Searching for a remote Gulf Coast paradise with just a few hints of human contact? Save time in your Southwest Florida itinerary for Cayo Costa State Park. Located in Lee County, Cayo Costa State Park is an unspoiled barrier island with beautiful beaches and an abundance of nature.
Cayo Costa State Park is around an hour from Cape Coral. With no bridge or road access, you’ll have to jump on a ferry or a private boat or paddle over to this beautiful Florida state park. Aside from the ranger station and primitive cabins, there’s no sign of development. The park is a pristine sanctuary where the water is clean, and the land is a haven for birds and turtles.
Guests can hike in the park or paddle through the marshes on the Pine Island Sound and up into the Charlotte Harbor Estuary. And that’s all before camping under the stars benefiting from the lack of light pollution.
Not sure how to plan your visit to Cayo Costa State Park? Fear not, thanks to this complete guide to what to see & do and how to get there!
What to see & do in Cayo Costa State Park
Explore the waterways
With the azure blue waters of the Gulf Of Mexico on one side and Pelican Bay, home to an abundance of wildlife on the other, exploring the waterways on your visit to Cayo Costa State Park is a must.
Around Cayo Costa State Park, you’ll find many travelers making use of the gorgeous waters to spot wildlife, explore the estuaries, or fish further out. With the help of the state park’s dock, it’s easy to do.
Making your way to Cayo Costa State Park by kayak—or even standup paddleboard on a nice day!—is a fun way to reach the island. If you’re traveling via small craft, you’ll have all you need to reach the beaches, dunes, and marshes that envelope the landscape.
If you’ve come across on the ferry, then wander over to the gift shop next to the park’s ranger station. Here, you can find kayak rentals just a few feet from the launch point into Pelican Bay.
Go for a walk or bike ride on the nature trails
On your kayak adventure, you may have spotted a wide range of animals, from manatees and dolphins to sea turtles and shorebirds. But to see more of Cayo Costa State Park properly, you’ll have to go for a walk or bike ride on the nature trails.
All in there are six miles of biking and hiking trails in Cayo Costa State Park, helping you to explore much of its immense 2,426 acres. They’re all split up into shorter trails, usually less than a mile, such as the Gulf Beach Trail or the Dolphin Trail. After arriving at Cayo Costa Island, you can pick a map up from the ranger station and plan your day.
With your map in hand, you’ll see you can easily create a loop around the park or walk through the center on the Cemetary Trail.
If you prefer to ride, you can pick up a bike rental from the park’s gift shop. These are available for half- and full-day hires.
Chill out on the beaches
Cayo Costa State Park boasts nine miles of unspoiled beaches along the glistening waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Adventures are aplenty here, but so is the chance to enjoy some amazing swimming and the opportunity to relax away from it all.
The undeveloped shoreline is lined with wind-swept trees, rolling dunes, and gorgeous white sand that offers phenomenal shelling. You could spend all day under the beach umbrella and diving into the baby blue sea. But if it’s low tide, gather the crew and hunt for clam, oyster, and scallop shells, among many more.
When it’s time for lunch, you can head to the park’s picnic pavilion surrounded by spacious lawns. Not only will you find space to enjoy lunch out of the sun, but there’s also access to the park’s BBQ grills, restrooms, and showers.
With the grills waiting, maybe you want to catch your own lunch? Either go fishing from your watercraft or from the shore. A great spot to catch snapper, whiting, or flounder is at the north end of the park, overlooking Boca Grande Pass.
Grab your binoculars and go wildlife spotting
It’s one thing to go for a leisurely hike or bike ride, but to see all the magnificent animals in Cayo Costa State Park, you’ll need to grab your binoculars and go wildlife spotting. The park features abundant wildlife and you can get the lowdown by visiting the ranger station before heading out.
Once you’ve embarked on your journey, keep your eyes out and the binoculars ready for the birds flying overhead, including ospreys, bald eagles, hawks, and several migratory species. They can often be found along the Osprey Trail that ventures into the marshes.
From the land, you can often spot manatees close to shore and dolphin pods a little further out. Between May and October, you’ll have no problem finding sea turtles who come ashore to nest.
Spend a night under the stars
It’s fair to say that with all the opportunities to hike, ride, and kayak, you’ll want to spend more than an afternoon in Cayo Costa State Park. The park offers two options for overnight stays that keep in line with the park’s undeveloped aura: primitive cabins and your classic tent camping.
The park has thirty primitive campsites featuring a picnic table, grill, and potable water, but keep in mind there is no electricity. Campers will find themselves close to the beach, along with nearby showers and restrooms.
The cabins are simple and rustic, complete with bunk beds and no electricity. This off-the-grid approach is a magical sight. It’s especially beautiful when you combine it with wandering outside after dark, with no artificial light to dull the shine of the stars above.
How to get there
You can only access Cayo Costa State Park via the ferry or a private boat. Most choose to take the Tropic Star ferry service that leaves from Bokeelia at the north end of Pine Island. The ferry costs $35 for a day trip or $60 for an overnight. You’ll also find a ferry service from Captiva Cruises, leaving from various locations on Captiva Island, Punta Gorda, and Pine Island.
Upon arrival at the island, pay the park’s $2 entry fees into the honor box. Keep in mind that exact change is required. From the boat dock, you’ll be steps from the ranger station for information and 0.7 miles from camp on the opposite side of the island.
The closest major cities to Cayo Costa Island are Fort Myers and Cape Coral. If you’re coming from further afield, Cayo Costa State Park is about 1.5 hours south of Sarasota and 2.5 hours south of Tampa via the I-75.