This year, the 4th of July called for something different. I’ll always enjoy the bottle rockets and fanfare of the 4th, but it’s easy to overlook the deeper meaning of Independence Day. This “deeper meaning” is written in American history books, and there’s history in my back yard that I had not yet explored. So I grabbed my camera, a day pack and some refreshments and headed to a place off the beaten path– the abandoned beach forts of Florida’s gulf coast. I celebrated my 4th of July navigating the barrier islands of Florida, hiking their palm pathways and scaling the ruined sea forts that dot the coast. They’re the hidden gems of a state that can’t be seen from the beachfront highrises, the resort hotels and theme parks in the distance. Join me for a distinctly American journey below.
The ferry left the southern tip of Pinellas County, Florida at 10:00a.m. sharp on July 4th. As the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disappeared in the distance, the ferry approached the beach of Egmont Key. The ferry’s captain alerted the group that food, running water or restrooms were not available on the island, and that the wilderness would respect us if we respected it.
I was welcomed to Egmont Key by the north part of the island’s only active feature, a 150-year-old lighthouse that continues to operate today. It is mostly a ceremonial feature, a welcome light to arrivals at one of the busiest ports on the Eastern seaboard, the Port Tampa Bay.
Egmont Key’s beaches look and feel like none other in Florida. They are undeveloped, lined with dunes and sea grasses and the occasional concrete reminder of the island’s military history.
The island’s interior features long brick roads that seem to lead to nowhere. Most are overgrown with palm trees and brush that appear to climb over the pathway, leaving a tunnel pointing to the destination in the distance. Here, a tunnel of palms points to one of the batteries of Ft. Dade. This fort was constructed to defend Tampa Bay during the Spanish-American war of the late 1800s.
Like the four other batteries originally built on Egmont Key, this battery is hidden in the dunes with a series of heavy guns that were aimed into the waters beyond. Inside, reinforced rooms held ammunition and personnel in the event of a battle.
These rooms stand silent today, showing their disrepair as the sands around them slowly wash away.
There were five batteries originally built on Egmont Key, three of which are accessible on foot today. Two of the original batteries are now sunken ruins off the island’s coast, as the island has eroded and left the remains to snorkelers and scuba diving explorers.
Around these forts, the island is alive with nature. The majority of the island is a protected bird sanctuary, welcoming many species of birds that come to the island to mate and live beyond the reach of human development.
Here, black skimmers rest in the hot summer sun. This portion of beach is roped off, protected by guards that are stationed whenever visitors are present. This is one of just a few spots where black skimmers come to mate in Florida, and their survival is a high priority for the state.
Wildflowers grow throughout the island, including this ghostly figure that demanded some attention from my lens.
Later in the afternoon, it was time to catch the next ferry back to another island, Mullet Key and Fort DeSoto Beach.
Fort De Soto is another old fort along Florida’s gulf coast. This fort was constructed before the American civil war by General Robert E. Lee, then a colonel in the US Army. Despite Lee’s early involvement, Fort De Soto served with the union during the civil war, supporting a blockade to prevent goods from being shipped to the Confederates in the south.
Fort De Soto features a pair of batteries, each featuring two large mortars, that still point toward the gulf in the distance.
Beyond the historical value, Fort De Soto also features one of the finest beaches in the United States. Fort De Soto’s north beach is divided by inter-coastal inlets that surround its powdery sand beaches. Like Egmont Key, there is no development on this beach, it is natural and untouched. It appears the same today as it may have hundreds of years ago when explorers first arrived in the Tampa Bay.
Large pine trees serve as a natural backdrop to the beach, providing a peaceful soundtrack in the wind that harmonizes with the rolling waves.
To end my 4th of July exploration, I dug out the refreshments I packed at the beginning of the day. Surprisingly still cold, this margarita was precisely the punctuation this day needed.
My 4th of July featured all the history, culture and natural beauty I could have desired. I experienced more than I had imagined I could find, and it was all in my own back yard. This will not be the last time I visit Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Beach, and I hope to share it with more people upon my return. Here’s to you and yours on this holiday and beyond.
In case you missed it, I shared my experience on these islands as it happened on twitter, instagram and facebook. I’d love to see you join the conversation there! For more local culture and historic experiences, check out my trip to Ybor City, Florida, the Cigar Capital of the United States.