About Cayo Costa:
Cayo Costa is Florida in its purest form, featuring all of its natural beauty and wildlife, from the manatees and alligators you may see in the lagoon to the the dolphins playing in the surf to the birds nesting along the beach. Located 12 miles west of Cape Coral, the island’s beaches are among the best in the state and the 2,426 acre park also features thickly wooded trails for hiking and mountain biking. There just aren’t many places like this left.
Leading up to Memorial Day weekend, Andres and I decided to take a trip to kick off the unofficial start of summer, and Cayo Costa State Park was at the top of our list. After reading about the island in an article by Florida Travel + Life , we were determined to see this Gulf Coast paradise for ourselves. With 9 miles of beautiful beaches, acres of cabbage palms, mangroves, oak trees & criss-crossing sandy trails, this state park is one of the largest underdeveloped barrier islands remaining in Florida.
How to Get There?
The island is only accessible by boat. If you’re like us and have yet to fulfill your dreams of owning your very own yacht, then you can take advantage of the Tropic Star Ferry. You depart from the Jug Creek Marina in Bokeelia, a small town on Pine Island, which is west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. For a round-trip ticket, the cost for passengers staying overnight is $50 for adults and $40 for children 12 and under. Tropic Star also takes day-trips to the island, and charges $35 for adults and $25 for kids.
Once you arrive at Jug Creek Marina, you will find a very small bait & tackle shop. This is where you check in and pay for parking. Parking costs $9 per night, so factor that in to your spending also.
It’s important to arrive at the marina at least 30 minutes before departure. Just imagine 40 other people with their fair share of gear, all trying to board the ferry simultaneously. It’s organized chaos, so arriving early will make it easier to unload your car right next to the boarding area. Make sure to confirm your return trip when you check in with Tropic Star.
The ride to the island is approximately 40 – 50 minutes. It’s a pleasant trip, and dolphins love to play in the boat’s wake.
Once you arrive to Cayo Costa, the ferry’s crew, Captain Rick & first mate, help unload everyone’s gear onto the dock. Tipping the crew is encouraged, and $10 per group seems pretty fair. A trolley runs at the top of every hour from 9 a.m to 4 p.m to carry gear and campers to the campground. Before or after those hours, campers are responsible for toting their gear in and out of the campground. It is about 3/4 of a mile from the docks to the camping area.
What to Bring?
Speaking of gear…to stay on Cayo Costa Island, you must bring everything: food, camping equipment, cooking utensils, plenty of drinking water, and definitely don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen. There is a small general store with ice, cold drinks, candy, chips, some canned food, frozen bait and souvenirs. But unless you want to live off of pricey junk food and $3 bottles of water, plan your meals ahead of time. Firewood costs $10 per bundle when permitted, charcoal cost $8 per bag, and ice was $4 per bag. The store accepts accept cash and card, but cards require a $10.00 minimum. The store is open until 3pm every day and is about 3/4 hike from the campsite or you can catch a tram that runs backs and forth. Sometimes, it closes a few minutes early, so don’t wait until the last minute to get there if you really need something. On our second day there we were really craving some popsicles and needed to replenish our supply of ice. We arrived at the general store 4 minutes before 3:00PM (their supposed closing time) and it was already locked up. To say we were bummed was an understatement. It’s funny how something as simple as a popsicle can be so enticing when you’re sweating buckets. By the way, it’s hot as hell when you go camping in May…in Florida.
Try not to go overboard when packing to come to the island. I cannot stress this enough. You will be loading all your gear into your car, out of your car, onto a boat (often over a railing) and then onto a tram on the island and then out of the tram to your cabin or campsite. And you’ll be doing it all over again when you leave, so keep that in mind.
Andres and I were determined to carry all of our stuff in one trip between the two of us, so we packed as light as possible. So light that we decided to leave the propane stove at home. All of the meals that I prepped in advance were meant to be cooked over the campfire, so I just didn’t see the point of bringing it. When the ferry arrived to the island, Captain Rick announced that fires were PROHIBITED due to Florida’s current drought (duh, C.J.). Andres and I looked at each other with widened eyes, and I said, “how the hell are we going to cook this food?” Luckily, they did allow charcoal, and conveniently sold bags of it along with lighter fluid at the general store. $8 for the “big” bag of charcoal and $7 for lighter fluid. Needless to say, we won’t be leaving our camping stove home again.
Like most campsites, there are raccoons on the island. The main headache with raccoons when camping is that they’re sneaky little thieves, who won’t hesitate to steal every speck of food from your campground, as well as anything else that interests them. In order to keep your belongings secure, throw away your trash every night before dark, and store all of your dry food and your cooler in your tent at all times. So, you leave your food/cooler in the closed tent during the day, and it stays in the tent while you sleep at night. We did this during our entire stay, and had no issue. Our neighbors, however, did not put away some of their food, and were ransacked by a group of raccoons during their first night.
The ranger station has a charging area for electronics. However, there are only 8 outlets and usually a surplus of campers with dead devices. I purchased the Anker PowerCore Portable Charger on Amazon, and was very impressed with it’s capabilities. I fully charged my phone 3 times and Andres’ phone 1 time, and still came home with half of it’s battery remaining. If you’re like me, and rely on your phone to take pictures, I highly recommend this product.
