We just can’t say enough positive things about Fort Desoto County Park in Pinellas County, Florida. We’ve camped at a number of Florida Campgrounds, but at this point if we had to choose only one place to ever camp again, Fort Desoto would be that place.
I’ll start off by saying this was the longest camping trip we’ve attempted. We stayed a total of seven days in two different sites in our Coleman Newport pop-up and were surprised by the end to find seven days was not enough. Next year we’re aiming for ten days! We scrapped a planned trip to the keys and are planning a trip to Fort Desoto Park again instead. We think that may be as good of an indication of our feelings about Fort Desoto as anything else we can say, but I will of course go on writing anyway.
When we originally booked we could only find a four consecutive day stretch for any of the sites during our window of availability, so four days is what we were planning. After a few weeks of discussing the length of the drive, the effort required and everything we hoped to do while visiting Fort Desoto park we decided to see if we could secure another three days even if we had to book a different site and move part way through the trip. We were able to make those arrangements so we had the opportunity to check out two different sites during our trip.
Our first site was situated “on the water” on the eastern side of the southern end of the “no pet” section of the campground. “On the water” can mean a few things at Fort Desoto. You may find sites that have a beachy shoreline area, a shore lined with mangroves that have maintained access points every so often or sites that are on seawalls. The seawall sites come in a couple of versions. There are sea wall sites where the water remains deep enough to tie off larger boats, and sites like our second site where the water is as much as ten yards out from the wall at low tide. Our first site was of the variety with Mangroves and a strip of grassy median between the site and the water. The median is also a bike and walking trail.
Out first campsite at Fort Desoto Park was level and well shaded for much of the day. There was a period during mid-day where the majority of the camper was in direct sun but that was only a few hours. Several campers cycled through our neighboring sites over the three days but everyone was either cordial or just stuck to themselves. Either is fine by us. Live and let live! The sites are populated by several varieties of palm trees and it is those palms that offer what feels like a significant amount of privacy. The nights were very quiet. The animals were very brave. This beauty strolled through daily.
Once we were all set up in our first location we got out on the kayaks for a couple of hours of fishing and sight seeing. The water around the campground is shallow in general other than in the channels and it was low tide at that time so most of the area we kayaked that night was less than a foot deep with grass filling most of the water column. It was quite windy so we didn’t venture very far. I don’t think we caught anything, but we saw our first beautiful sunset of the week.
As is usually the case we studied satellite imagery of the area before leaving for Fort Desoto Park. In the event we were unable to launch from our own site we wanted to have an idea of places we could visit with our kayaks. That planning paid off when we needed to decide where to go to deal with the strong winds. We located an area that offered a great wind shadow along the mangroves and after a five minute drive with our kayaks in the truck we spent our first half day casting artificial lures along calm mangrove shorelines. The first cast of the day paid off with a nice Red Drum, aka Redfish for me. The season was closed for Redfish while we were there so that beautiful 26 inch fish went back to be caught another day.
The wind shadow gig was the name of our game for the week. One of the great things about Fort Desoto Park and the surrounding area is that kayak launch access is readily available. So even if the wind had been variable we could have always found somewhere with calm water to paddle.
On our mid-week moving day we skipped our morning paddle in favor of packing up and getting moved as soon as possible so we could paddle out from our new site that afternoon. The campers who were in the second site #197 for the two days before us (yes we were stalking them hoping they might leave early) checked out a little early and the camp host welcomed us to go ahead and move in. The new site was wonderful and offered more privacy than some. We did see a handful of other sites that would meet our camping and activity needs even better than site #197 but not many. We hope to get one of those others the next time around but if we ended up in this one again we’d be fine with that too.
Fort Desoto site #197 site is on the northern tip of the “no pet” section of the campground. As mentioned above the seawall there near site #197 is not suitable to float a boat at low tide but did allow us to launch our kayaks no matter the water level. There is an oyster bar along the seawall bordering that site so tennis shoes of some kind are highly recommended. We left the kayaks tied up by the wall one night and they were sitting on the bottom the next morning. This wasn’t a problem for us but maybe a helpful nugget for you. We tried the local practice of dip netting shrimp at night as well but the wind was too strong and the shrimp seemed too few. We did see and catch a few though.
Word to the wise, the raccoons here are well advertised and the legend is real. They operate day and night whether you are in the area or not. We had a whole family living in a palm tree right above our first site. Not only will they raid your camp right in front of your face, they know that bait buckets are tied up to the seawall at night. If the water gets low around your bucket they will open it and eat all of your live bait. Beware!
We again started out our stay at the new site with a paddle out to fish and sightsee. The tide was high that evening so the launch was as easy as can be. The tennis shoes made walking in the water near the seawall there much easier. You would not be wise to walk in that spot without shoes, as you would be seriously injured by the sharp edges of the oysters which can carry serious pathogens. The night was beautiful but the wind was still blowing hard so we again took advantage of the wind shadows along a couple of tree lines. We caught a few fish and I saw a large Snook in shallow water as I drifted quietly by. I would guess it was in the neighborhood of 30 inches. As another fun day ended we watched one of the most beautiful sunsets of the entire trip.
Since this site was open to the wind coming in from the northeast I had to get creative with a large tarp in order to create a protected area for our fire. This was necessary and non-negotiable if we were to meet the need for Smores. They’re a thing around here! We added a small TV and dorm fridge to our set-up this year and they both made this trip better than it might have been without the extra frills. The TV we purchased runs on 110 or 12 volt but Fort Desoto Park has electrical hookups so 110 did the trick this time around. Using the handy-dandy mounting system I created we can easily move the TV between both sides of the the inside of the camper or outdoors in the corner of our canopy where we can relax and enjoy the fire, the view and of course the company.
Sometimes Adventure is Easy to Find
The next couple of days remained windy both day and night so we visited a couple of the protected areas we had already located and enjoyed some easy fishing and paddling largely out of the wind, with one exception…
We were getting to the point where we were unconvinced the wind pattern would break and that we would get a chance to paddle the bay on a calm day. We had really been looking forward to paddling from our site over to Shell Key and so far the wind was not cooperating. After studying maps and satellite photos again we decided it would be relatively easy to paddle with the wind at our back most of the way across to Shell key if we launched from a spot outside of Fort Desoto Park. We decided that once we drifted across to the first of the small keys in the bay we would duck behind them to do a little lure casting while working our way the remainder of the way to Shell Key. We planned to island hop the wind shadows on our way back across the bay to avoid the bulk of the wind and waves on the return to our launch site later that day.
Parts of our plan actually worked out perfectly! So that was nice. Our float with the wind at our backs out to the first key was easy. Too fast, but easy. I saw another large Snook sitting calmly in the shallow water on the backside of that first key, but no strikes. We really didn’t get any bites to speak of that day. We were moving a little too fast on the way across and working too hard most of the way back. As we finished the trip across we worked our way slowly around the furthest keys to the southwest back toward the southern end of Shell Key, and it was at the southern point of that last key where we encountered the toughest part of that trip.
When we rounded that last point we were facing directly into the wind coming down the chute from the Skyway Bridge and beyond straight into that little hook that is the southern end of Shell Key. The wind was really intense and it took everything we had in us to make any progress forward. Foot by foot we struggled our way into the wind until we made our way to the beach along the inlet at Shell Key. That was an intense few minutes of paddling! The shallow water jacks the chop up easily. We took a brief stroll around the beach but at that point we were already dreading the paddle back a little too much to really enjoy the beach.
The first part of the return paddle was the most difficult because we had to start out back into that stiff easterly wind. Once we were behind the keys doing the island hopping thing the rest of the trip wasn’t all that bad. We weren’t the only fools to make the trip. We saw a few other people, so that was nice! We made our way to the eastern shoreline near the marine institute and paddled back south toward our parking area near the toll booths. This trip took a toll on our arms so we skipped the kayaking the next morning and enjoyed sleeping in and grabbing some hot breakfast.
On our second to last day of the trip the wind decided to let up and the conditions were ideal! With forecasts suggesting that we would have an easterly breeze at our backs paddling out to Shell Key and a healthy sea breeze at our backs for our return we were looking at a dream come true. The day did not disappoint. As we paddled over to Shell Key from our campsite we threw some artificial lures and prospected the waters on the way. We hooked a few fish here and there until we hit one area and things exploded! We were catching a fish or getting amazing strikes with almost every cast. Most were Spotted Sea Trout but Jacks and a few others were in the mix. The water was so clear that you could see individual and groups of fish chasing your lures! It was one of those days you can only hope to see every now and again.
It is hard to leave when the fishing is like that but we did want to move on to check out Shell Key. We weren’t taking anything home to eat so all of our fish swam another day. We hung out on the beach at Shell Key, threw some lines out to soak and watched the people. It looked as if everyone in Tampa/St. Pete was out that day. I suppose people were stir crazy after such a windy week kept many off of the water.
There is also at least one mangrove tunnel to check out in the bay area and we gave it a look. We’ve never been in one of the tunnels before and it was really cool. It is so quiet inside.
We didn’t spend much time at North Beach at Fort Desoto but when we return we plan to spend at least one of our days there. We’ve heard that there are sand dollars galore but can’t confirm that yet. What we do know is that it is absolutely beautiful. White sand beaches, blue sky, and blue-green waters. We’ve seen some beautiful sights but not many any better than North Beach at Fort Desoto.
We loved it. Can we live there? Somebody know somebody? Seven days in our pop-up was not enough. If that is torture, thank you sir, may I have another. Have I said enough? No wait, it’s horrible and you should never go there. It’s hard enough to get in now!
Okay, seriously though. We love that campground. Pinellas County Government, bravo, kudos, job well done! It would be a crime if the residents of Pinellas County ever let that park get bought out by developers. You know they want it!
The campground has a section that allows pets, a smaller camper area and a side that can handle small or larger campers. If you have one of the larger toys you may want one of the pull through sites. Our camper is small so I can’t help a whole lot there, but it does seem there are sites that can take the bigger toys. Both of our sites were in the same section and both were within easy walking distance of a restroom.
On the subject of restrooms, all are not created equal at Fort Desoto. We found the restroom at the north end of the campground to be the best of those we visited. It was in better shape, had better pressure, etc. That being said the others weren’t bad, that one was just better!
The Camp Store
The camp store has a quite a few handy items considering how small it is. You’ll find ice, fire wood, frozen bait, some snack foods, morning bagels, and hand dipped ice cream if you go that way… and we do! The store also offers bike and kayak rentals and the park itself offers great biking trails.
Oh yes the food. We love to check out some local food when we get the opportunity and with Fort Desoto Park being so close to town there is plenty of opportunity! We frequented Billy’s Stone Crab. The food we ordered was good, the drinks were cheap, and the view was fantastic. If you choose the rooftop bar you’ll get a panoramic view of the gulf and if you look closely you might notice some large Snook under the docks.
The Saddest Thing is Saying Goodbye
Yes, the saddest thing is saying goodbye and we were most certainly sad to be leaving Fort Desoto County Park. This was by far our best camping vacation yet and we can’t wait to return. Fort Desoto in Pinellas County has so much to offer it was impossible to see it all while we were there. Looks like we’ll have to do it again!