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A&A Spend A Week RV Camping At Fort Desoto | Island Life

End of Week #89


Fort Desoto Campground, Fort Desoto FL > Frog Creek RV Resort, Palmetto FL

Miles traveled since last week's post = 25 miles

Total miles traveled to date = 12,191 with trailer


On Sunday we arrived at the place we will spend our last full month in Florida! After our stay here we will have a few more stops throughout the state, before finally starting to make our way north along the east coast, towards North Carolina.


But I can surely tell you we are already missing the tropical oasis we spent last week at - the sweet, slow island life, south of St. Pete Beach, is still calling our name. I think we were quite spoiled there, and we are definitely dreaming up the next time we will be able to camp at Fort Desoto Park!


Keep reading to find out more about what Fort Desoto is and why it was so special!



A&A Spend A Week RV Camping At Fort Desoto


This was one of those places you didn't want to ever leave - a beautiful tropical oasis, off the coast of St. Pete's and Tampa Bay, during the perfect time of year to get away to the Gulf coast of Florida. Fort Desoto is also a park that is not easy to come by - especially since you can only book 6 months out if you are a non Florida resident. It is considered a crown jewel for Florida amongst the RV community, and is highly sought after. A lot of people that desire to camp here simply do not get the chance to as they are not able to get in. If you're lucky enough to score a reservation, your stay is never long enough and you're immediately dreaming of the next time you can come back!


Fort Desoto is located on an island just south of St. Pete Beach, and is a county park in the state of Florida. Pricing is comparable to Florida State Parks, or just a little higher, which in general is an absolute STEAL compared to RV Resorts.


I first heard about this park in one of our RV Facebook groups last fall, and had been scouring their website daily to try to find a reservation for more than one night. There was a point in time Adam and I even considered booking a random one night stay just so we could experience it. Then, one random night while we were working Christmas trees, I happened to scroll across an ENTIRE WEEK cancellation at the Park, for the beginning of February (& last few days of January). All I had to do is look at Adam and before I could even finish saying, "what should I do", he already said, "book it!".


And it was a done deal.



History


Fort Desoto is a widely praised park amongst the boating community of Tierra Verde, and covers 5 islands in total, across 1,136 acres on the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. There are a wide range of amenities and activities here to keep you entertained for days!


At the heart of the park, on the furthest south island you can explore, is the namesake military Fort. On ground level there are artillery holds, a firing gallery, and creepy yet mysterious bunkers, with large canons positioned next to them. The Fort itself appears to be built into the side of a hill or sand dune on the island, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The entire compound was made up of more than 29 buildings, that included a hospital, living quarters, a bakery, a post office, and so much more - it was essentially an entire community all in itself.


For more than 400 years, the Tampa Bay area of Florida has attracted all kinds of visitors - with some of the first being the Tocobaga Indians, who occupied Mullet Key (Fort Desoto) until about 5,000 A.D. By the time the 1500's hit, a lot of Spanish explorers started landing on the barrier island beaches on the Gulf of Florida. In 1539, a well known explorer named Hernando De Soto passed through this territory. Fast forward to 1849, and the US Army Engineers began to survey this coastline for possible use as a coastal defense area. In 1861 the Civil War broke out, and there was still no fortification in any parts of the Gulf area and Union Troops began to set up blockades on both Mullet Key (Fort Desoto) and Egmont Key (of the coast of Fort Desoto). Any attempts to attack could be seen in advance by troops in the lighthouse on Egmont Key.


By 1898 the US became involved in conflict with Cuba, which led to the Spanish American War. Citizens of Tampa began to demand military defense for the greater Tampa Bay area. Because of the close proximity to Cuba, Tampa became a port for US troops and supplies going to the Caribbean war zones.... All of which ultimately led to the historic Fort of Fort Desoto to begin construction in late 1898.



By April of 1900, Fort Desoto was officially named after that famous Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto, and the mortar battery construction was completed by May. At the time, the battery was a new design for the military, and was initiated due to significant changes in weapons. To withstand direct fire, the walls of the battery were between 8-20 feet thick, and the ceiling was 5 feet thick!


