Caladesi Island State Park
Imagine a pristine Florida island before the existence of homes, condominiums, crowded beaches, traffic and parking lots. Got a picture? If not, let me help. At one time, Florida’s barrier islands were fringed with miles and miles of glistening white sandy beaches and surrounded by bluish-green water. Add native flora and fauna, tropical birds and wildlife, all thriving in their natural habitats. Sound delightful?
Well, if you think those days are gone forever, take comfort - all is not lost. Real Florida awaits you at Caladesi Island State Park. North of Clearwater and south of Tarpon Springs. Caladesi Island is part of the chain of Florida’s coastal barrier islands and is one of the very few remaining in its “natural” state. And here’s the best part - it’s accessible.
The Caladesi Connection, a boat shuttle service at Honeymoon Island State Park, north of Caladesi, runs daily from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm. Honeymoon Island, once connected to Caladesi, was split by a 1921 hurricane, creating a pass between the two. To get to Honeymoon Island, take the Dunedin Causeway off Alt. Hwy. 19. There’s a nominal park fee to get on the island. Look for the ferry service on your left after passing through the gate. Or if you would rather paddle or sail the half-mile water route between the islands, try a rental (kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, etc.) from an outfit called Sail Honeymoon, which is on the Dunedin Causeway across from Caladesi, before you get to the park gate. Of course, if you have your own boat, follow Marker #14 and the signs.
The ferry service will drop you off at the Caladesi Marina. Equipped with plenty of boat slips, a ranger station, bathing facilities, picnic pavillions and concessions (kayak and bike rentals), Caladesi offers most everything you need. Be sure to ask the ranger for the available (nature trail, mangrove) island maps. From the marina, most visitors follow the boardwalk to the beach. Named #1 beach in the country in 2008, its unspoiled beauty will mesmerize you. Dolphins are usually spotted off shore, shelling is popular and wooden benches provide a place to relax and enjoy the Gulf beach view. Opposite the beach, cabbage palms, palmettos, sand dunes, sea oats and beach morning glories face the Gulf of Mexico.
Also, don’t miss the self-guided nature walk. The 2.5-mile island trail is well worth the trek. In particular, be sure to visit the delightful and rare coastal hammock loop. The shaded pine flatwoods, live oaks and bromeliads provide a nice shady respite from the sunshine while hiking on the cushioned pine needle pathway. You may see gopher tortoises, armadillos, rabbits, a great horned owl’s nest and more. Part of the trail is considered “coastal strand” characterized by sandy trails, prickly pear cactus, wildflowers, palmetto and Florida’s state tree, the sabal palm. Cat’s Eye Pond provides a nice stop for wading birds, especially reddish egrets, herons and ibis.
Another highlight is the three-mile mangrove trail which starts near the marina. A canopy of white, red and black mangroves provide a shady and cool paddle while enjoying the serenity of one of Florida’s most unique outdoor experiences. Tropical mangroves serve as nurseries for fish, crustaceans and mollusks. It’s also said that 75% of the game fish and 90% of commercial fish in south Florida depend on the mangrove habitat.
The north end of Caladesi is where you’ll find an amazing plethora of birds. If you are walking from the marina to the north end, follow the trail or walk north along the beach and don’t forget to bring your camera. American oystercatchers, plovers and terns, yellow-crowned night-herons and loads of shore birds run the beaches on this part of the island. In fact, it's part of Florida’s Great Birding Trail. Much of the north end is restricted as a critical breeding ground, but the beach walk is open. Turtle nests are cordoned off and marked with stakes from May through October. Tidal mud flats on the bay side provide a home to an array of wading birds such as great egrets, herons and ibis. Ospreys are everywhere, diving for their food in the St. Joseph Sound.
So, for an authentic Florida day, grab your hat, camera and sunscreen - Caladesi State Park is one for the bucket list.
Note: From October through April, park rangers offer tours on Sundays at 1:00 pm.
To watch a Caladesi video, enjoy this one from Randy Johnson, of Johnson Art Works: