Weekend Backpacker: Tampa

Cayo Costa State Park
  |  Gorp.com

Shhh—can you keep a secret? One of Florida's most beautiful slices of paradise lies just off the coast of Fort Myers—and as a backpacker, you'll enjoy it more than the average day visitor. To reach Cayo Costa, pop your pack in a canoe on Pine Island and paddle your way across the mile-long bay, or take a regularly scheduled ferryboat. With access only by water and tent sites tucked away along the shore, it's Florida's version of being stranded on a tropical island. Seven miles of blinding white-sand beaches stretch along the Gulf of Mexico, the shoreline littered with rare and unusual seashells.

After setting up your beach base camp, tromp around the six miles of trails the island has to offer, winding through flat pine woods, meandering under salt-sprayed live oaks and dense palmetto scrub, edging along mangrove-lined waterways. Swim, sun, do a little saltwater fishing—or just kick back and relax with a good book, and let the city fade from your memory, washed away by the gentle strumming of the waves.


Take I-75 south to SR 78 in North Fort Myers; follow SR 78 west to Pine Island. Turn north on SR 767; follow it until it ends at Bokeelia, where you board the Tropic Star (or launch your own craft) at the Four Winds Marina. Driving time: two hours.


It's smartest to call ahead to reserve a campsite: (941) 964-0375. Campsites cost about $13/night. You can pitch two tents with up to eight people, and there's a grill and a picnic table for each site. While the campsites are primitive, there is one bathhouse on the island with flush toilets, potable water, and cold showers. Can't bear to leave? You can reserve a campsite for up to a two-week stay.


It looks like the African Queen, but the Tropic Star ferries passengers over to Cayo Costa on a regular schedule: leaving 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Pine Island; returning from Cayo Costa at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Cost: about $20 for adults, $10 for children 11 and under. Alternatively, you can rent a canoe or sea kayak to brave the bay crossing on your own (about $35/day single, $45/day double). Call for reservations at (941) 283-0015 or email them.


Pick up a copy of the state park brochure when you reach the island; it's got maps of the nature trails that crisscross Cayo Costa.


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