Thankfully, it doesn't sound like Fort Desoto was ever used in battle, however they did see several different troops come in, and leave, and the area was also heavily used for practice of sorts. By 1910, the Fort was completely inactive, aside from a few caretakers. In 1917, four of the 12-inch mortars were shipped to California, as a result of World War I. In 1926 the U.S. Congress authorized County, City, and State Governments to purchase the land, but it was appraised for nearly $200,000, and no one jumped on the idea. Many heavy hurricanes affected the area in the 1920's, and 1930's, and and the estimated value of the military building significantly decreased over time.


Fort Desoto was then purchased from the Federal Government in 1938 for $12,500. In 1941 it was sold back to the Federal Government for $18,404 to be used as a gunnery and bombing range during World War II. The property was repurchased in 1948 for $26,500.


To this day, you can do a self-guided waking tour of the Fort and see what is left of the original buildings - which isn't much. Specific areas where buildings were located have been reconstructed to only show the brick base outlines of the footprint they took up. There are plaques located all along the trail to tell you what was there and how it was used. There is also a Quartermaster Museum, that has been reconstructed and salvaged for you to check out, however I am unsure if it was open due to Covid times.


*The 12-inch mortar battery, located at the fort, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.*



Campground


Easily, this is one of the top campgrounds we have stayed at to date (Adam has already declared it his updated favorite). It is a lot different than most campgrounds we have stayed at, but the ways in which it is unique are what make it so great. I mean you can ask anyone in Florida, or anyone in the RV community that has been to Florida - where is the best place to camp - and they will say Fort Desoto. This is just simply the best camping Florida has to offer, plus the best waterfront camping you can find, especially without having to pay a pretty penny in order to do so!


All of the campsites here have views of the blue-green waters, and the mangrove lined edges of the island. Every single one of the 238 campsites have water and electric, charcoal grills, and picnic tables. They also offer some of the best privacy I have ever come across in terms of any developed campground. The sites are long and just wide enough, and you feel completely cut off from your neighbors in your own little oasis.


There are 3 separate camping loops at the park - two of which are more surrounded by water entirely, and do not allow pets, and one that is more at the entrance of the park, next to the roadway - that does allow pets. None of the sites have sewer connections but there are 2 dumping stations, and we saw a lot of folks with their own portable mobile dumps. At the entrance of the campground is the office, as well as a camp store that has all the items you would need, including ice cream!


Throughout each loop there is at least one bathhouse with showers and laundry, should you need to utilize it. The max you can stay at this park is 14 days at a time, which might be within specific window! Since there are not sewer hookups it can be convenient to utilize their showers to save the space in your tanks.


*For non residents waterfront camping was $42.50 per night, and non waterfront camping was $38.50 per night.*



Fort Desoto Park


I'm not going to lie, when we first arrived to the campground, we didn't even realize there was whole other island parts of the park just south of the campground. We assumed where the entrance was to the campground was the only part of the park... and that if you continued down the road, that it took you somewhere else... But that's not the case! Just about a half of mile south of the campground entrance it takes you to the "rest of Fort Desoto Park", where there are beaches, the headquarters, a museum, old military forts, and so much more to explore!


Park Facts:

  • Fort De Soto was named America’s Top Beach for 2009 by Trip Advisor, the world's largest online travel community. In 2005, “Dr. Beach,” named Fort De Soto the nation’s #1 Beach.

  • Annual park attendance averages more than 3 million visitors.

  • There are more than 328 species of birds that have been documented at the park.

  • These 5 island keys are made up of beach plants, mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks, hardwoods, and many native plants.

  • There is over 3 miles of white sandy beach.

  • There is an 800 foot long boat launching facility, with 11 floating docks.

  • There is a 1,000 foot Gulf fishing pier, and a 500 foot Bay fishing pier.

