Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key

Learn how to navigate safely around Shell Key Florida. Boating in Shell Key Preserve is carefully regulated to protect sea beds and marine estuaries. Please observe all posted boundaries and no-wake zones…

Before you go:

The north and south ends of the island are divided by several navigational barriers and shallow areas. Consider your boating route carefully, based on which side of the island you plan to visit. Examine the other navigational maps on this page to avoid shallow areas where you can run aground. Check the tide predictions for the date and time you intend to visit. Low tides can make some areas more difficult to access and can expose other navigational hazards. See the diagrams below for details.

shell_key_north_navigationGetting to the North Public Use Area:

The north public use area of Shell Key is most easily accessed from the Pass-A-Grill channel just north of the island or from the Gulf.    There is also a narrow channel allowing passage to the inside of the north end. (As of 2015, the north pass is completely closed)If you are in a motorized boat, be careful when you are on the inside (east) of the island.  Most of this area is restricted to motor boats.

Getting From the North end to the South End:

Warning!! There are many ways to run aground while traveling from the north public use area to the south public use area. Essentially, you have 2 choices. Either travel out of Pass-a-grille Pass into the gulf and return into Bunces Pass on the South – or you can come from the Skyway Bridge Channel in Tampa Bay. Never try to travel south on the east side of Tierra Verde – these waters are not passable! Notice that both Pass-a-grille and Bunces Pass have sand bars flanking them along their channels. The bars extend extend well out into the gulf and are a major navigation hazard. when navigating in our out of the pass. See the green lines below for the best route. Always use a depth finder.


From Fort Desoto Boat Docks – or the Skyway Bridge Channel:

If you are coming from the Skyway in Tampa Bay, you will travel west until you pass under the Bridge that leads to Ft. Desoto beach – and then go right by the boat docks on your way toward Shell Key (see image above).This easiest way to get to the south end is to put in at Ft. Desoto – where you will find the best maintained boat ramps in the county. Then follow the channel markers west toward the mouth of Bunces Pass. Be aware that the green markers on the north side of bunces pass channel are very close to shallow waters.


Boating Guidelines

  • Motor boats are restricted to idle speed in permitted areas only.
  • Be prepared to show boat registration, life vests and safety equipment to law enforcement at any time. Do not overload your vessel and keep a VHF radio and cell phone for emergencies.
  • Be observant of other vessels and always give way to large vessels which have limited maneuverability.

Anchoring at Shell Key

  • Always be aware of the current tides when choosing an anchoring location. If you arrive at high tide, you may find your boat “high and dry” when you want to leave at low tide. Many a boaters have been stranded overnight because they did not watch the tides.
  • Do not anchor in channels or a fairway.
  • Keep a safe distance from other boats that are already anchored. Allow for a margin of error that takes into account changing wind and tides.
  • Double Anchoring: Larger boats should use a bow and a stern anchor to keep their boat in place near the beach. Here is a video showing one method for double anchoring. We recommend pointing the bow of the boat away from the island when double anchoring – to keep the waves from coming over the back of the boat.

Browse the area with google maps…

View Larger Map

Questions and Comments

Article: Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key
83 comments on “Navigating A Boat Around Shell Key
  1. Judy Knotts says:

    My husband and I will be camping soon at Shell Key (thanks for the info on printing your permit!!). Normally when we paddle out (kayak), we park on the side of 679 – just south of Butler Hole – which is pretty straight forward. But I do not think over-night parking is allowed, nor do I feel comfortable leaving my vehicle for a couple of days. All that to ask, do you know how long it would take to paddle out from the Fort Desoto boat ramp – for an average paddler? And are there some places we should avoid? I did check the tidal charts and the tides will be with us going out and coming back in.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Judy,

      It’s not very much further to kayak from Ft. Desoto than from Butler hole. It’s actually about the same distance as the crow flies. But, I always park at the Ft. Desoto boat docks when staying overnight. I usually go north to cross Bunces Pass first – just to get it over with – and then follow the edge of the aquatic preserve west to the island – so that makes it 10 or 15% further. I like to travel this route because I can veer into the preserve waters if the tide is high enough – or at extreme low tide, I will stay on the edge of Bunces pass where it’s deeper. I was kayaking from Butler Hole a few weeks ago and it got so shallow that we had to walk the kayaks past the shallower areas.

      Hope this helps 🙂

  2. Stephanie Morse says:

    How busy does the designated camping area get during holidays? Considering paddling out for New Years and just wanted to know what to expect about setting up camp.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      The island is usually pretty empty over the holidays in my experience. At most, there will be a few scattered sites. Winter is my favorite time to camp on Shell Key – partly for that reason. The busiest time of year is typically over the summer holidays like 4th of July and labor day where you will see hundreds of campers (I would personally never choose to camp in the Florida summer).

      Hope this helps!

