Cayo Costa sits like a rare gem four nautical miles west of the mainland and 30 minutes south-west of Tampa. Her nine miles of beaches are only accessible by boat, but several ferry services are available to help you with the crossing. Once there, you’ll get a flavor of what Florida once was. History waits around every unspoiled corner. More shells fill the beach than the sparse visitors could possibly pick up. Stay for the day or even overnight in the campground or primitive cabins. It is perhaps the best way to see Florida the way it was, before theme parks and boardwalks. Just you, miles and miles of empty beaches with nature all around you.
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Cayo Costa Ferry Accessed Day Trips
There are three ferry options to reach Cayo Costa: Captiva, King Fisher, and Tropic Star. Each one offers something a little different, which might sway your decision one way or the other. With all of these ferries, you want to show up at least 30 minutes prior to departure, so you don’t miss the boat and make reservations at least 24 hours in advance. All of these ferries service campers as well for an additional $10 fee.
Cayo Costa Ferry from Captiva Island
Captiva Cruises are the official ferry service for the park. The park’s webpage will navigate you to their site. They operate from one of two docks on Captiva Island so make sure you check which one you are supposed to leave from. Tickets are $50 for the full day tour to the northern island of Cayo Costa. Parking is $5, but there is also a $6 toll to cross over to Captiva Island. You will spend 1 hour in transit and 4 hours on Cayo Costa, making the total tour time run from 10-4. Captiva Island is the farthest south of the Cayo Costa ferries, but it takes 20 minutes longer to reach Captiva than the King Fisher’s docks from the south because of the circuitous routing and road speed. From the north, it will take you an hour and fifteen minutes longer to reach Captiva.
Cayo Costa Ferry from Punta Gorda
King Fisher Fleet runs out of Punta Gorda, which is the northernmost ferry to Cayo Costa with easy access to I-75. Tickets are only $36.50 with free parking. The downside, if you want to call it that, is that the cruise takes 2 hours to reach Cayo Costa and you only stay on shore for 2.5 hours. Reviews rave about how much fun this cruise is with a narrated tour and frequent dolphin sightings as you cross Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor. In fact, over 200 dolphins live in the harbor which makes this trip kind of combination harbor cruise / Cayo Costa shuttle. The trip runs from 9:00 to about 4:30, so it’s a little longer than the other tours to help accommodate the extended passage.
Cayo Costa Ferry from Pine Island
Tropical Star Cruises, on Pine Island, is the closest ferry to Cayo Costa. The real catch is driving down to the tip of the Island, which the website describes like this – “The small town of Matlacha, the only way to get to and from the marina on Pine Island, has a drawbridge. If this drawbridge is up you could be delayed 15 – 30 minutes. There is also a school zone, as well as many school buses. The speed limit in the school zone is 20 mph and is heavily patrolled by the sheriff.” Because of this road, it takes about 45 minutes longer to reach the marina on Pine Island than Punta Gorda. The rates are $35 with an $8 parking fee. What makes Tropical Star stand out is that they are close enough to run two trips to Cayo Costa daily. The Half Day runs from 9:30 AM – 1:00 PM and the full day runs from 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM. There is only one boat making this run which goes from Pine Island – Cayo Costa – Cabbage Key – Cayo Costa – Pine Island – Cayo Costa. This allows you to work a combo trip to Cabbage Key into a shortened Cayo Costa day (for an additional $15) or to leave a 2:00 PM if you’re camping. We camped on Cayo Costa and wanted to travel in from Orlando (~3.5 hours trip), so we chose the 2:00 boat. This let us leave after breakfast instead of 5:00am for either of the other two shuttles.
What to Do in Cayo Costa State Park
Cayo Costa State Park stretches over 2,420 acres on one of Florida’s largest unspoiled barrier islands. You come here for life in the slow lane, away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. A $2.00-day use fee is charged to all visitors of the park, separate from any shuttle fees you may pay. You should note that all services on the island are cash only. This includes use fees, rental fees, and firewood. Make sure you bring cash to Cayo Costa because they don’t take American Express (or any other credit card). You will also want to bring a picnic or food for your full stay if camping because there are only snacks at the camp store. One final warning, pets are allowed in Cayo Costa Park, but not the beaches or camp area, so bringing Fido along will limit what you can do. Activities in Cayo Costa include:
- 9 Miles of pristine beach – A free shuttle from the boat ramp takes you across the 1-mile wide island. This is particularly helpful if you have a cooler, beach toys, or camp gear. You can swim on the beach, but there are no lifeguards. You should also be aware of red tide (more on this later) and jellyfish. We saw a significant number of jellyfish on our visit that washed up from several days of onshore breezes.
