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Island life around Fort De Soto

12/18/2009

ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Christmas features the "must do" saltwater fishing excursions along the coasts of the United States. Between now and year's end, we'll present a bucket list of fishing trips any angler would love to receive.

Fort De Soto, Pinellas County's largest park, stretches its 1,136 acres across Madelaine, St. Jean, St. Christopher, Bonne Fortune and Mullet keys.

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The latter is the largest and this V-shaped island is home to the secluded East Beach at one point, the heralded North Beach at the other and the park's namesake fort roughly centered.

Just below the fort, on Mullet Key's southwest corner, Gulf Pier reaches 1,000 feet seaward. East of the fort, the 500-foot Bay Pier faces the mouth of Tampa Bay. A ferry runs daily trips (weather permitting) from Bay Pier to nearby Egmont Key.

Fort De Soto has over seven miles of waterfront, three of which hold the soft white sand beaches for which the park has become famous. The online travel community "TripAdvisor" ranked the enchanting North Beach as America's No. 1 Beach for 2008 and 2009, and Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach," gave it top billing for 2005.

Don't forget your camera — Fort De Soto is a birding paradise, with an array of shorebirds, ospreys, pelicans and the beautiful roseate spoonbill.

If you're into roughing it, St. Jean and St. Christopher keys hold three family camping areas totaling 238 sites with picnic tables, grills, water, electricity, laundry facilities, sanitary disposal stations, restrooms, showers, play areas, and a camp store. Mullet Key's 14 picnic shelters and 20 storm-resistant public restroom buildings accommodate day-trippers.

A 7-mile asphalt trail linking East Beach, North Beach and the fort area welcomes walkers, runners, skaters and cyclists, while the nature trails at the Arrowhead Picnic area (north end) and Soldier Hole (behind the fort) highlight the island's flora and fauna.

A 2,200-foot barrier-free trail accommodates disabled visitors with a wheel chair-friendly path and auditory interpretive stations for the hearing impaired. There's even a Dog Park south of Bay Pier where your pooch can run and swim unleashed and then enjoy a dog shower and drink from a canine water fountain.

To reach Fort De Soto Park, follow Int. 275 south to exit 17 (FL-682 West). Turn left on the Pinellas Bayway (S-FL 679) and follow the road through two toll gates, across the Bunces Pass Bridge and onto Mullet Key. For information on Fort De Soto Park, visit www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_De Soto.htm