Fort De Soto: Fortified with Fun

By: Kate Pursell

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Canoeing, kayaking, biking, and even a doggie playground make for a beautiful day at Fort De Soto Park.

As Dennie Baker munched on a power bar, he mused about the weather back home in Philadelphia. "It's 25 degrees and snowing."

Purple mountain bikes and helmets lay propped up against a bike rack at Fort De Soto Park as Baker scans a map. Sunshine galore and glorious breezes greeted Baker and his wife Carol, retirees, that day as they biked down Gulf Boulevard to the park from their St. Pete Beach hotel. Sound perfect? It is.

Nestled at the southern end of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Park is a favorite of locals and visitors "in the know." It is made up of five islands, with more than 1,100 acres and six-plus miles of pristine, award-winning beaches and several miles of waterfront along Mullet Key Bayou.

The main lure, of course, is the beach, whose beauty draws everyone from toddlers to teens to an age group that Dave Cook calls "the sunshine ladies" in their 70s and 80s. The ladies recently roared off on a bevy of "chopper" bicycles that Cook rents along the beach--a beach which was ranked "America's #1 Beach" in 2005 by coastal expert Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach." In 2011, it was named America’s best family beach by the editors of Parents magazine.

"All single file and they were gone!" he said, eyes dancing about as he watched a chubby-cheeked toddler, with mom in tow carting an overstuffed beach bag, waddle toward the bike stand. Mom brushed some sand off of him and herself as dad decided a fringed "surrey" would do just fine as their beach ride.

It's that soft sand - the color of powdered sugar - and azure blue water that beckons many, but don't stop there. Think "theme park" of the outdoors, with everything from kayaking to rollerblading to casting a line for Spanish mackerel at one of two piers (one on the Gulf, the other on Tampa Bay). Both have bait, tackle and food concessions. If boating is your thing, the boat ramp offers a getaway to the shimmering waters.

And those shimmering waters can be at your doorstep at the campground, so request a water view. A tow-headed lad of 10 or so in faded blue board shorts ambled along a pathway leading to a campsite where Tiki torches added a festive touch to his family's campsite. A flame-red mountain bike was propped up against a tree, and it's easy to imagine heading out on it.

There are seven miles of multi-purpose paved trails that connect the North Beach, East Beach, boat ramp and camping area. The self-guided two-and-a-quarter-mile canoe trail and the barrier-free 2,200-foot nature trail (with six interpretive stations) are other options for the intrepid adventurer. When you first arrive, be sure to stop in at the visitors' center to pick up a few brochures, such as a checklist of birds that make springtime stops at the park en route to their breeding grounds.

Pedal your way along the gorgeous beaches in a variety of modes, ranging from a surrey-style (that several can ride) to a "deuce-coupe" low-to-the-ground bicycle to a "chopper-style" bike.

Canoes and kayaks are also available for rent by the hour or the day; guided eco-tours are a good option for first-timers and those who want to learn interesting facts about their surroundings.

Even Fido can come to the park. Though pets aren't allowed in picnic shelters, concession areas, restrooms, beaches or fishing piers, they have their own "Paw Playground" at which to romp.

If history strikes a chord, the impressive fort dates back to 1898, when, according to park materials, the U.S. "became involved in conflict with Cuba which led to the Spanish American War." Tampa Bay citizens demanded military defenses for Tampa Bay, hence Fort De Soto. You can follow the self-guided historical trail or call ahead for fort tours.

To reach the park, take Interstate 275 to exit 17. Proceed west and turn left at the second stoplight (State Road 679). From the Gulf beaches, proceed south on Gulf Boulevard until you reach St. Pete Beach. Turn left on the Pinellas Bayway and then turn right on State Road 679.

Campground reservations may be made up to seven months in advance. All 238 sites have water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table and a charcoal grill. Campgrounds have a camp store, dump stations, restrooms with showers and laundry facilities.

For more information about Fort De Soto Park and other beaches in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, visit www.VisitStPeteClearwater.com or call the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-877-352-3224.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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