  • Two large beaches make up the Gulf and Bay sides of the park. North beach, on the Gulf side, is the largest.


Throughout the park itself there are over 7 miles of trails, which draw in a lot of bikers, runners, and walkers alike. There is an area by the North Beach where you can even rent bikes, tandem bikes and other sorts. This is also a very popular area for canoers and kayakers, as it is also one of the best ways to experience the manatees, birds, and other wildlife that make up the Gulf of Florida.


Local residents of the greater Tampa Bay area also love Fort Desoto as it has one of the only dog friendly beaches in the area, and is the only beach you can let your dog off the leash. There is even a paw playground where you can rinse the sand off your pups feet!


And how could I forget to mention fishing? The only question you have to ask yourself is do you want to fish on the Gulf side or the Bay side... it's as simple as that! This entire area is flooded with fisherman, and pelicans waiting on the sidelines to catch themselves an easy snack.


Please note, this park does not allow ANY alcoholic beverages...



Island Life


I have to note that this was our very first time ever camping on an island! And we would 10/10 do it again!


Water, water everywhere


Depending on where you are coming from, you will likely pay several tolls to access the park. We came from the Sarasota area and hit 3 different toll booths on our way in, most definitely a record for us. (In fact we have mostly avoided tolls altogether until we got to Florida...) Another thing to keep in mind is that every time you want to leave the park, to get groceries, go explore somewhere else, go out to eat, etc., you will likely have to pay tolls again to get to where you are going or in order to get back to the park. We had to find somewhere to take out more cash because we were not prepared for that scenario!


Aside from the tolls, and the huge bridges you have to cross, this is a waterfront dream to camp at. You have water basically around all sides of each of the campground loops, and water right out your "backyard" at your campsite, if you book a waterfront site. There are a limited number of sites at the park that are not waterfront, however the water would be no more than 50 feet away at all times. Waterfront campsites are definitely where it is at, and you have a mix of the jungle vibe with palms and other vegetations on each side of you and the ocean right out your back window. This was the perfect place to sit waterside, with our newly acquired above ground fire pit, and enjoy a nice evening (when it wasn't too windy, of of course).


Storms


This island has a strong history with hurricanes, and storms alike - including a hurricane in 1932 that swallowed one of the Fort batteries into the Gulf of Mexico. While I am grateful to have not experienced this area during hurricane season, we still had our own little scare of severe weather on our last night here. Just as we were winding down to go to bed, the local news announced that the entire Tampa Bay area was under a tornado watch, (YES, Florida gets tornados on water AND land), and that storms from the Gulf could produce damaging winds... not something that is particularly thrilling to go to bed to. Adam and I both immediately started to get a lot of anxiety about all the what ifs involved with being located on an island, with the ocean in your backyard, and needless to say neither one of us got a lot of sleep that night.



The actual storm predicted did not end up hitting us until about 6 AM and turned out to be far less destructive than first thought. This was a relief to us and we were happy we did not have to deal with any destruction or scares on the morning we were to depart!


Ferry to Egmont Key


If you want to get real adventurous while you're spending some time on the island of Fort Desoto, you can actually take a ferry from the fishing pier to another island, called Egmont Key! This is something we fully plan on doing, and are saving it for when our friends come to visit us later this month. On Egmont Key there are ruins to another Fort, called Fort Dade (built in 1899), a small lighthouse, and gopher tortoises and dolphins galore. We can't wait to check this place out!



Fort Desoto's expansive beaches, tropical island vibes, rich history, and long trails made me feel like I was far away from civilization. I remember Adam and I feeling like we had just went to another country, or like we were camping somewhere in the Keys or in the Caribbean. I can confidently say that we will be back...


This is one park that definitely has it all!



NEXT WEEK: In honor of our 90 week marker coming up in a few days, next weeks post will share some sort of specific tips, tricks, or insight into the RV world. Stay tuned!



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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ For more reviews, content, and other adventures, be sure to follow me on Instagram at Spark Fire Swan. xoxo


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