Egmont Key, a tiny island serving as the northern bookend for the channel leading into Tampa Bay, is more day trip than destination, but it certainly offers beach-minded visitors a chance to get away from it all. It’s a popular destination for people arriving by ferry and private boat, so it’s not completely empty. And, while the beach is lovely, it is comparable to the beaches of Anna Maria Island to the south or Pass-a-Grille to the north.
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.
Egmont Key Beach
Egmont Key is a narrow, hot dog-shaped island just 1.6 miles long, with one side facing east into Tampa Bay, and the other side facing west out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The bayside beach isn’t worth writing home about. Seaweed lines the shore. You can see industrial freighters moving in the distance. The shore is rocky, narrow and smells vaguely of seaweed and motor oil.
The ferry drops you off on the Tampa Bay side, which may wilt your optimism and expectations. But wait!
Take a quick, 10-minute walk to the Gulf side of the island, and you will discover why people put in such effort to make the trip. The beach is white and sandy, the water calm and bright blue, and the view from the shore is so expansive and unbroken that it feels like you can look across the entire Gulf of Mexico.
The key is scruffy, enduring Florida at its best, so don’t expect lush tree cover and plentiful shade. The key palmettos and scrub brush thrive in the heat just fine, but visitors should bring an umbrella or extra sunscreen to endure the Florida sun.
The further you walk along the key, the more the crowds and boat traffic will thin. The old Fort Dade power plant, now reduced to pile of concrete rubble that sits along the shore, is a good marker for about halfway down the island. It’s on either side of this halfway point that things will be the quietest. Then you can look out at the never-ending ocean and live out your abandoned, survivalist castaway dream.
Because of the extra effort to get to Egmont Key and the no booze rule, visitors are usually people curious about this beautiful, rugged, piece of historical Florida and are less so gaggles of spring breakers ready to do keg stands on the shoreline. (Don’t quote me on that If you go during spring break.) Families also come to show Egmont Key to their children and to spread out on the beach.
Things to Do in Egmont Key
The reason why most people come to Egmont Key is to walk through the streets of Fort Dade and imagine what life was like for the more than 300 people who lived on key at the turn of the century. A walking tour of the island won’t take you longer than an hour if you have on good walking shoes and water bottle.
The most striking historical building on the key, the 87-foot lighthouse is still active today, guiding ships in and out of Tampa Bay. After the original 1848 lighthouse was severely damaged from a hurricane, it was rebuilt further inland in 1858. The lamp house was replaced with a beacon light in 1944. The structure was one of the last remaining staffed lighthouses in the United States until it was automated in 1989. The lighthouse is now managed by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The lighthouse is closed to visitors, but every November the Egmont Key Alliance offers tours through the lighthouse for their Discover the Island fundraiser.
Laying out on the beach and playing in the bright blue surf on a hard-to-reach beach is a popular activity, of course. But be warned! There is no shade near the shores, so if you don’t bring an umbrella or your best SPF, you’re going to fry.
Count all the sunning gopher tortoises you see hanging among the trail growth, but don’t touch! They are a protected species under Florida law and it’s a fine to harass one. Or if you’re more a birdwatcher at heart, roam around the island to see the more than 40,000 nesting birds who call the key their summer home.
If weather and tides permit, the ferry captain will offer a snorkeling trip at the grass flats off the tip of the key. Occasionally, snorkeling will also be offered at the sunken forts, a group of Fort Dade structures that slid into the ocean as the shoreline eroded. Snorkeling is $15 per person, with an additional $5 for gear.
Skip this trip if it’s your first snorkeling venture. It’s a better idea to go in with some experience and swim stamina for open-ocean swimming.
The boat will also rent you the gear if you want to go snorkeling from the shore, but don’t get your hopes up on seeing much. The kicked-up sediment from the waves means pretty poor underwater visibility.
Fishing seems to be a blurry issue. The Marina said no fishing is allowed on the key, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is “only in certain designated opened shores of Egmont Key.” It might be better to fish from the Pinellas Bayway.
Food and Drink
Egmont Key has no amenities, no bathrooms, no fresh water and no places to eat. So if you want to enjoy a picnic on the island, you have a few choices. Ideally you can bring a packed lunch. The ferry will allow you to bring food and drink as long as there is no glass and no alcohol.
If you make your ferry reservation ahead of time, you can purchase a sandwich, chips and drink combo for $10 that will be given to you during the trip. If you forgot your water or just want some M&Ms;, you can purchase drinks and snacks from the ferry captain for a fee as well.
If you forgot to pack a lunch ahead of time and are already en route to the park, there is a 7-Eleven and a Subway on the island of Tierra Verde where you can grab some food, snacks and drinks before you hit the ferry.
Because there is very little shade on the island, take extra care to drink a lot of water.
After you’re done with your Egmont Key adventure, you’ll have to drive back out to Tierra Shores to hit some eateries.
There is a smattering of pizza, chinese and quick-eat places along the Pinellas Bayway, but if you want to kick your feet up and treat yourself while examining your new tanlines, there are a couple of good options.
BILLY’S STONE CRAB, SEAFOOD & MORE
As the name implies, this Tierra Verde staple offers fresh seafood, shucked oysters and cold beer.
THE ISLAND GRILLE AND RAW BAR
Fresh oysters come daily to this beach haunt, which sells them for 75 cents apiece during their happy hour from 4 to 6 pm.
Egmont Key Ferry
Because the Hubbard’s Marina runs the official ferry for the park (and also the cheapest, at $20 a trip), I’ll focus on that one.
The ferry launches from the first pier your reach once you’re inside Fort DeSoto Park — that’s the one on the southeastern side of the island, not the one near historic Fort DeSoto on the southwestern side. Turn at Bay Pier and you’ll see a trailer with the marina’s logo printed on it.
A ferry ticket is $20 per adult, or $10 for children 11 and younger. Tips are expected from the crew, so throw in a few extra dollars.
Even though ferry reservations can be booked at the outpost at the park, seats usually fill up so quickly that it’s a good idea to book a reservation a few days ahead by calling Hubbard’s Marina. They have been known to schedule more trips back and forth if business is booming, despite what the website says, it’s a good idea to call the office anyway.
The other reason it might be valuable to book ahead of time is that making a reservation through the office lets you put the tickets on your credit card. Otherwise, hit the ATM before you go because the park kiosk is cash only.