As much as we like to think we’re special, it seems San Francisco isn’t the only place that gets hit with crazy beautiful fog. Hipcamp Voyager, Jimmy Fashner, journals here about an all-time favorite overnight camping trip near St. Petersburg, Florida. He was pretty close to home, but the landscape and backdrop of Fort DeSoto Park and Egmont Key afforded an otherworldly experience. Get some tips from his adventure and get out there!
It’s St. Petersburg, Florida, in late February 2014 when Old Man Winter is on his final days and is in a constant power struggle with Spring to show who’s boss. The result? Fog. Lots of it. That’s just the Florida way.
A friend of mine had booked a campsite at Fort DeSoto Park months in advance. You pretty much have to because this place is one popular camping spot, for good reason.. It’s the largest park in Pinellas County; at 1,136 acres it stretches across five interconnected islands (keys). It’s one of only two parks in all of Pinellas County, the second smallest county in Florida, that you can almost get lost in and feel miles away from civilization, which is saying a lot for Florida’s most densely populated county.
[Hipcamp pro-tip: click here for more info on Fort DeSoto Park Campground!]
But, back to my story. We arrived early that morning and hit East Beach, where we were greeted by a dramatic sunrise over the distant Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The air was thick and the clouds heavy, but the sun just managed to show itself for a few brief moments. That early, the island is a whole other level of quiet. The air was completely still. Aside from the seabirds that Fort De Soto is known for, we spotted an abundance of small starfish along the shoreline, making for some pretty cool photos. They were everywhere! It wasn’t long before we both were getting hungry, so we decided to take a quick detour and grab some breakfast on the mainland. Over eggs Benedict, we discussed how badly we had both always wanted to explore Egmont Key. It’s a state park just off the shores of Fort Desoto; nestled right in the mouth of Tampa Bay, but the only way to get there is by ferry (unless you own a boat or you’re a damn good swimmer with a death wish…). In the end, we decided it was worth checking out since the campsite wouldn’t be available until early afternoon.
By the time we reached the Bay Pier to wait on the ferry, everything was enveloped in thick fog. Visibility had to be less than an 1/8th of a mile, again making for some great photos. e assumed we’d have to act fast before the rising sun burned it off, but boy were we wrong. The ferry appeared through the fog & docked just before 10am. We signed a waiver, boarded, and happily forked over the $20. Turns out to be the best $20 I’ve ever spent. Hubbard’s Marina runs the ferry and our captain was awesome. The guy navigated us through the thick, soupy fog and around a few anchored ships with no problems, all while pointing out a sea turtle and giving some fun & not-so-fun facts about Egmont Key. One not-so-fun one being that the island is suffering from severe beach erosion. In other words, it’s washing away, d at an alarming rate at that.
After about a fifteen-minute boat-ride, we could finally see the Egmont Key lighthouse scanning the horizon with its powerful spotlight. As we pulled up to the island, I noticed the Gulf of Mexico had taken on a new emerald shade and I could easily see straight to the bottom. It felt like I was in another world – I had never seen our waters like this. Ever. We quickly jumped ship to explore the island, because we had to be back to the boat by 2pm (if you aren’t back by 2pm, you get left behind…and water taxis are not cheap…).
Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park are both populated with military forts dating back to the 1800’s. You want history? This place has history. It wasn’t long before we found what used to be the U.S. Army’s Fort Dade Military Reservation. I can’t express how cool it was to explore f fort rooms built to resist cannon balls!. At one time, the whole island was self-sustaining, with not only military forts, but a hospital, school, and homes. All those long gone now, however, due to Mother Nature taking back what used to be hers. The desalinate, red brick roads still run through the center of the island, but were only used by us and a few of the 2,000 resident gopher tortoises.. Pretty neat to think that horse drawn carriages used to shuttle soldiers and their families to the beaches on these same red brick roads.
We finally reached the west side of the island, where all of the erosion is taking place; the beaches are littered with palm trees, dead from saltwater toxicity. Mixed with the thick fog, it made for some crazy scenes that day. In fact, I just kept mumbling that to myself “This place is unreal,” over and over again. In all my life, I had never seen anything like it. Such a unique environment, which felt more like I was in a scene from Lord of the Rings, than anything in Florida Especially with the crows cawing from atop of the dead palms as I weaved my way through them. Sadly, by the time I reached this part of the island, it was time to start heading back to the boat.
I so wished I had had more time to explore, but I’d come back, many times. I think I’ve been back 5 or 6 times since and every time I happily fork over that $20. Egmont Key is unreal. It’s like stepping back in time every time I visit. Fort Desoto is just the same; their campgrounds are amazing, with just enough creature comforts such as bathrooms and power outlets, but you still feel like you are miles from civilization. Quick pro-tip: secure your food and belongings at night because the raccoons run that park after dark.
All that day, and well into the night, that fog never burned off, confirmed by the ship’s foghorn booming throughout the night. This one-night camping excursion turned out to be one of the most memorable ones of my entire life, and, the funny thing is, I was barely 10 miles from home. Gotta love Florida.
Jimmy Fashner is a St. Petersburg, Florida based photographer and adventurer. Get a chance to see what he sees by following his instagram here.
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