• Heather

Egmont Key State Park

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Escape to your own private island paradise

Do you dream about escaping to your own private island? Well dreams do come true and it is as easy as hopping on a ferry to Egmont Key State Park. This state park is located on a remote, uninhabited island at the mouth of Tampa Bay and it is one of the 175 state parks in Florida. This small island, two miles long and less than a half mile wide, is big on adventure and provides “Real Fun in the Real Florida”. Egmont Key is only accessible by boat so this seclusion adds an additional element of fun and adventure to visiting the island. If you don’t have a boat, no problem. Tampa Bay Ferry provides transportation to and from the island (see the details at the end of the blog).

Adventure is waiting for you on Egmont Key.

Egmont Key offers a diverse array of activities:

  • Escaping to your own island oasis (well you and the other ferry passengers)

  • Beach combing and shell collecting

  • Exploring an uninhabited island (except for the Shore Bird Refuge area) with many historical landmarks such as a lighthouse, old fort, gun batteries, deserted town, and other ruins

  • Snorkeling

  • Swimming and sunbathing

  • Picnicking

  • Wildlife viewing

  • Fishing

THE BEACH

The ferry usually drops passengers off next to the old coast guard dock in front of the lighthouse. If you walk to your right along the shore to the Gulf side, you will be greeted by a pristine, white sand beach. The sea tends to be calmer on this side of the island. Private boats anchor close to shore in this area. The beautiful beach extends for about a 1.5 mile until you reach the Bird Sanctuary which is off limits to visitors. You will pass the ruins of The Post Plant which is reported to be a good spot to snorkel.

Past the power plant, you will see de-frond palm trees along the shore. From a distance the trees looks like a forest of tall spikes. Up close the palms being taking over by the sea have a ghostly, eerie vibe. Along the shore there are lots of shells so careful combing will reward you with some lovely shell treasures. I have explored Egmont Key twice and both times were during the week so the island only had the visitors from the ferry and a few boaters making you feel like you have the place to yourself. This little tropical paradise is very serene and tranquil. To me, it’s an escape into Eden…a wonderful respite from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives so unplug and just soak up the sun on this lovely beach.

SNORKELING

On both my visits to Egmont Key, the water was choppy and the water visibility was poor so I was unable to snorkel. Due to major erosion, some of the ruins have been claimed by the sea. I read that snorkeling among the ruins is the best place to see fish. You can bring your own snorkeling gear or take a snorkeling trip with the ferry company.

LIGHTHOUSE

The United States Army built Fort Brooke in Tampa in 1823 establishing the first settlement. As the settlement grew and shipping traffic increased, the number of ships that became stranded on the sandbars increased reinforcing the need to build a lighthouse to guide the ships safely into and out of the bay. Before Egmont Key lighthouse was built there were no lighthouses along Florida’s gulf coast between St Mark’s Lighthouse in the Florida Panhandle to Key West. The Florida Gulf coast has 5,095 miles of ocean shoreline (according to NOAA Office for Coastal Management) so it was highly necessary to add another lighthouse along the gulf coast. Over the 19th and early 20th centuries, more lighthouses were built so that Florida had 30 lighthouses guiding boats and ships along its 8,436 miles of ocean shoreline. In the United States, Florida has the second longest coastline behind Alaska which has over 33,000 miles of shoreline.

The first Egmont Key lighthouse was completed in 1848 with a height of 44 feet. Before its first birthday, it sustained damage in the Great Hurricane of 1848. After other storms caused further damage over the next decade, Congress appropriated funds to build a lighthouse that could “withstand any storm”. In 1857, a new taller, better designed lighthouse was constructed and it was located farther inland to avoid problems with erosion. This 85 foot tall lighthouse with 3 foot thick brick walls still stands today.

In 1861, when the Civil War began, the lighthouse keeper, George Rickart, who was a Confederate sympathizer, stole the lens and was never heard from again. I think it is very interesting that in 2003, the Egmont Key Alliance found the pedestal of the lens buried in the sand. After that fortunate happenstance the alliance hoped to find the lens too but it has yet to be discovered. But doesn’t it make you wonder if there is more treasure buried on the island?

Egmont Key was the only lighthouse in Florida to employ a fog signal. Initially the lighthouse keeper blew a conch shell horn. Can you imagine blowing a horn until the fog lifted? Later with advancement of technology, a foghorn was installed.

In 1944, the lantern room was removed and the Fresnel lens was replaced with a Double Head DCB-36 Rotating Beacon with visibility up to 22 miles at sea. This advancement in technology made the lighthouse keeper obsolete. However, a keeper remained on the premises until 1989 when a solarized beacon, DCB-24, was installed. Egmont Key Lighthouse was the last manned lighthouse in Florida. The DCB-36 beacon is now displayed on the grounds.

The top of the lighthouse was reached by climbing a spiraling cast iron staircase with 99 steps. The lighthouse is not open to visitors. There is a plaque at the base of the lighthouse which commemorates the 150th anniversary in 2008 of the second lighthouse. The Egmont Key Alliance decorates the lighthouse in festive lights for the holidays.

EXPLORING HISTORIC SITES

Egmont Key is named for John Perceval who was the Second Earl of Egmont and the First Lord of the Admiralty. The island has been inhabited in the past and used for different reasons. In the late 1850’s, captured Seminoles were incarcerated on the island. During the Civil War, the Union Army set up camp on the island.

