. In 1938, Pinellas County purchased the land for the park from the federal government for $12,500. Then in 1941, the federal government purchased the land back in order to use it as a gunnery and bombing range during WWII. Following the end of the war, Pinellas County repurchased the land in 1948 and in 1977 the park’s 12-inch mortar battery was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

fort de soto gulf pier
Fort De Soto’s Gulf Pier

Today the park offers visitors two fishing piers (one bay side and one gulf side), multiple beaches, a picnic area, campground, multipurpose trail, nature trails and even a two-mile paddling trail. From the park’s concession store, visitors can rent a canoe, kayak, bike, or surrey bike or even purchase a ticket for the ferry to Egmont Key State Park. For those interested in bird watching, the park is a gateway site for the Great Florida Birding Trail. Over 300 species of birds have been spotted in the park which has led the park to become one of the most popular birding destinations in the United States. The park’s beaches have also gained recognition in the past being named America’s Top Beach by Trip Advisor as well as being named the Best Beach for Families by USA Today and Parents magazine. During my visit I ran into people walking, running and even rollerblading along the park’s seven-mile multipurpose trail.

arrowhead picnic area - picnic table on the edge of the water
Arrowhead Picnic Area

I arrived at Fort De Soto Park around noon and paid the $5 toll to get into the park. I decided that I would make my way from one end of the park to the other. Therefore, my first stop inside the park was to East Beach and I actually ended up driving as far as I could before the road ended. There was a small beach at the end of the road just past the main East Beach that offered a unique view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which happens to be the world’s longest cable-stayed concrete bridge. There were a ton of sand crabs and jumping fish in the area, which were pretty cool to sit back and watch. My next stop was to the Arrowhead Picnic Area where there was a nature trail, though my attempt at the nature trail didn’t last long. I quickly realized that I had forgotten any type of bug repellent at home which meant that as soon as I stepped outside the car, I began to be eaten alive by mosquitoes. The weird thing was that during my entire trip to the park, the only place I ran into an issue with mosquitoes was at the picnic area. Even though I pretty much ended up running through the trail I still was able to take in some of the indigenous flora and fauna as well as find a secret little spot along the water.

view of the beach from the top of Fort De Soto fort
View of the beach from the top of the fort

After my experience with the nature trail I drove along the Bay Way up to North Beach. I visited the park on a Tuesday afternoon and found the park to be relatively quiet but the more popular areas were definitely busier, I assume based on the amount of parking available, especially at North Beach, that the park gets pretty busy during the summer time. The park’s North Beach has everything you could need for the perfect beach day, including plenty of parking, relatively clean bathrooms and a decent sized food stand with seating.

fort de soto's 12-inch mortar battery
Fort De Soto’s 12-inch Mortar Battery

After checking out North Beach I headed to the historical Fort De Soto. The fort sits at the center of the park where the Gulf of Mexico meets Tampa Bay. I must say there isn’t a ton to be seen at the fort, especially if you aren’t super into history and don’t want to read every plaque. When walking around the base of the fort you can walk inside some of the old rooms like the artillery holds and firing galleys, as well as view the fort’s mortar battery cannons. You can also climb a set of stairs and walk along the top of the fort, which offers another great view of the beach and Skyway. There is also a trail across the fort’s parking lot that takes you around the entirety of the old fort site but the majority of the stops along way are just plaques that detail what building used to stand there and remnants of the foundations. The historic fort site does include the Quartermaster Museum which is housed in a reconstructed version of the fort’s postal building. The museum offers historic photos and military documents from the fort as well as artifacts from the Spanish-American War. After spending a decent amount of time walking around the old fort site, I ended my trip to Fort De Soto Park by heading back to East Beach to eat lunch at one of the picnic tables directly on the beach and spent my lunch taking in the breathtaking scenery.

east beach with sunshine skyway in the very background
East Beach

Stay tuned for more blogs about my travels and make sure to check out my Instagram (@YourBackyardTourist) for my photos from my adventures.

Footage from my time at Fort De Soto Park

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