Before the theme parks, boardwalks, and hotels that now rise from its once unspoiled coastline, Florida was a near-Caribbean oasis with pristine beaches and vast, untouched coastal wilderness. Although camping in Florida is gorgeous all over the state, and in some small way, reminiscent of pre-developed Florida, none quite compare to the gem that is Cayo Costa State Park.
Explore Florida’s Cayo Costa State Park
Four nautical miles off the west coast of mainland Florida, and 30 minutes southwest of Tampa, you’ll find a slice of Florida wilderness in the form of a small barrier island. Cayo Costa is nine miles of relatively quiet beaches, coastal shrub, and native trees and wildlife.
Long before there was a state park here, this was simply an island home to the Calusa Indians, various species of native flora and fauna, and eventually, Spanish Cuban fisherman, and settlers. In the 1800s, a settlement on the north end of the island saw 39 full time residents. Today, there is an abandoned cemetery on the island, all that remains of its pioneer history.
Modern-day Cayo Costa is a state park, which offers camping, hiking, and laid-back explorations of this special Floridian island.
How to Get to Cayo Costa State Park
Cayo Costa is only able to be reached via water travel. If you don’t have your own, you’re in luck: there are three options for ferries that offer services to the island. Captiva Cruises ($50/per person) are the official ferry service for the state park; you’ll park your car in the lot ($10/night), and overnight campers can load up gear on the ferry. Make note: campers are limited to 50 pounds of gear per person.
Additionally, you can kayak to the island from the mainland. From Pine Island, it’s about a 7-mile trip one way, with a short section of open waters. You can also kayak from the southern end of Boca Grande, but you’ll have to cross open waters and navigate a strong current, so this route is best for experienced kayakers only. Remember, if you’re planning on staying the night, you’ll need to bring everything with you in your kayak. For this reason, most people who kayak to the island for a night or more tend to stay in the cabins for the simple fact that you won’t need to bring as much gear.
Where to Camp on Cayo Costa
As mentioned above, there are 12 primitive cabins to rent through the state park, offering a bed and little else. Additionally, Cayo Costa has a small tent campground with 30 sites. There are coastal trees that offer shade and privacy, but the campsites are all pretty close together—not a bad thing, since this reduces human impact on this small island, leaving nine miles of staggeringly beautiful beaches, and many more miles of interconnecting trails to wander.
You’ll want to keep in mind that a camping trip here is primitive and remote. Sure, tent sites and cabins are close together, but that’s where development ends. There is no electricity, no running hot water, and no cell service. There is a small store, but with very few offerings (mostly: ice, campfire wood, a few snacks, and a few first aid supplies). You’ll need to carry everything you need—and take it all back with you when you go.
When to Visit
I’m from New England, where our winters are notoriously cold and long. We escaped to Cayo Costa during the month of February. Locals thought it was, in their words, “freezing”; we did not. If you prefer high temperatures, aim for a trip during late-March or April. Summer means a lot of bugs, but fewer campers.
Winter months are still beautiful, but it’s not reliably warm enough to swim and sunbathe, yet, so come prepared with a few extra layers.
Cayo Costa State Park’s campground books up at least six months in advance for weekends and popular spring vacation times (usually March and April), so plan accordingly and reserve online ahead of time.
Your Cayo Costa Packing List
Unless you have a boat of your own, this is the only tricky part of a camping trip on Cayo Costa: once on the island, you won’t have access to a well-stocked camp store. As mentioned above, everything that you need for your camping trip, you’ll need to bring with you.
You’ll need to pack your camping gear, or if you’re staying in the primitive cabins, your sleeping gear. You’ll also need coolers (there is ice at the camp store), food, drinks, and any other necessary-to-you camping items. Once you arrive on the island, you’ll have the option of taking a complimentary tram to the campground with all of your gear, so the hassle of carrying-in and carrying-out isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
When my husband and I camped here, we stayed for two nights and three days. This was our packing list:
- Hiking sandals/shoes (with good weather, there’s no need for other options)
- 1 small backpack each with our personal items and clothes (don’t forget a bathing suit!)
- 1 large hiking backpack which contained the rest of our gear:
- Bug spray
- Food & drink in our cooler, eating utensils
- Camera (don’t forget this! Cayo Costa State Park is seriously beautiful.)
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Our travel cribbage board (we love playing board games while camping)
- Personal hygiene items
- Refillable water bottles
What to Do on Cayo Costa
For the entirety of our stay on Cayo Costa, we felt like we were discovering a part of Florida that no one else had yet happened upon. The campground was full, but it was quiet. And although everyone was friendly, most people were just here to enjoy a slice of Florida nature. This meant that during the day, it was rare for us to come across other people, and at night, people could be found quietly sitting around their campfire, or stargazing on the beach.
We spent our days combing the soft, white sand for shells, laying in the sun, swimming, and kayaking amongst the mangroves and along the shoreline, keeping an eye out for wildlife. The list of wildlife that calls Cayo Costa home is impressive, from endangered sea turtles, many species of shorebirds, manatees, porpoises, armadillo, and alligators, to name a few.
If kayaking and wandering pristine beaches aren’t your thing, that’s fine. You’ll have a plethora of other activities to choose from. Snorkeling and scuba diving here is unparalleled, and it’ll afford the chance to see the life that lives within the pure, blue sea of the Gulf of Mexico (just bring your own gear). Surf fishers have the chance to catch flounder, trout, snapper, and tarpon, among others. Hiking and biking trails on the island are wide and well kept, weaving in and around dunes and subtropical wilderness.
There are gear rentals available from the state park office on the island: kayaks and canoes, as well as bicycle rentals.