Although the lighthouse is the dominant feature seen by visitors approaching by boat, the island is home to Fort Dade, built at the time of the Spanish American war. There were five gun batteries, and all of the facilities needed to support the several hundred troops who manned the island.
It was abandoned in 1920, and until the late 1980s little was done to preserve the history or protect the nature. In 1989 it became a state park.
The original lighthouse tower went into operation in the late spring of 1848. It was the only lighthouse between Key West and St. Marks, up in the Florida panhandle. But in September of the same year it was built, it was seriously damaged by a hurricane. Repairs were attempted, but subsequent storms only made things worse. Finally, in 1858, a new lighthouse went into operation, twice as tall, further inland, and able to withstand storms. It operates to this day!
Millions of people visit Fort De Soto each year, and very few realize that the fort they see is only one part of the naval defences that were created to protect Tampa bay at the time of the Spanish American war. On nearby Egmont Key, Fort Dade, with five batteries, was built. The guns of Fort De Soto and Fort Dade jointly controlled the shipping channel between them. In addition, Fort Dade controlled the channel on the other side of Egmont Key as well.
Anyone who finds Fort De Soto interesting should make a point of visiting Fort Dade too. It's a MUST SEE! The military base was actually bigger than Fort De Soto. The small town included even a bowling alley. Wander along the red brick streets, still in good condition!
For nature-lovers, you'll find that Egmont Key is a paradise for gopher tortoises. They are everywhere; they live in burrows which they sometimes share with snakes. If you see sand flying into the air someplace, that's just a tortoise adding an extension to the home.
If you like to snorkel, you can swim over some of the Fort Dade ruins that have been reclaimed by the sea.
Here is some important info:
Phone to make sure the ferry is running. Don't assume that the ferry is running just because it's a nice sunny day. They do charters, and they might not run in some winter months. (727) 867-6569
Take your sun block, hat, sunglasses, COLD DRINKS, LUNCH--because there's not much available on the island.
The ride on the ferry is very short and pleasant. The friendly and experienced crew will gladly answer your questions. The ferry does have a "head", and also sells drinks.