10/28/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

Hidden, Unspoiled Beaches in South Florida (PHOTOS)

Hidden beaches are the stuff of vacation fantasies: They combine the joy of discovery with the appeal of having something special all to yourself.

Once upon a time, South Florida was full of hidden beaches. But then we moved here - millions and millions of us.

So now it takes effort to find a wild, secret, uncrowded beach in South Florida.

I've found seven special hidden beaches in South Florida over the years, and as I walked the sands at each one, I admit, I have been tempted to keep the discovery to myself. (So these will be our secret, okay?)

Three of these beaches are an adventure to reach (they can be accessed only by boat or by wading across a lagoon). Three involve county or city parks and are unknown outside the region. All are that rare thing in South Florida: a wild place that hasn't been spoiled.


Cayo Costa

The most remote and hardest to reach of these beaches is Cayo Costa, even though all it takes is an hour boat ride. Cayo Costa State Park near Pine Island ranks not only as the most remote of these hidden beaches, it's also the most expansive -- more than nine miles long. The sand is laden with shells and dotted with bleached driftwood. It's unforgettably gorgeous.

You can explore Cayo Costa on a day trip, or stay overnight if you like roughing it. There's boat service from several locations. You can take a Tropic Star ferry from Pineland, a small town on Pine Island, which is west of Cape Coral and Fort Myers. (Fares are $25 for daytrippers and $35 for campers.)

There's also the Island Star ferry run by King Fisher Fleet out of Punta Gorda. The King Fisher docks sit a few minutes off I-75 and offer free parking. The day trip gives you three hours on the island; tickets costs $29.91.

Cayo Costa is remote and wild: No snack bars, no diversions, just beach, nature and you. You can camp on Cayo Costa or stay in a tiny rustic cabin without electricity or running water. Evenings on the heavily wooded island are magical, although in summer that magic is likely to include lots of mosquitoes and no see ums. November to April nights are sought after, so book ahead on ReserveAmerica.

Highly experienced kayakers can paddle to Cayo Costa, but it's a long way over open water. Paddling over is recommended only for those camping on the island, who don't have to make a round-trip in one day. Here are some resources on kayaking to Cayo Costa from the Calusa Blueway site.

Cayo Costa State Park
Physical location: Four nautical miles west off the coast of Pine Island Florida, 33922
(941) 964-0375

St. Lucie Inlet

St. Lucie Inlet is also on a barrier island. This inlet faces the Atlantic coast, but it's a little easier to reach. To find St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, you do have to paddle a kayak or arrive by boat. But it's only a third of a mile across the Intracoastal. (Want more paddling? There is a great kayak trail on and around the island.)

The beach, though, is the reward. A shaded boardwalk crosses the island from the Intracostal and opens to a wide, wild and pristine beach that goes on and on. The state park's beach stretches across 2.7 miles. But the southern boundary is with Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, so the beach actually continues uninterrupted for a total of five miles. Because it's hard to reach, this is a beach where you're likely to find a section you don't have to share with anyone.

Rangers will zip you across the island on a golf cart if you have beach gear. A large covered picnic pavilion and restrooms occupy space near the beach.

To reach the island by kayak or canoe, go to a beach-like launch site directly across the Intracoastal from the park at the end of Cove Road in Stuart. There's also a large dock at the St. Lucie Inlet Preserve to serve power boats on the Intracoastal.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park
4810 SE Cove Road
Stuart, Florida 34997
(772) 219-1880


Clam Pass

We discovered Collier County's delightful Clam Pass Park in Naples because we were staying at the Naples Grande Beach Resort, for which this is the hotel beach. Though it's little known, Clam Pass Park is public. It provides a parking lot ($8) and a tram that crosses a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp.

Clam Pass boasts fine sugary sand like all Naples beaches. But what makes it especially fun is that Clam Pass is smallest, shallowest pass on the Gulf Coast.

The pass offers a narrow river-like opening in the mangroves, shallow enough an adult can stand at the center, except at the highest tide. If you float in the waters of the pass, the tide gently sweeps you away. If the tide flows in, you float into a shallow mangrove-fringed lagoon. If the tide goes out, you float out into the Gulf, which remains shallow for a great distance.

It affords a natural "lazy river" adventure, where the pull and depth of the water is safe but still fun. (The currents in larger passes can be extremely dangerous.)

If you swim or wade across Clam Pass, the beach north extends for miles, lined with seagrape trees and foliage.

Clam Pass Park
Seagate Drive & Crayton Road
(239) 252-4000

Barefoot Beach

Travel a little farther north and you'll find another spectacular county park: Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park in Bonita Beach.

You wind through a lush residential neighborhood of million-dollar homes to reach this beach. When you arrive at Barefoot Beach, it feels like a private enclave.

Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, has named Barefoot Beach to his top 10 list in past years. But fortunately, it remains unspoiled.

Barefoot Beach covers 342 acres of natural land and you can walk a mile along the beach to the end, where you reach the swift currents of Wiggins Pass. (Across the pass lies the very nice Delnor-Wiggins State Park.)

Barefoot Beach Preserve Park
Barefoot Beach Road off Bonita Beach Road
Bonita Beach
(239) 591-8596

Tigertail Beach

Marco Island's Tigertail Beach is another Collier County Park, and it's quite the adventure to reach.

Less than 10 years ago, this beach was an offshore sandbar. Hurricane Wilma's winds in 2005 piled sand on the southern end of the sandbar, and today what is called Sand Dollar Island is connected to the mainland.

The park is popular with locals for its split personality. On one side of the lagoon, you pay $8 to park and come to a clean and well-kept park with changing rooms, a first-rate snack bar, picnic tables, a great playground and a concession stand that rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and other beach gear.

On the other side of the lagoon, you leave development behind. A wild sand spit extends three miles north, offering a beach with soft white sand, scads of shells, dolphins swimming off-shore, ospreys squealing overhead and so many shore birds that it's a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

But the adventure comes crossing the lagoon itself.

The lagoon stretches about 50 yards across, and at high tide the water comes up to about your waist or chest at a buoy that marks the crossover point. Squishy, grassy sand covers the bottom of the lagoon. You don't sink, but you do have to overcome the "yuck" factor.

People hold their belongings over their heads as they cross the lagoon, laughing as they feel the ooze between their toes.

If that's not your idea of fun, you can walk about 20 minutes around the lagoon to the south to reach the beach. If you bring small children, consider pulling them on a beach float, or renting a kayak, or paddleboard.

Tigertail Beach
Hernando Drive on Marco Island
(239) 252-4000


Hobe Sound

I felt like I had won the lottery when I discovered Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.
We were bicycling the beachfront road on ritzy Jupiter Island, which dead-ends into Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing on the signage indicates there's a public beach at the end of this road. And after 30-plus years of exploring Florida's southeast, I had never heard about this beach.
So when we got there, we were stunned to discover we had stumbled onto the entrance to more than five miles of wild, broad unspoiled sandy shore.

The Hobe Sound beach extends north more than two miles where the equally pristine St. Lucie Preserve beach begins.

Parking costs $5. Restrooms consists of Porta-Potties. There are no picnic tables or amenities. But you will find miles of beauty and solitude.

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge
End of North Beach Road, north of Bridge Road, Jupiter
(772) 546-6141

Lovers Key

The Gulf Coast's famous beach islands are Sanibel and Captiva. But just south of Sanibel sits Estero Island, home to Fort Myers Beach.

Most travelers take I-75, six miles east of here. County Highway 865, or Estero Boulevard, offers a slower, scenic route, however. The reward for taking it is finding Lover's Key State Park, just south of Fort Myers Beach.

Lovers Key got its name because it was once an island so remote only lovers went to the trouble to seek its privacy.

Today, you don't need a boat to get to the beach. It's easy to reach, but not as well-known as it deserves. The 2.5-mile beach is lined with natural vegetation and is perfect for beachcombing and bird watching. (There are two bald eagle nests in the park.) The park's mangrove-lined waterways are major draws for both manatees and kayakers.

Lovers Key State Park
8700 Estero Blvd.
Fort Myers Beach

Story and photos by Bonnie Gross, VISIT FLORIDA

South Florida's Hidden, Unspoiled Beaches