The island had been used by native Americans for fishing and shelling as far back as 2,000 years ago. The first architectural changes to the island came in 1848 when the first lighthouse on the western Gulf of Mexico was built to help guide ships past sandbars.
In the 1850s, the key was used as a internment site for Seminole Indians who were being forced to move to the Midwest after the Third Seminole War. Soldiers returning from the war were required to spend 10 days of quarantine at the key's hospital. During the American Civil War, the key was a lookout and supply point for the Confederacy, and later, a Union supply blockade and a refuge for Union sympathizers.
Fort Dade began construction in 1898, near the onset of the Spanish/American war. By 1910, Egmont Key was home to around 300 people and more than 70 buildings, including a local hospital and elementary school for the soldiers children. The key used to be twice its existing size, but shoreline erosion has since moved many original Fort Dade structures into the ocean.
The key was used as a training center during World War I, and officially deactivated in the early 1920s before being reactivated during World War II as an ammunition storage facility.
The key became a national wildlife refuge in 1974, and during the summers is home to more nesting birds — around 40,000 — than any island in Florida. The state established the park in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989.
Plan your trip
The two main airports in the area are Tampa International Airport (TPA) in Hillsborough County and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) in Pinellas County. Multiple carriers service TPA, while most flights to and from PIE are run by Allegiant. There are many ground transportation options at both airports.
Egmont Key is a sandbar island out in the Gulf of Mexico, and is a little less than two miles across calm waters from the southernmost end of Pinellas County's Fort DeSoto Park.
You'll need a car to get to Fort DeSoto Park. It will take approximately 20-30 minutes from downtown St. Petersburg. A rideshare like Uber or Lyft will cost about $60 round-trip.
The exit to the park is the last highway exit before you go on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. You'll hit two tolls by the time you reach the park, so have about $2 of quarters handy.
Park admission is $5 per vehicle, which can be paid with Visa, Mastercard or cash.
Kayaking is an option for moderate to experienced paddlers and will take approximately an hour to 90 minutes. If you're a beginner kayaker, better to pick a closer destination or explore the park shoreline; open ocean currents can prove challenging and tiring if the weather turns.
Otherwise, you'll want to book a seat with a charter boat that runs to and from the island. Depending if it's season, the trips last about three to four hours, although the captain will sometimes run an early boat back to the Park if things get busy.
Fort DeSoto Park has contracted with the fishing charter Hubbard’s Marina. They’re based in Madeira Beach, but their ferries leave from the park.
You can also schedule a trip with Dolphins Landing Charter Boat Center and Island Boat Adventures, which also have a designated Egmont Key trip that you can join with other tourists. All three offer snorkeling options off the island. Dolphins Landings and Island Boat Adventures depart from St. Pete Beach. Dolphins Landing won’t run in fall and winter.
Keep in mind that camping, alcohol, glass bottles and pets are not allowed on Egmont Key. Animals aren't permitted on the ferry, either.
You can't drive to Egmont Key, so it's not an issue there, but Fort DeSoto has plenty of parking. If you elect to take the ferry, there is a giant parking lot that faces the water at Bay Pier. Parking is free. There's also bathroom facilities, outdoor showers and a covered pavilion next to the parking lot if the family needs to repack, refresh and regroup.