With 35 miles of beaches to choose from, you’d be forgiven for thinking St. Pete/Clearwater is just a place to spend a day on the beach. But look beyond the more well-know beach hangs and there is a wealth of outdoor activities for adventure enthusiasts, families and anyone looking for something a little different. We’ve outlined a few of the best places to go for kayaking, snorkeling and beach camping.
Fort De Soto Park
Overview: This large county park is made up of five interconnected islands (keys). Fort De Soto is known for the historic fort built there during the Spanish American War. The park is also a popular escape for beachgoers, fishers and campers. As the largest county park, Fort De Soto has many amenities including an off-leash dog area on the beach, food concession and fishing piers.
Good for: Families of all ages, day trip adventures, outdoor lovers who prefer easily accessible amenities.
Fort De Soto is located south of the well-known beach towns along the Gulf and is about a 20 minute drive from St. Pete Beach and an hour’s drive from Clearwater Beach – making it a great place for a day-trip stop.
If you want to extend your adventure, the park has an amazing – and extremely popular campground. Check out the camping section of this article for more information.
When it comes to kayaking here, you’ll want to head to the park’s designated kayaking trail. The 2.25 mile-long kayaking trail in the park is located across from the dog beach area in an area called Soldier’s Hole. It’s marked on this map and is also the only place in the park to rent a kayak or canoe. The trail starts off in an open inlet with lush greenery on either side. As you paddle through the trail, you’ll head through mangroves and will eventually come up to Mullet Key Bayou, which is the turn around point for the trail. The calm waters in the inlet make this a great place for people of all experience levels to give paddling a try. It’s also common to see manatees and wading birds while you paddle. If some curious manatees come over to check you out, remember to stay still and simply observe until they swim away.
If you bring your own kayak, there is a boat ramp right inside the park entrance and there are numerous areas to pull over and park along the main road. Stop by the visitor’s center to talk to park rangers about the best places to launch.
General Park info:
- There is a parking fee of $5 per car which is collected at a paybooth upon entry to the park. Anyone entering the park by foot or bike does not have to pay the fee.
- Make sure to have the proper fishing license if you plan to fish. The bait shop does not offer fishing licenses and a fishing license is required to fish anywhere in the park.
- Kayaks can be rented by Topwater Kayak Outpost: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., St. Petersburg, FL 3371. They can be reached by phone: 727-864-1991. Or, contact the park for information on kayak rentals, bike rentals, camping and other amenities: (727) 582-2100, select Option #2.
Egmont Key State Park
Overview: Only accessible by boat, this wildlife preserve feels like a world away. There are very few amenities, adding to the feeling of being on your own remote island.
Good for: Adults, older children, anyone who loves outdoor adventures with a bit of a wild side. Not suitable for very young children.
Fort ruins from the Spanish American War dot the island and a historic lighthouse – one of the last government-operated lighthouses in the U.S. that still provides navigational aid – welcomes visitors to the island.
Egmont Key has the benefit of being remote but easily accessible. It’s also one of the best places in St. Pete/Clearwater to snorkel. The waters surrounding the island are filled with sea life including loggerhead sea turtles, snapper, grouper, starfish, crabs, manatees and dolphins.
There are a few options for snorkeling the island. One of the most popular options is to take the Hubbard’s Ferry from the Bay Pier inside Fort De Soto over to Egmont Key. The ferry usually leaves for the island three times a day.
Egmont Key is fairly small – you can easily walk the entire island in an hour or so and will likely only need a few hours for snorkeling. If you take the Hubbard’s Ferry to Egmont Key, you can bring your own snorkeling gear or opt to add on their snorkeling package on the day of. The ferry will provide the snorkeling gear and after letting the other guests disembark, will take a cruise around the island to some great snorkeling spots.
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There are also various Egmont Key snorkeling tours offered throughout St. Pete/Clearwater. Schedules for the tours change seasonally but most tours are a few hours long and include snorkeling gear. If you decide to bring your own gear, you can snorkel right off the shore. The waters surrounding the island are known for their beautiful emerald color.
One of the best place to snorkel in the area is the partially sunken ruins located off the shore of the western side of the island. The ruins provide shelter for all kinds of sea life and look like something straight out of Indiana Jones or Robinson Cruiso.
You can’t get to the ruins from the shore since the area is off-shore of the shorebird refuge portion of the island, which is closed to the public to protect the birds. You’ll need to rent a boat or work with a tour service to reach the ruins. But it’s worth it once you do. Portions of the ruins peek out from the emerald water, fish dart around the sunken structure and seagrass sways in the current.
No matter how or why you visit Egmont Key, the most important thing to know is that the island does not have many amenities. Bring plenty of fresh drinking water with you as there is no drinking water on the island. Other essentials include: sunblock, bug spray, protection from the sun (hats, sunglasses, loose breathable clothing that can cover your arms and legs) and snacks.
General Park Info:
- There is no fee to enter the island.
- There are very few amenities on the island.
- The Hubbard’s Egmont Key Ferry leaves from the Bay Pier inside Fort De Soto and trips with the ferry last about 4 hours: 3 hours of island time, 30 minutes to and from the dock.
- There is no camping on this island.
Fort De Soto Park & Shell Key
Overview: Each of these parks offers a waterfront camping experience. Fort De Soto has tons of amenities, making it a great go-to pick. Shell Key is a little more difficult to get to and only offers primitive camping, but the pay-off is a quiet escape in your own slice of paradise.
Good for: Fort De Soto camping is great for all ages and families. Camping at Shell Key is best for experienced campers.
Falling asleep to the sounds of waves gently washing onto the shore, roasting marshmallows over a campfire built right on the beach, watching the sunset from your tent – camping on the beach in St. Pete/Clearwater is something you’ll remember for years to come.
Fort De Soto has the most camping areas of the two places mentioned and also offers the most amenities. There are showers, rest rooms, picnic centers and concessions along with running water, grills, washers and dryers, sanitary disposal stations and a campground store. Camping sites can accommodate tents, vans, pop-up campers and trailers – so you can easily set up camp however you desire.
Book early though! Fort De Soto is a popular place especially in the cooler months from October-April.
Shell Key is the perfect combination of an escape from it all while being easily accessible. While the key can only be reached by boat, the Hubbard’s Shell Key Ferry offers an overnight experience. Bring all your gear on the ferry (the ferry departs from a parking lot, making it easy to get your gear from the car to the ferry) and they’ll shuttle you to a spot on the key. You can arrange to have the ferry pick you up the next day or in a few days. And best yet, when the ferry comes to pick you up, they’ll pull right up to the camping spot where they dropped you off so you don’t have to haul your gear around the island.
Camping on the key is a wild escape on pristine Florida beaches. Only 25 camping permits are given out per day, so you won’t find crowds here. Camping here isn’t for newbies however. There are no amenities on the island including no running water, no electricity, no restroom facilities and no buildings. You’ll also need to bring everything with you and take it all back since there are no waste disposal areas. But with a little planning, you can enjoy camping right on the beach.