      • Stephanie Morse says:

        Very Helpful and that’s what I was hoping to hear! Thanks so much. FYI… Camping in Summer is never good, more so the mosquitos than anything! Thanks again.

      • Stephanie Morse says:

        One more question, do they allow for us to bring our own firewood or is there enough on the island to use?

        • Jack Coletti says:

          There is no firewood on the island – and it is forbidden to cut any wood from the mangroves or other trees. So you do need to bring your own firewood. We usually fill the bow of my boat with firewood when we go out. I have seen people with kayaks bring those little wax logs from the grocery store. We suggest not throwing glass or unburnable trash in the fire – because it all needs to be removed when you leave. There is a “leave no trace” rule – so you do need to remove as much of the burned wood as possible before you go. Since there are no designated fire pits, you are required to leave your campsite with no trace whatsoever of your fire pit.

          Since our right to camp is always under assault by those who would like to ban camping on the island, we ask all campers to not only clean their own area – but also to make an effort to clean any other trash or fire pits that they find – even if it’s not theirs. This is our only defense against those few but vocal people who regularly lobby the county to ban camping on the island.


  3. Andrew Tuller says:

    Hey there,

    Myself and a few friends are going to head over to shell key for some primitive camping. We don’t have a boat though 🙁 , is there a shuttle service or boat for hire we can use to get over to the island?

  4. Donna says: planning to camp (Area #1 tent area) at the part in a few weeks. Can I kayak directing from my campsite to Shell Key?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Donna,

      Yes, you should have no problem making the trip to Shell Key from the Ft. Desoto camp grounds. You just need to be careful when you cross the Bunces Pass channel (If there happens to be lot of boat traffic at the time). My preference it to cross to the north side of the channel soon after leaving the boat docks – which leaves a nice, shallow-water trek west to the island. Some people prefer to head west along Ft Desoto park first – and then cross to the north side where the channel is a bit narrower. Either way, you should be able to make the trip in under an hour at a leisurely pace. (1.5 mile distance at roughly 2 knots)

      Hope this helps 🙂

  5. Jim cannon says:

    Is it possible to kayak around the restricted bird area from the public area in the South to the north beach? Are there markers and how far out in the gulf would you have to go?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Jim,

      You can kayak as close to shore as you like. You can go from south to north on either the gulf side or the inland side. There are restricted areas for motor boats, but you can go pretty much anywhere on a kayak.

      Have fun!

  6. Dan Lalasz says:

    Hi Jack. Thanks for taking the time to offer this helpful service! We are interested in anchoring overnight in the waters of Ft. DeSoto Park. Our boat draft is 39″. We would be coming from the north and can access the park from either the Gulf or the intercoastal. I’m skeptical that our GPS depth readings are current and accurate. Is there a very updated chart available? What is your recommendation for the best areas to anchor. Thanks.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Dan,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. I would say that your best bet for anchoring would be in Bunces Pass. The south facing coast of Shell Key has the deepest water close to shore – and is relatively protected.

      Hope this helps!

  7. Kim says:

    Can you drive and park then walk onto Shell Key? Or is boating the only option to get there?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Kim,

      Although the north end of the island has connected to the mainland, you are still technically not allowed to walk on to the island. Boating is the only legal option to get to the island as I understand it.

  8. priscilla says:

    I would like to get to the south of shell key and shell but there will be six of us. we don’t have a boat or canoes. Can a boat be rented and a captain hired for the day somewhere?

  9. Jill says:

    Hi Jack! Is there a break in the mangroves before the bird sanctuary to arrive by kayak? It looks like there is a foot path according to the satellite view, but that can vary so thank you for your knowledge. Jill-

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Jill!

      If you are asking whether or not there is access to the inside of the ‘south public use area’ by kayak – the answer is yes. There are many gaps in the mangroves on the southeast shore of the island (which are not visible on the satellite view). You should have no problem gaining access to the south public use area from any approach with a kayak.

      Hope this helps 🙂

  10. Chris says:

    Are you able to go shelling on Shell Key? If so, what area(s) of the island have a good amount of shells and what time of year is best to go? I would love to plan a trip there from the East Coast of FL.

  11. Bonnie says:

    Planning a camping trip the first week of March. Wondering if the the 30 minute paddle from Fort De Soto boat ramp to Shell Key South end camping area can be paddled in a canoe?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Bonnie,

      You should definitely be able to make the trip from the Ft. Desoto Boat ramps in a canoe. My suggestion would be to head north after launching to cross the Buncess Pass channel and get the most challenging waters behind you for the rest of the trip. Your biggest concern, of course, would be getting swamped by a reckless boater. I once crossed the channel in a canoe and mounted one of those orange bicycle flags on it to make myself more visible. Usually boaters will give you a wide berth, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions. Once you cross the channel, you can make the rest of the trip to west to Shell Key in the relatively calm and shallow waters within the preserve boundaries. Hope this helps 🙂

  12. Kaitlin Ryckman says:

    I’m back for more questions–vacation is coming up. I’m kayaking to the camping tip and I’m wondering where the safest place would be to leave my kayak during the day, when i’m exploring the beach.
    Also I’m wondering if I’m able to kayak from the shell key to the fort desoto beach. I read that someone died trying to swim acrossed. I’m by myself so I’m trying to do this the safest way possible.
    Also how high is the high tide? I don’t want to wake up in the water, but i’d rather not sleep in the grass.

