Ft. De Soto Park is located south of St. Petersburg, Florida and it welcomes on average 2.7 million visitors a year. This popular park is actually a grouping of 5 islands or keys at the entrance to Tampa Bay: Mullet Key, Sister Key, Hospital Key, Rattlesnake Key and Scratch Key. Its 1,136 acres makes it the largest park in Pinellas County.
This area has a long and storied history. The Tocobaga Native Americans were the first to settle on Mullet Key, the largest island, where they found a plentiful food supply. The first European, a Spanish explorer named Pánfilo de Narváez, arrived in 1529 but he did not tarry. He was followed some 10 years later by the Park’s namesake, Hernando de Soto. The Spaniards proceeded to conquer Florida and remained there for more than 300 years until 1821 when Florida became a U. S. territory.
It was not until after the United States entered the Spanish American War that permanent fortifications were built on Mullet Key to protect Tampa Bay. This cluster of islands at the entrance were in the perfect location for a fort. By 1900, the military had constructed Ft. De Soto. This fort was not small; it had more than 29 buildings and two mortar batteries for its defense. The two batteries were called Battery Laidley and Battery Bigelow. According to the Park’s information, the former was the primary one and it boasted 8 12-inch mortars with a range of 1.25 to 6.8 miles. The latter had two 3-inch, 15-pound rapid fire guns that were used to stop smaller, faster vessels that could come closer to shore. Four of the mortars from Battery Laidley remain on display at Ft. De Soto and these are the only mortars of their kind in North America. Unfortunately, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico have claimed Battery Bigelow. You can still see some of its ruins in the surf nearby. In 1977 these batteries were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
In addition to touring the battery, the Park has an interpretive trail though other parts of Ft. De Soto where there were many other buildings at one time. Today you can only see what remains of the buildings’ foundations and part of an observation tower. In its heyday, Ft. De Soto also had a railroad, brick roads, and concrete sidewalks and these are still visible. The Quartermaster Storehouse, a 833 sq. ft. wooden building, was reconstructed by the park staff and it now houses the Park’s Museum (Admission is free). Although we were not able to visit the Museum due to COVID restrictions, there was a room under the Laidley Battery that has photos of and information about the Fort. In 1923, the military closed Ft. De Soto. Years later they used the island as a bombing range until after the end of WWII. In 1948, Pinellas County purchased the land from the government. In 1962, the same year that Ft. De Soto Park opened, they built a toll road to the Park.
After spending a day at Ft. De Soto Park, we can certainly see why it is so popular. Many thanks to our daughter and new son-in-law for recommending this wonderful county park to us. Along with its history, the Park’s location is wonderful. From the top of the Laidley Battery, we had a sweeping view out over Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and its pristine beaches. The beautiful white sand beaches are a highlight of this area. Many sunbathers were there enjoying the warm sunshine and the water even on a weekday. This Park has over 7 miles of waterfront and more than 3 miles of accessible beaches. The Ft. De Soto Park beach has been dubbed one of America’s Top Beaches and for good reason.
Adding to the Park’s beauty, is the fact that there are over 328 species of birds and also loggerhead turtles that make their home there. The park has 2 fishing piers: one on the bay side, Bay Pier, and the other on the Gulf side, Gulf Fishing Pier. The Gulf Fishing Pier extends more than 1,000 feet into the Gulf and is very popular with fishing enthusiasts both human and aquatic. When we walked out to the end of the pier, we saw numerous fishermen and fisherwomen there, but the most interesting sight was watching the pelicans dive headlong into the water to catch their lunch. We stayed there for a long while watching everyone fish. The snowy egrets and lots of other birds kept an eye on us as well.
From the 800-foot long Bay Pier, there is a ferry service to two of the other islands, Egmont Key and Shell Key. Located on Egmont Key is the Egmont Key State Park and National Wildlife Refuge. The 1858 Egmont Key Lighthouse, the ruins of Fort Dade, and the Key’s beaches lure tourists there daily. On day we would like to take the ferry to these keys but today we just managed to catch a glimpse of the key and its lighthouse from Bay Pier. (We find that there is always more that we want to see and do just about everywhere we travel!)
If you decide to come and visit Ft. De Soto Park, you will not be bored. Beyond its historic battery, beaches, fishing piers, and excursions to other keys, you can also boat, canoe, camp, picnic, or bike. For boaters, there is a boat launch with floating docks; for canoers, there is a 2.25 mile canoe trail through the park. Bikers can pedal around the park on the 6.8 mile paved trail that leads to lovely beaches, 15 picnic shelters, and a 238 site campground. A self-guided nature trail and food concessions are easily accessible as well. There is something for everyone it seems.
Just before leaving, we drove past East Beach to the tip of Mullet Key. We were thrilled to see some kitesurfers there. It was a beautiful spot to watch them gliding out over the water as the sun was setting and illuminating the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. A wonderful finish to another great day in the Tampa Bay area.