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Fort DeSoto

When the summer sun begins to beckon, consider this: USF is only an hour away from the No. 1 beach in the continental United States, according to one professor, and is a place designated as a national historic site and adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary.

“The park was rated the No. 1 beach in the continental United States by Dr. Stephen Lettermen of Florida International University, who did a study on over 400 U.S. beaches,” said Bob Browning, the park supervisor.

Ft. DeSoto Park, located in south St. Petersburg off I-275, has much to offer for recreation, from camping and fishing to just lounging on the beach. With seven miles of unspoiled beaches and a Spanish-American War era fort, the park has wide appeal. For a mere 85 cents in toll money, one can experience Florida the way it appeared in the 19th century.

Ft. DeSoto was built in 1898 to protect the coast of Florida from the threat of Spanish invasion. It was used during the Spanish-American War, but it was not occupied for long. The fort was vacated by 1910 and was last used for military purposes during World War II, when it was an artillery range. The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was among those who used the park for bombing practice.

Its past resurfaces from time to time in the form of an undetonated World War II bomb. The park was closed down Tuesday to unearth a suspected bomb, but workers found it was only an old pipe, The Tampa Tribune reported. In 1988, a worker found a 250-pound bomb that was detonated on site according to Bay News 9.

For the nature lovers, Ft. DeSoto is the first landing place of migratory birds returning from South and Central America in the spring as they cross the Gulf of Mexico. From early March through mid-May, the park offers the best times for viewing large numbers of warblers passing through the area. Wading birds such as the white, little blue, green and great blue herons can also be spotted. Shore birds such as greater and lesser yellowlegs and black-bellied plovers are almost always visible. Egmont Key, an island adjacent to the park, is a sanctuary for both birds and sea turtles and is only accessible by boat.

Not only are the beaches at Ft. DeSoto the typical Florida beach with white sand and gently rolling waves, but also there is a part of the beach that is dog friendly. Dogs are allowed to soak up the rays with their owners, and there is even a dog-walking trail equipped with dog-level water fountains. Just remember to be aware of man’s best friend when visiting.

“I remember one day, my friends and I were cooking out on the beach and someone’s dog just walked up and ate some of our chips. Nobody was really paying attention to the dog until I heard the chip bag crackling. I turned around and his head was inside the chip bag.” said Shannon Peltier, a USF student.

The beaches are not the only attraction. There are seven miles of paved track that is perfect for walking, running, rollerblading or biking. Bicycles are available for rent.

“The track covers all points of the nearly 1,200-acre park,” said Browning. “We also have nature trails, three of which are marked and self-guiding. Canoeing and kayaking are also favorite activities.” he said. “We have a self-guiding canoe trail. We have facilities that rent canoes or kayaks right on property.”

The finger-like channels guide you along a path of “Old” Florida. The relatively untouched canals seem to intertwine like the plot of a soap opera — never-ending and constantly intersecting one another. The mangrove-lined channels allow for easy passageway by boat, or if a quieter ride is preferred, canoe or kayak.

“The park has the largest boat ramp in Florida. It can launch up to 32 boats at a time,” Browning said.

And in Florida, where there is water there are fish. The quiet waters shadowed by the abundant mangroves are hot beds for popular game fish in the early spring, including Snook, Spotted Trout and Red Drum. And for those without access to a boat, there are two fishing piers.

The cost of a campsite is $27.75 per night with a limit of six people and two vehicles per site. There is also a 10 p.m. curfew for campers. But for those who want to get out there and experience all that the park has to offer, camping provides easy access to all facets of the park.