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Kaitlin,

      I have never hear of anyone having a boat stolen on Shell Key. However, I have heard of people’s kayaks being taken by the high tide – so just make sure you pull the boat up well past the high tide mark. (more on this below)

      With regard to crossing Bunces Pass south to Ft. Desoto, it is definitely doable. I think it should only take 10 or 15 minutes to make the crossing. Your biggest threat would be from boats traveling through the channel. Swimming would be dangerous because boats can’t see a little head bobbing in the water – but a Kayak should be plenty visible. To be extra careful, you could mount a bright colored flag on your kayak so boats will steer clear. People make this crossing safely on a regular basis.

      As for the high tide mark and choosing your campsite, you can usually tell by the pattern in the sand where the high tide mark is. Areas near shore with tightly packed sand are most likely below the high tide mark. Of course, the tide levels will vary depending on the current moon phase. Sometimes there are extreme high/low tides and sometimes they are more moderate. Your best bet is to use the tide widget at the bottom of our home page to see exactly when (and how extreme) the tides will be on the dates that you are planning to camp.

      Another way to gauge the tide marks is by observing the sandspurs. Sandspurs will not grow below the high tide mark because they are inhibited by salt water. If I am planning to camp, I will first check how extreme the tides will be. If I expect moderate tides, I will camp just below the highest tide line to avoid the sandspurs. If, on the other hand, I expect an extreme high tide, I will camp just above the high tide mark. Again, the widget on our home page is a good way to check the tides. You can change the dates to get a feel for how patterns change throughout the month.

      Hope this helps!

      • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

        Thank you for the information! I hope it’s a good trip so i can do it more often–the flights are super cheap. Only concern now is that the new land/sandbridge will allow different wildlife or people that will make it a less pleasant/secluded experience (worry of theft/food storage, etc).

        • Jack Coletti says:

          I think that the effect of the land bridge is greater on the north end of the island. The south public use (camping) area is isolated from the north end by the bird protection area (BPA) in the middle of the island. There may be a few more raccoons and other animals on the island, but humans are less likely to trespass on the BPA and walk all the way to the south end illegally.

          • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

            I saw youtube videos of people advertising that you can walk the whole distance. I’m hoping that people aren’t breaking these rules.

  13. I flew down last week to try to kayak there and all the kayak places were closed due to high winds and/or low water. I plan on flying down in Feb/March to camp again and I hear there is a kayak rental service where the guy will meet you anywhere and give you a kayak for however long you want. Do you know of any other options (uber for boats, etc)? Is there a time of year that i won’t have to worry about low water?

    • Jack Coletti says:

      Hi Kaitlin,

      It is common not to rent kayaks in very bad weather. The ‘low tide’ issue seems kind of odd – unless they are launching from a very high, non-floating dock. The extreme high and low tides are connected to the monthly cycle of the moon. Both the sun and moon have a gravitational pull on the tides – so when they are together in the sky, we get more extreme tides. This happens once every lunar month. You can check the tides for your expected visit using the tide widget at the bottom of our home page. I just spoke with the folks at Island Action Sports on St. Pete beach and they will deliver kayaks to your location and allow you to keep them for multiple days.

      Hope this helps!

      • Kaitlin Ryckman says:

        Thanks for the response. I am flying down the end of next month and I found a kayak guy. Hoping weather cooperates. I hear it’s a mixed bag in January.

  14. Marni says:

    I was wanting to do primitive camping on Shell Key, but do not have a motorized boat. How far is it? Roughly how long would it take to kayak to the camping area?

  15. Lucinda L Johnston says:

    Where is the best put in to kayak to Shell Key?

  16. Sheila says:

    My father in law just gave us motor boat, that is made from the hull of an airboat. We would like to take out kids to Pass-a-grille, and take the boat over to shell island. My husband is experienced with using the boat on the Suwanee river, but not out in the ocean. How difficult would it be for us to take the boat to Shell Island? What is the best way for us to get there?

    • Jack Coletti says:


      You should have no problem getting to the island in a flat-bottom boat. If it is motorized, you can launch from Ft. Desoto boat docks and head to the south end. If you are paddling, you can launch from the Bayway on Tierra Verde and stay within the calmer preserve waters.

      Hope this helps,

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