Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.
USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast-west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.
“Dr. Beach,” a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.
This week’s rivalry: family beaches. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the east coast faces off against Fort De Soto County Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park comes to the ring with a full mile of sandy white beach, killer views plus a knockout punch of family activities.
“The surf is gentle because there’s a big sandbar off-shore,” says Leatherman. “Families can canoe, kayak, fish, bike and also tour the lighthouse.” Tackle the stairs and you and your kids win panoramic views of Miami from the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Dating to 1825 and rebuilt in 1845, the lighthouse is the oldest structure in Florida. The park is located in Key Biscayne near Miami.
Fort De Soto Park
Situated in Pinellas County, Fort De Soto weighs in with a walloping 1,136 acres on five interconnected islands that include nearly three miles of sandy beaches. “North Beach is the best beach for families,” says Leatherman. “It’s on the Gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”
Kids like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills. Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park. Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.