Another thing to remember is that there is almost no shade in the camping area or on the island in general, so bring your own shade, such as an umbrella or beach canopy. I also recommend bringing folding chairs, even when staying in the cabins. Without them, your only place to sit is a picnic table or beach towel.
Also, the noseeums come out in droves at nightfall, so make sure to bring bug spray and then bring extra bug spray.
Where to Stay?
To stay overnight, you need to reserve a primitive campsite or cabin via Reserve America. Dates book up fast, so plan well in advance.
Reservations for camp sites cost $20 per night, and the cabins are $36 per night.
The campground is about 500 feet from the water’s edge with 30 tent sites in a primitive environment. Each one has a picnic table, a ground grill and access to potable water. There are no sites with electricity. The Reserve America website has pictures of each of the campsites. Some of them offer very little shade, so be sure to look at the pictures prior to booking your site. There is a $10 charge to alter your reservation in any way.
The cabins are basic one-room structures without electricity or running water. There are three sets of bunk beds, a picnic table inside, a picnic table outside and a fire circle with grill top just outside. Cabins 1, 2, 3, 7, and 12 offer a screened porch, while cabins 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and cabin 11 offer an open porch. The link below will show you pictures of each of the 12 cabins available.
Both cabin & primitive campers, have access to restrooms, cold water showers and potable water for cooking. All of the bathrooms are near the cabin area, so prepare for a bit of a walk to the bathrooms if you’re staying in a tent.
What to Do?
Exploring Cayo Costa Island will entertain you for days. You can walk the beaches for hours, and see an amazing variety of sea life, including enormous conch, sand dollars, star fish, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, and a myriad of shells. Despite being there during Memorial Day weekend, the sense of privacy on the beach was incredible. For hours at a time, the only sign of civilization you may encounter will be boats at sea. Stargazing into the night sky is also a beautiful experience.
You can rent kayaks from the ranger station on the East side of the island, and there is easy access to the lagoon. Manatees, dolphins, and a variety of birds are just some of the animals you might observe during your paddle.
Single kayaks cost $40, and Doubles are $50 for a 24 hour period. The ferry will also transport your own kayak for $20 each.
There are several leisurely nature trails that meander through the island. Along your walk, you’ll see wild bunnies, nonvenomous snakes (don’t worry, they won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them), and many species of birds, some of which are endangered.
Some of the island’s trails allow bicycles, which can be rented at the general store for a half or full day. The paths wind through the thick vegetation with periodic scenic water views. If you’re lucky, you’ll even cross paths with wild pigs, who are said to be the descendants of those kept by early Spanish explorers.
It costs $10 to rent a bike for a half day and $20 for a full day. The rental bikes that are available aren’t in the best shape, so if you want to cover a lot of ground, bringing your own bike is highly advisable. It’s also cheaper in the long run if you plan to bike a lot. The Tropic Star will transport your bike to the island for $15 each.
For centuries, Cayo Costa has been home to residents who fished. The history of Cayo Costa started with the Calusa Indians, who lived off of shell fish, fish and native plants.
With productive grass flats on the lagoon side and beautiful beaches on the Gulf side, Cayo Costa has a vast diversity of fishing opportunities. Because the beaches are steep with 4-5 feet of water just off shore, surf fishing can yield catches of flounder, snook, trout, redfish, snapper, whiting, sheepshead and tarpon.
Frozen bait is sold at the general store, mainly shrimp and mullet. Sand fleas are known to be some of the best bait around, and they are plentiful on the beach. If you notice distinctive ripples in the sand as the tide recedes, you’ve found some sand fleas. When looking closely, you’ll be able to see their antennas. Use your hands to scoop up a clump of sand and drop it away from the tide. The sand fleas will break out of the clump of sand, and Taa Daaaaaa you’ve caught your very own fishing bait. Oftentimes, the best bait to use is what is naturally in the fish’ habitat.
You can also enjoy swimming and snorkeling in the cerulean blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s nine miles of beautiful beaches are scattered with shells and sealife. There is a grassy area a few yards off shore, and several people were snorkeling for scallops during our stay. Keep in mind that you do need to bring your own mask and fins if you plan to snorkel.
Beach combing or shelling is a favorite pastime of many visitors, and it was definitely my favorite as well. The beaches of Cayo Costa are scattered with a multitude of gorgeous shells….welks, conch, olives, sand dollars, and so much more. I had the best luck finding shells towards the southern tip of the island. Please be aware that everything you find on the beach was, is, or still could be alive. If any living animal is using a shell that you find as their home, please put it back where you found it and leave it unharmed. There are plenty of beautiful, empty shells to discover.
Camping offers an opportunity to disconnect from the world, reflect on things, and appreciate Mother Nature. If you love the sense of adventure that comes along with sleeping outdoors, exploring new trails and spotting wildlife as much as we do, then I hope you find yourself at Cayo Costa soon.
Check Out My GoPro Video of Our Trip to Cayo Costa