Cayo Costa State Park is a Florida State Park on Cayo Costa (formerly known as La Costa Island (Padilla Rancho), which is directly south of Boca Grande (Gasparilla Island), 12 miles (19 km) west of Cape Coral and just north of North Captiva Island. The park is accessible only by charter boat (with or without captain), private boat, ferry or helicopter. Exploration of the New World by Spaniards brought traders to the west coast of Florida to barter with the Indians as early as the 17th century. In their wake came men who started fish ranches on the out islands like Cayo Costa before Florida was opened to American settlers. In the 1870s, Tervio Padilla, a wealthy merchant from the Canary Islands, came to Key West and established trade with natives and “ranchos” that extended northward to Charlotte Harbor. His ships often made port at Cayo Costa at the entrance to the harbor. Enchanted by the tropical island, he eventually decided to settle there. Padilla prospered until the outbreak of the Spanish–American War when his was fleet burned and scuttled. He then turned to another means of livelihood – fishing. When the government claimed his land he was disinclined to set up another ranch so moved with his wife further down the island and as before, simply homesteaded. For many years Charlotte Harbor locals referred to the Island as "Padilla Rancho" or Padilla Ranch although Mr. Padilla only occupied one part of the Island at a time. Most Padilla descendants now reside in nearby Bokeelia or Boca Grande.
Cayo Costa Island is one of a chain of barrier islands that shelter Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. The park contains nine miles (14 km) of soft white sandy beaches and 2,506 acres (10 km2) of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks, and mangrove swamps.
There is a variety of wildlife that can be seen at the park.
Among the most looked-for animals found in Cayo Costa State Park are the sea turtles. There are four species found on the island, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), hawksbill (Eremochelys imbriata), green (Chelonia mydas), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii). Cayo Costa has many volunteers who check the entire nine mile beach each morning during sea turtle nesting season to find new nests and document them which is during the months of March through October in Southwest Florida. The loggerhead turtle is found far more than the others, and the green turtle is a distant second. The loggerhead turtle and green turtle’s eggs have the most diverse niches awhile hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley do not. Their niches rely on climate and weather which allow the eggs to survive on land and eventually hatch.
Another species found on the island is the common raccoon (Procyon lotor). These animals pose a big problem during the sea turtle nesting season due to the fact that they are the most common species of predation on the eggs. Others types of predation on the eggs include: high tide, foxes, ants, ghost crabs, and looting humans.
The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is also found coming up to the island beaches. This is considered an endangered animal, but the population is currently growing. They can be seen from the beach or near the canals and docks of the island. The West Indian manatee is found in Florida and Puerto Rico. Although they are part of the same species, there is genetic diversity and allele frequency between the two populations.
The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) can also be seen jumping, swimming, and playing along the all nine miles of beaches on the island. Each dolphin has its own personal whistle just like any human would have a distinct voice. Dolphins are able to recognize these sounds and communicate through them. Scientists are able to measure these sounds and put them with the individual dolphin that made them.
The snowy egret (Egretta thula) can be found on the island. They usually stay near the beaches. They are a small white heron with long, slender black legs and yellow feet. Both sexes of the snowy egret have the same features even during the breeding season.
The southern bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) can be found flying about the island or sitting up on the high trees. This is another threatened species. The eagles eat a variety of animals, but prefer fish. They scavenge and steal food when they are able to, and the eagle hunts for live prey only as a last resort.
The mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) is found on the island. This plant is most commonly seen as a house plant, but this invasive species came from one of the houses on the island and has spread all over. Staff is currently trying to rid the island of this invasive plant.
The resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) is found growing on trees throughout Cayo Costa. It is an epiphyte that if it is dehydrated, will turn brown and curl up its leaves looking dead. When the plant receives water or rain, the plant will “come back to life” and reappear green and alive.
Seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) is found at Cayo Costa. The fruit comes about in the summer time during the wet season of southwest Florida. It starts out at a bright green grape then ripens to a purplish color. The fruit mainly consists of a large seed with little flesh. It is well known of Florida natives to make jellies or wines from the grapes. This plant is native to South Florida and the Caribbean. This plant can grow up to fifty feet tall, and is usually close to the ocean because they are one of the few salt tolerant plants.
Activities include hiking, off-road bicycling, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, picnicking, fishing, shelling, wildlife viewing, camping, and sunbathing.
Amenities include boat slips, beaches, hiking trails, picnic pavilions, 12 primitive camping cabins and bath house/restrooms. The park offers a small nature center/gift shop with nature exhibits as well as items for sale. The park has the following available for purchase: ice, sun lotion, bug spray, T-shirts, hats, bird keys, shell keys, and postcards. Cayo Costa has bikes available for half-day and full-day rentals.
There are 12 primitive cabins and 30 tent sites available for camping each with its own picnic table and fire pit/ground grill assigned to each site. Boat slips are available for those who wish to camp aboard their boats.
Florida state parks are open between 8 a.m. and sundown every day of the year (including holidays).