By Rebecca Sloan
Florida’s tropical paradise without the crowds
The park is named for a Spanish explorer.
TIERRA VERDE, Fla. — In 2005 when Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman — better known as “Dr. Beach” — voted North Beach at Fort De Soto Park the No. 1 beach in America, he sure knew what he was doing.
The magnificent beauty of Fort De Soto’s pearly stretches of shoreline, tranquil turquoise surf and swaying palms will take your breath away.
This is the quintessential tropical paradise, and unlike many Florida destinations, it’s neither overcrowded nor spoiled by suburban sprawl.
Best of all, there are many things to do here — much more than just sitting on the sand.
Athletic types can hike or bike the park’s numerous trails or kayak the pristine waters, and outdoorsy types can bird watch on one of the nature trails or comb the shores for shells.
Fishing enthusiasts can cast a line off one of the piers, and history buffs can stroll the Historic Fort and learn more about Fort De Soto’s military past and the Spanish explorers who visited here in the 1500s.
And — of course — if you worship the sun, you can spread your blanket on the soft, white sand and watch the mighty freighters glide in and out of Tampa Bay.
HISTORY OF THE PARK
Fort De Soto Park is near St. Petersburg, and comprises a chain of five interconnected islands (or keys) that total 1,136 acres and shield a portion of Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.
The largest of these keys is Mullet Key. The next largest are St. Jean and Madelaine keys, and the smallest are St. Christopher Key and Bonne Fortune Key.
These five, finger-like strips of windswept, sun-drenched land were once inhabited by American Indians and were explored in the 1500s by the Spanish.
The park is named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who came ashore near Tampa in 1539 and began an expedition of the southeastern United States.
However, the recorded history of the Fort De Soto area didn’t begin until 1849 when a group of U.S. Army engineers anchored near Mullet Key to survey the region for use as a coastal defense area.
Among the group of engineers was a young Brevet Colonel named Robert E. Lee.
The group did indeed recommend that the area be used by the military, and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Union troops set up a blockade here. Yankees perched atop a lighthouse on nearby Egmont Key to watch for Confederates attempting to run the blockade.
Additional military involvement occurred in the area in 1898 when the United States entered the Spanish American War, and citizens of Tampa demanded military defense for Tampa Bay.
Because of its close proximity to Cuba, Tampa was an important port for shipping troops and supplies to Caribbean war zones.
THE HISTORIC FORT
In November 1898, construction of a military post began at Mullet Key. The project was completed in April 1900, and named Fort De Soto.
A mortar battery was finished in May 1900 with walls eight to 20 feet thick to withstand direct fire during potential combat.
A second mortar battery was completed in 1902.
Throughout the early 1900s, troops from Florida and the National Guard were stationed at the fort and participated in training exercises, but by 1914 the fort was inactive.
In 1922, it was abandoned and for many years sat idle as tropical storms and hurricanes pounded the buildings.
In 1948 Pinellas County bought the fort and surrounding property, and in 1962 when a toll road was built to connect the keys to the mainland, Fort De Soto Park was opened.
Although the fort was never the site of any major battles, the batteries were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1977, and the area continues to attract military history buffs.
The fort is located at the southern tip of Mullet Key, and historical and military items are on display in a nearby museum housed in a reconstructed army building.
To the north of the Historic Fort is North Beach, the splendid spot Dr. Beach declared America’s best in 2005.
North Beach is located in a snug inlet, and the calm, turquoise water, powdery, white sand and leisurely pace have earned it its well-deserved title.
Fort De Soto Park has numerous other equally beautiful beaches where you can spread a blanket and enjoy the sunshine and surf, but swimming is only permitted at the guarded areas at North Beach and East Beach (on Tampa Bay).
While relaxing on any of these beaches you’re sure to see a big freighter or maybe even a cruise ship navigating the waters between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’ve anchored your beach umbrella in a spot that faces nearby Egmont Key, you may also notice a distant lighthouse with a lamp that starts flashing when the orange sun sinks lower in the Western sky.
Egmont Key is southwest of Fort De Soto Park at the mouth of Tampa Bay and is only accessible by boat, but it’s well worth the trip.
The key has a fascinating history. In the 1800s it was used as a camp for captured Seminoles at the end of the Third Seminole War, and during the Civil War it was occupied by the Union Navy.
The key’s weathered lighthouse has stood since 1858, and remains of Fort Dade — a fort used during the Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I — also remain.
Egmont Key became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974 and was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978.
Its windswept beaches are unpopulated and pristine and perfect for shelling.
You may even encounter a dolphin since they are known to frolic here.
Dolphins also sometimes appear near the fishing piers at Fort De Soto Park.
The park offers two fishing piers. A 1,000-foot Gulf Pier extends into the Gulf of Mexico off the eastern tip of Mullet Key, and a 500-foot Bay Pier reaches into Tampa Bay off the southern tip of Mullet Key.
Although Fort De Soto Park closes at sunset, its piers are open 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
It costs nothing to fish off these piers, but if you’re not a Florida resident, you’ll need to buy a fishing license.
Both piers have bait, tackle and food concessions and are typically crowded with folks casting lines and catching everything from fat flounder to small sharks to — unfortunately — sometimes a bird.
Egrets, pelicans, cormorants and other types of water birds swarm near the piers in search of a handout, and sometimes they accidentally get hooked.
Emergency telephone numbers are posted in case you should hook a bird.
A better way to observe birds during your day at Fort De Soto Park is to go bird watching on one of the park’s nature trails.
More than 280 bird species can be found here, including grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers, gulls, terns, egrets, spoonbills and owls.
Find feathered friends along the seven miles of paved trail that connect the beaches and camping area, or along the barrier-free nature trail, which is wheelchair accessible, or along the Arrowhead Nature Trail.
You can also spot ducks and gulls floating peacefully atop the waves, and many people choose to explore the park by water instead of by trail.
CANINES, CANOES AND CAMPING
Canoe and kayak rentals are available at the park, and while relaxing on the beach, you’re likely to see colorful kayaks or slender canoes gliding past.
The park’s 2-mile, self-guided canoe trail is perfect for adventuring paddlers.
If you own a dog, take it to the park’s Paw Playground, a place where canines can play and swim without their leashes.
In 2008, Paw Playground was voted the number one dog beach in America.
The beach features dog showers and water fountains — exactly what every pampered pooch needs after a day in the surf.
There’s so much to do at Fort De Soto Park you may want to spend more than just one day.
The park’s family camping area has 241 sites with water, electric hook-ups and charcoal grills. The campground also offers a store, modern restrooms, a dump station and laundry facilities.
XFor more information on Fort De Soto Park call (727) 582-2267, visit www.pinellascounty.org/park or write 3500 Pinellas Bayway South, Tierra Verde, FL 33715.