In 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the United States built Fort Dade on Egmont Key to defend this important port from the invasion of the Spanish. Fort Dade was more than a fort, it was a whole town with over seventy buildings including a hospital, school, theater, post office, sewer, electric and telephone service. The small town was the home of 300 servicemen and their families. All that remains of the city are the one hundred year old brick roads, some building foundations, and a restored Guard House. The Guard House was originally built in 1911 and was constructed of concrete. It served as the military jail. Most of the other buildings in town were constructed from wood so fires and hurricanes wiped them out. The restored Guard House will be used as a museum.

The precisely laid and preserved red brick roads conjured images of the “yellow brick road” from the Wizard of Oz. I bet at night the abandoned town is very spooky. As my adventure partner (my husband) and I were wandering the narrow streets overgrown with planted palms, we tried to imagine living on the island a hundred years ago. My husband and I were jokingly talking about living there now if there was a world catastrophe or a zombie apocalypse. We asked the boat captain of the ferry if the wells were still functioning and he laughed and replied no. Well then that plan is scrap. There are map plaques and directional markers throughout the town so you won’t get lost.

There are 3 gun batteries named the Charles Mellon, Guy Howard, and McIntosh located on the northwest part of the key facing the Gulf of Mexico. The gun batteries deployed two or three large guns creating a formidable defense. The ruins of these fortifications are open to exploration.

The Battery Charles Mellon has a jail so you can threaten to lock up unruly children or misbehaving friends and spouses.

If you are interested in a very detailed history of Fort Dade, then I recommend this article, “An Island Fortress: Egmont Key’s Fort Dade” written by Geoffrey Mohlman.


WILDLIFE VIEWING

Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974 protecting gopher tortoises, box turtles, and over 100 species of shorebirds and wading birds. About 97 acres at the southern end of the 280 acre island is reserved for the wildlife. Island visitors are prohibited from entering this area of the key. In addition to the shore birds nesting, approximately 30-70 Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles nest on Egmont Key each year. I have seen tiny and large tortoises and many birds including osprey, brown pelican, royal tern, and several types of gulls. While wading in the water, I’ve seen stingrays skimming along the bottom. On the ferry ride, we encountered dolphins which was a special treat.

NO AMENITIES ON EGMONT KEY

There are no facilities on the island…no bathrooms or restaurants. The Tampa Bay Ferry has a restroom so if it remains at the island you can use those facilities. Bring all you need with you such as food, water, and sunscreen. Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic on the beach or in the shade. The ferry operator allows you to bring coolers, beach chairs, umbrellas, snorkel gear, and anything else you may need for your exploration of the island. There are several picnic tables under the trees ‘behind’ the lighthouse. Alcohol is not permitted on the island. There are rangers patrolling and will give you a ticket. However I read that you can drink in the water (off the beach) if you travel to the island on your own boat. No dogs are allowed on the island. Leave nothing but footprints so pack out your trash.

FERRY RIDE TO/FROM EGMONT KEY

The Tampa Bay Ferry is the official ferry service to and from Egmont Key. The ferry picks up and drops off at the Fort DeSoto Bay Pier, which means you have to enter Fort DeSoto Park and pay the park entrance fee of $5 to access the pier. When you pass through the toll gate, the Pinellas Bayway ends at the Fort DeSoto Welcome Center, turn right (north) onto Anderson Blvd. to reach Bay Pier. The Bay Pier is next to the Dog Park and Beach. There are restrooms and outdoor showers at the Bay Pier. The bright green ferry departs on time and slowly motors the short distance to the Egmont Key. The ride takes about 25 minutes giving you lots of time to look for dolphins and manatees and to enjoy the bay views and breeze.


When the ferry arrives at Egmont Key, the first mate lowers a narrow metal walkway with a loose, unstable railing. The walkway is lowered close to shore but you may have to walk a few steps in the water so it’s actually a “wet landing”. Be prepared with proper footwear (something you don’t mind getting wet). The first mate suggested removing flip flops to walk barefoot for better traction. For some people, it was very difficult to walk down the walkway so be patient and help others with less stability and mobility.

There is poor WiFi at Fort DeSoto causing connectivity issues so the ferry company asks that you bring cash to pay for the water taxi service. You can book online but there is a fee for using this service. If you wish to avoid this fee, call and make a reservation over the phone. I recommend booking in advance either online or by phone because the ferry often sells out even in low season.

Rates:

  • Adults: $25

  • Children (11 and under): $12.50

Duration:

  • 3-4 hours

Departures:

  • Depends on the time of year. For details see their website.

About the ferry:

  • 46 foot ferry

  • Refreshments and snacks are available for purchase

  • Covered seating (about ¾ of the boat has covered seating)

  • Onboard restroom

  • Can rent beach chairs and umbrellas (you’re welcome to bring your own)

  • Fun trip with boat captain and first mate narrating the trip

Snorkeling:

  • When conditions allow, you can add snorkeling for $15 per person + $5 rental fee for gear

Reservations: Online

Phone: 727-398-6577

Email: info@tampabayferry.com

Address: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S St. Petersburg, FL 33715

If you are an explorer, adventurer, history buff, beach lover, shell collector, wildlife lover, snorkeler, lighthouse fan, then Egmont Key State Park is the place for you! Dust off your adventurer’s hat, channel your inner Indiana Jones, and spend the day exploring this unique and historical state park. Your escape is just a ferry ride away.

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