A path between palm trees yields a glimpse of a high wooden wall. Turning the corner reveals that the doors have been removed creating a welcome opening in the wall. In the distance a sailboat wizzes by, propelled by a stiff gulf breeze. Hernando de Soto called Florida “a paradise” when he landed on the south side of Tampa Bay in May of 1539, and De Soto National Park still looks like paradise today.
De Soto National Park sits on a tip of land near present-day Bradenton, Florida. The nature walk hugs the coast and is only a few feet from the water. The water is clear and the beach is a mix of white, beige and cream colored sand. Empty oyster shells from century-old meals still lay around.
Park Ranger Diana Bauman says De Soto was one of the richest men in Spain, “the Donald Trump of his era.” His expedition was a small army of over 600 men and 200 horses. “People jumped at the chance to join his expedition,” Diana explains.
De Soto was the first explorer to realize that the New World was a continent. When Christopher Columbus passed away in 1506, he died believing he had reached the islands near Southeast Asia. When Ponce de Leon sailed north along the Florida coastline in 1513, he believed Florida was a large island. It was De Soto’s lengthy expedition that confirmed Florida was part of the enormous continent we now call North America.
The park has several picnic tables near that water that allow for spectacular views of the bay. Daily activities include shows and tutorials put on by actors dressed in Conquistador era clothing. There’s a replica Spanish village and a small museum exhibit and movie theater. Children on field trips are given guidebooks and compasses at the Visitors Center. There’s also a small stage where local musicians give weekend concerts. Blessed with excellent weather year round and the shelter of the bay, the De Soto National Park in Bradenton, Florida, is indeed a national treasure.
More information can be found here: http://www.nps.gov/deso/index.htm