If there is a heaven, this might be it.
Our timing couldn’t have been better.
We have long wanted to camp and visit Grayton Beach State Park, where the Gulf of Mexico sparkles like emeralds as it rolls onto a sugar-sand beach with majestic dunes.
The day we set up camp here, Dr. Beach announced his annual beach rankings, and Grayton Beach ranked No. 4 in America. It’s not the first time Grayton Beach has been on his radar, and that’s one of the reasons we included this stop on our campground safari through Florida’s Panhandle this fall (2017).
Another reason would be to paddle on the unique chain of “dune lakes” tucked behind the dunes, and if you’ve never visited the picturesque oceanfront communities of Watercolor or Seaside, then this would be your chance. They’re next door.
Sandwiched in the middle of the 2000-acre state park is Grayton Beach itself, a tiny beachside enclave that pops out of the sand, a real throwback to yesteryear.
This is bicycle heaven, as well. You can really get around here on multi-use coastal trails and unpaved forest roads and trails in the adjacent 15,000-acre Port Washington State Forest.
Campers love their bicycles — and beautiful beaches.
Camping at the beach
The old campground loop is my first choice with dense ground vegetation with dappling shade, affording seclusion from site to site.
We were camping in our 25-foot travel trailer in the old campground loop (site 19). Although not directly on the lake, we faced a short path to the lake directly across the campground access road.
Excellent for tent campers, the campsites in the old loop (sites 1-36) can be a tight fit for larger RVs, and the back-in angles of some sites, though manageable, can be a challenge. Intruding tree branches may limit your ability to extend awnings.
The old loop will close beginning Sept. 4, 2018, for campground improvements. No dates have been set for re-opening. We are hopeful the improvements won’t impact the cozy ambience of this outstanding campground loop.
The new campground loop (sites 37-59) favors larger RV’s, although the recently planted understory doesn’t quite provide the same privacy, and the immature tree growth allows a sunnier, open sky view. Welcome in cooler weather, not so much on hot summer days.
Sites in the new campground have 20/30/50-amp electric, water and sewer hookups.
Both camping loops have restrooms with hot showers, although the restrooms in the old loop are closed until the end of the year for renovations.
The camping fee at this beachfront campground was just $24 per night (half that for Florida seniors over 65) plus a $6.70 booking fee per visit.
There are 30 two-bedroom duplex cabins in a separate, restricted section of the park, just west the Grayton Beach village on CR 30A. The cabins run $130 in season (Feb. 1-July 31) and $110 in the off-season (Aug. 1-Jan. 31). Weekly rates are available.
The beach and kayaking behind the dunes
This beach boasts of sugar-white sand and emerald green water where development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape. — Dr. Beach
Campers enjoy a section of this award-winning beach all to themselves, away from the day-use beach area. Both sections of this mile-long beach are stunning.
High dunes trickle down a gentle, family-friendly slope to the Gulf, peppered with sea oats, grasses and patches of stubborn ground vegetation that hold the dunes together.
When we parked ourselves on the beach for an afternoon of sun and swimming, there were very few interlopers, leaving this stunning scene ours alone to enjoy.
This beach is not only stunning, but its dunes shelter a rare 100-acre brackish lake that squiggles through the dunes, creating an ideal paddle trail for kayaks and canoes.
The lake balloons on two ends, offering crossings to the public boat ramp in neighboring Grayton Beach, or to a spur off the lake that takes you behind the dunes that frame the communities of Watercolor and Seaside.
We were fortunate to have access to a kayak launch directly across from our campsite in the old campground. Another kayak launch is located in the day-use area of the park.
The park has a 4.5 mile hiking/biking trail that will take you through the forest.
Outside the park is a paved multi-use trail that runs parallel to County Road 30-A, the popular tourism corridor that includes Watercolor and Seaside.
The trail also enables bicycle access to shopping a mile away in Grayton Beach, including a convenience store at the corner of County Road 283, or Watercolor and Seaside in the opposite, or easterly direction.
Across CR 30-A from Grayton Beach State Park is Port Washington State Forest, which has three off-road double-loop trails of 3.5-, 5- or 10 miles, as well as miles of unpaved forest roads for hiking, biking and equestrian use.
A greenway trail is also under construction that will connect the forest to Grayton Beach State Park and two other state parks, as well as several residential neighborhoods.
Hold onto your wallets. The prices at nearby shops and cafes are a little over the top. But sometimes you have to pay for sheer elegance, and that’s just what you get in the picturesque planned communities of Seaside and Watercolor.
A leisurely bike ride through Watercolor won’t cost you anything, though, and you might think it’s OK to pay $18 for a cheeseburger at “World Famous” Pickles Seaside Grill just to say you ate there. (We did, and the burger was quite tasty.)
Where 30-A meets Walton County Road 283 in Grayton Beach, about a mile from the park entrance, you’ll find cute cafes, an oyster bar and a sports bar tucked away in a couple of unpretentious shopping plazas. You’ll also find a cute bundle of art galleries in small cabins.
One restaurant we wanted to try was The Craft Bar on 30A, which features 30 beers on tap and the promise of pasture-raised beef and seafood. We’ll check it out next time.
If you want to do any serious grocery shopping, the nearest Publix is in Watercolor Crossings Plaza, six miles away on a back road in Watercolor. It might be easier to find the Public on U.S. 98, about 8 miles away.
For fresh seafood, I recommend Shrimpers in Santa Rosa Beach, about 10 miles south on U.S. 98. This a wonderful little seafood market features fresh-caught shrimp, oysters, grouper and other local catches at attractive prices, and they’ll steam your shrimp in Old Bay right there if you wish.
Grayton Beach State Park, 357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, FL. 850-267-8300. Web site: floridastateparks.org/park/Grayton-Beach
Activities: Beach, Bicycling, Birding, Boat Ramp, Camping, Cabins, Canoe/Kayak, Fishing, Hiking, Picnicking, Swimming.
Camping: $24/night plus tax and a non-refundable $6.70 reservation fee. Cabins: $110-$130/night. For campground reservations up to 11 months in advance, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287, or online at Florida State Parks.
Pets: Yes, but not on beaches
Cellular: Decent signal for both ATT/Consumer Cellular and Verizon.
TV: Received 7 stations over the air (antenna), and satellite reception should be good in the more-open new campground loop.