- Shelling – Cayo Costa beach offers amazing shelling, especially if you wander down from the campground where the shuttle drops you off. You should check the tide tables and plan your shelling around low tide. Remember, don’t take live shells (i.e.hermit crabs or sand dollars).
- Biking – Miles of packed dirt roads criss-cross the park. (you are prohibited from entering the private land south of the park). These trails lead you to highlights like Boca Pass, Quarantine Rocks, and Murdock Point. You can rent a bike (cash) at the store or bring one over on the ferry for a nominal fee.
- Hiking – You can hike the same biking roads across the island. There is some cool stuff to see around the island like the old cemetery from the island’s days as a tuberculosis quarantine location. You can also venture out on the bike trails to the farthest end of the island, but be mindful of how far out you get so you can return to your shuttle on time.
- Animal Viewing – Cayo Costa is a great place for birdwatching, especially during the spring and fall nesting season. Turtle season is mid-summer, but they mainly come on shore during the night. Out on the water, you might see dolphins or manatees. Don’t forget the smaller animals crawling along the beach too.
- Snorkeling – The park brochure advertises snorkeling, and we even brought our gear. The problem is that the beach side is subject to a lot of the current from the Gulf and the inland side is really murky. The map indicates snorkeling just south of the camping area, but we didn’t even put our mask on.
- Kayaking – Kayaking around the sheltered side of Cayo Costa is fun and easy. The camp store offers kayak rentals, or you can have the ferry bring yours over for a nominal fee. We enjoyed going to a cove just south of the boat dock that usually has several manatees hanging out there. You can also cross Pelican Bay (where the dock is) to Punta Blanca Island. The Great Calusa Blueway kayak trail goes from Pine Island to Cayo Costa. You can use this to reach Cabbage Key for a hamburger in Paradise or even kayak to Cayo Costa if you’re a strong and experienced paddler.
- Camping – Camping is one of the best parts of Cayo Costa. The park has 30 primitive tent sites and 12 rustic one-room cabins. Read more next on our camping tips for Cayo Costa.
- Cayo Costa Park Map – This is the best Cayo Costa Park map we could find. It’s good to have loaded on your phone if you do.
Cayo Costa Camping Tips
- Reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica. Book Online or call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) or TDD (888) 433-0287
- There is a minimum two-night stay in cabins on weekends and holidays.
- The camp store closes at 4:00, so make sure that you get your firewood and ice (and whatever else) before the store closes, especially if you are on that afternoon ferry. If you are on that ferry, you will have the opportunity to purchase firewood from the rangers, but don’t count on getting any drinks or snacks as typically the store is closed by the time you arrive.
- Potable water, showers, and flush toilets are available in the campground
- Bring a phone charger. Even though there isn’t electricity at the campground, there is around the ranger station and camp store.
- Cayo Costa beach is a beautiful place for sunsets and dark skies since it faces west, away from the lights of the mainland.
- The best time for camping at Cayo Costa is late fall through early spring. The weather is much nicer for sleeping, and the mosquito population is significantly reduced.
Red Tide at Cayo Costa
Blooms of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis, occur in this region, particularly during the summer months. Exposure to red tide can cause respiratory irritation in humans and unpleasant fish kill. This organism blooms in cycles, so it isn’t present at all times. Check the red tide forecast from Florida Wildlife to see if it might be a problem during your trip. We wouldn’t necessarily cancel our camping reservation because of red tide, but we would consider the effects of harmful algae bloom and make sure that we showered after swimming just in case.
Final Thoughts on Cayo Costa
Cayo Costa is one of Florida’s most overlooked beaches. White sand and open spaces reward the hearty few who solve the logistic challenge to reach this little corner of paradise. A night on Cayo Costa is like the best parts of being shipwrecked on a desert island, except you have flush toilets and showers too. This is what Florida was like before the age of condos and airplanes. The boat ride across the bay is a trip back in time, where you can find a little peace and a quiet mind.
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