Pinellas County’s chokingly dense development isn’t conducive to sleeping out under (what we can see of) the stars. Even the campground at Fort DeSoto is packed with campers charring their burgers and slapping mosquitos, their kids playing Minecraft on tablets.
The only real way to get away from the crowds lies across the water from Tierra Verde, near Fort DeSoto, on Shell Key Preserve, a small, completely undeveloped island that’s a county park and bird sanctuary.
Boaters often hang out on the island’s south end, and ferries haul shell-hunting tourists out to the island during the day. Campers launch from just north of the first tollboth leading to Fort DeSoto.
To get there, you’ll need a canoe (or kayak), a day or two’s worth of provisions, and a handful of nature-lovin’ friends — and the following useful tips.
(Note: We should mention that the northern half of the island is a bird sanctuary. Do not camp there or mess with the birds. In other words, don’t be an ass. You’ll find all the park rules on its website.)
Check the tide
Paddling out at low tide? Bad. If you do this, we hope you enjoy dragging a loaded canoe through the muck and stepping on sharp shells and crustaceans. Such an undertaking will take you more than twice as long as launching your canoe at high tide.
Don’t walk in the mangrove forest
Shortcuts through mangrove islands are fun and will shave a few minutes off your trip. If you traverse these shallow trails, you might feel like jumping out to pull your canoe along. This is a bad idea. There is a thick layer of muck on the bay bottom that is not only capable of swallowing your bottom half, but also harbors snakes, sharp things and mystery creatures.
If you haven’t guessed already, high-maintenance people will not do well on a Shell Key expedition. The only amenities on the island are sunsets, wildlife, bioluminescence in summer, and sand dollars. There are no bathrooms, covered picnic areas or grills. Camping gear, and probably a First-Aid kit, are key. You’ll want to leave your generator and stereo equipment at home. As for food and drink, pre-made stuff is a good bet (fires are banned from May through October, which is turtle nesting season). As for beverages (alcohol is technically not allowed), go with plastic containers or cans. Obviously, there are no trashcans, so you’ll have to bring your trash with you when you leave (unless you’re a sad douche).
Tents? Who needs ‘em?
If you get to the launching area and realize you’re overloaded, ditch the tent. Unless you venture out during rainy season, a sleeping bag and/or pad will suffice. Mosquitos and other bugs you wouldn’t want crawling on you while you sleep are scarce. Plus, how often do you get to sleep, legally, on a beach?
Go with the flow
You will probably want to swim in the gulf. If you do this, note the strong rip current. While it’s fun to let it carry you a short distance, if you screw around you can get swept out into the treacherous waters and probably die. So be careful.