Fort DeSoto Park: a five-island adventure for campers in Florida

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Whether you are a day visitor or an overnight camper, you will find scenic beauty, serene recreation, and interesting history at Fort DeSoto Park. Located a few miles south of St. Petersburg, the park comprises five islands: Mullet Key, Bonnie Fortune Key, Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, and St. Christopher Key. They total 900 acres and are connected by bridges and roads. Mullet Key, the main island, has sandy beaches stretching for miles and offering good swimming. Near its northern tip is a picnic area that is notable for its ancient oak trees, twisted into unusual shapes.

Pine and palm trees and several varieties of native plants also grow in this area, making this a spot of extraordinary beauty. The picnic tables clustered in this shady part of the island overlook a lagoon where Indians once camped.

On the southwestern tip stands the old stone fort from which the park derives its name. Construction of Fort DeSoto began in 1898 and was finished two years later. Although the fort was armed with 12-inch mortars, it was never once fired at. The fort, first used as a quarantine station for ships entering Tampa Bay, is now open to visitors, who find the big, cavelike rooms an interesting link to the past.

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But the history of Mullet Key goes back further than the building of the fort. In 1513 Ponce de Le'on first brought his ship to this island, to return eight years later. Until 1962 there were no roads to Fort DeSoto, though it was reachable by boat or ferry.

Pinellas County originally purchased Mullet Key, not including the fort, in 1938 from the United States government. During World War II, the government again took possession of the island, and the Air Force used it for its Gunnery and Bombing Training Center. In 1948 Pinellas County made the final purchase of Mullet Key, including Fort DeSoto and all auxiliary islands, with the stipulation that the area be used for park and recreational purposes.

Two of the islands, St. Christopher and St. Jean, are now used solely for camping. There are 233 sites, most of them facing Tampa Bay, and all of them are designed to give campers a feeling of privacy. Trees and shrubbery serve as a natural screen between the sites. The landscaping designer has used native plants, such as oleanders, crotons, copper plants, and hibiscus, to enhance the already attractive setting.

The entire park has been dedicated as a bird and animal sanctuary. Redbirds and finches are among the birds making their home here. Raccoons are frequent visitors to the campsites.

Electrical and water hookups are available for trailers. The large modern restrooms are kept very clean. Household pets are not allowed in the camping or beach area and must be kept on leash in other sections of the park.

As for entertainment, you are expected to create your own. There is fishing along the beach just outside your tent or trailer door, or you can join other fishermen on one of the two piers in the park.

It's also possible to swim beside the campsite or at the main beach a few miles away. At the large clubhouse located within the park, vacationers may get together to play games or visit. A fire glows in the oversized fireplace on cool days. Practical information

Reservations for tent or trailer sites can be made 30 days in advance, but no earlier. Cash or travelers checks are accepted. Reservations must be made in person -- none by mail or telephone. The stay is limited to 14 days, and reservations aren't taken for less than two days. If you stay one day, you don't need a make a reservation.

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