Apr 8, 2024 - Things to Do

One of Tampa Bay's best shelling spots has a dark past


Ruins on Egmont Key. Photo: Selene San Felice/Axios

At first glance, Egmont Key seems like any classic Florida beach — a short boat ride from the dogs frolicking at Fort De Soto, families under umbrellas, shell pickers hunched over the sand, and gopher tortoises moseying around a lighthouse.

Why it matters: Ruins at the heart of the island reveal a darker past.

Flashback: In the 1850s, the key was used as a holding area for Native Americans of the Seminole tribe before they were marched on the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma.

  • Not long afterward, Confederate prisoners, escaped slaves and Union sympathizers were held on the island early in the Civil War.

Fort Dade was built there during the Spanish-American War (1898) and developed into a small military town in the early 20th century.

  • But after a hurricane, multiple fires, erosion and coastal forts of its kind becoming obsolete, Egmont Key and its fort were soon forgotten.

Flash forward: Half of the key is now blocked off as a nature preserve for nesting birds and turtles.

  • The ruins are free to explore just a few minutes walk from the shore.

The vibe: This was somehow an equally haunting and delightful adventure. During the 30-minute ride, the speakers blasted Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett while the captain told us about the island's bloody history.

  • I was so fixated on finding shells I almost forgot to wander around the ruins. Once I did, even the sunshine, crashing waves and sounds of children playing couldn't stop the eerie feeling I got looking at the crumbling armory.

Heads up: The ferry website has all the info you need before going, but I'll emphasize that there's no bathroom, food or water there.

  • For the best shelling, take the earliest ferry at 10am, or get there sooner on your own boat. You may be able to take a later ferry than the 1:30pm pickup, but again: no bathroom.
People getting off the small ferry for Egmont Key.
Ferry riders disembarking in Egmont Key. Photo: Selene San Felice/Axios

The ferry was almost full during my Thursday morning ride, so I'd recommend getting tickets ahead of time. And know you'll have to pay a little more for tolls and parking at Ft. De Soto. Still, it's much cheaper than private charters.

The verdict: Egmont Key is worth a couple trips to fully explore its beaches and the fort.

a white lighthouse with no top
The Egmont Key lighthouse. Photo: Selene San Felice/Axios
A gopher tortoise roaming around Egmont Key. Photo: Selene San Felice/Axios

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