Camping

Panhandle Safari: Exploring “the other” Florida, campground by campground

Bob and Kathy Rountree on the Suwannee River.

Bob and his wife Kathy on the Suwannee River.

For a taste of the seasons without the inconvenience of snow, one need go no further than Florida’s Panhandle, especially during the autumn and winter months as snowbirds and tourists gravitate towards the warmer climate in Central and South Florida.

Our goal this fall was to escape wretched humidity in advance of the cold fronts that take the sting out of summer, but it seems those fronts take longer to arrive with each passing year.

So we packed our travel trailer and set out on a camping and kayaking safari, seeking a cool breeze in Florida’s Panhandle.

We selected a handful of state parks for a balanced taste of this “other” Florida, where hills are higher than landfills, “real” trees decorate the horizon and glistening sugar-sand beaches, summer crowds long gone, are on full display with their majestic dunes rolling gently to an emerald sea.

Suwannee River State Park

Our safari kicked off along the legendary Suwannee River, where our kayaks could get wet and our legs could warm up on wilderness trails. Just off Interstate 10, a wee bit west of I-75, Suwannee River State Park was the perfect rest stop after a demanding drive via Florida’s Turnpike and I-75.

We sensed autumn’s promise in the air, and by our second night, temperatures had dipped to the 50s and 60s.

Suwannee River State Park is at the junction of two rivers, the scenic Withlacoochee River joining the Suwannee to continue its lazy journey to the Gulf of Mexico. A boat ramp in the park allows you to explore both rivers from a kayak, canoe or small motorboat.

The campground’s 30 well-equipped campsites accommodate both tents and RVs, and it’s hard to beat for an all-inclusive $22 a night, plus taxes and the one-time $6.70 booking fee on ReserveAmerica.com. Seniors and disabled person pay half that. Day visitors pay $5 per vehicle.

All campgrounds in Florida State Parks include water and electric, picnic tables and grills or fire rings, as well as a dump station. Some sites also have clotheslines and lantern posts. Some parks have primitive campsites for backpackers with no amenities, although some offer potable water.

The park also has five two-bedroom cabins for $100 per night (no discounts) with heating and cooling, an electric fireplace, screened porch and kitchenette, kitchen utensils and linens, six persons max per cabin.

Six designated trails will provide all the hiking options you need, the shortest trails being less than a mile and the longest trail at 12.5 miles.

Don’t confuse Suwannee River State Park with the Stephen Foster Cultural State Park, although the adventurous might consider a kayak expedition on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, where you can paddle from one park to the other, about 40 miles, and put in for a night at a designated river camp.

We arrived in the Panhandle during the annual Monarch butterfly migration, and they were abundant at every stop, along with colorful songbirds and cranes seeking winter haven in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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Grayton Beach State Park

Next stop was a beach long on our bucket list because of the constant praise it receives from coastal ecologist Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, more commonly known as “Dr. Beach,” whose annual list of Top 10 Beaches in America is widely regarded.

This year, Dr. Beach ranked Grayton Beach at No. 4.

“This beach boasts of its sugar-white sand and emerald green water where development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape,” he wrote.

The majestic dunes along the mile-long beach harbor a unique collection of brackish lakes, and you can paddle from one to the other, as we did. If you look closely, you’ll see what appear to be gnarly, low-lying bushes that are actually the tops of slash pines buried in drifting sands and surrounded by sea oats.

Campground and cabin reservations at all Florida State Parks may be made online or by phone, (800) 326-3521 (8 am to 8:00 pm), or TDD (888) 433-0287. Reservations are accepted up to 11 months in advance.

Bicycles are big here. Paved multi-use trails offer access to a state forest as well as neighboring Grayton Beach, one of Florida’s oldest beach communities, and two of its newest, the picturesque planned communities of Watercolor and Seaside. Forest roads in the adjacent 22,000-acre Port Washington State Forest offer many miles of excellent off-road cycling.

There are two campground loops, one old and one new. The old campground is cozy, private and tree-shaded, ideal for tents and small trailers, while the new campground is more spacious and open, catering more to recreation vehicles. Sometime next year, the old campground is scheduled to close for “improvements,” but if you ask me, no improvements are required. Many of the sites are on a dune lake, offering easy access to an afternoon on the water.

Sites in the old campground include water and 30-amp electric for $24 per night, and the new campground offers water, 50-amp electric and sewer hookups for $30 per night.

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Henderson Beach State Park

Dr. Beach missed this one, at least in 2017.

A short hop down the coastal highway, US 98, you’ll find Henderson Beach State Park tucked behind the beach dunes in Destin and, in my opinion, it’s Grayton Beach’s equal.

A half-mile wide and more than a mile long, Henderson Beach’s eco-system supports a scenic spray of low-growth sand pine, scrub oak, sea oats and dune rosemary on its rolling dunes.

Four loops of 15 campsites each have been carved out of the beach’s secondary dune system, and campers access the beach via their own quarter-mile boardwalk and nature trail.

Pets are now allowed in most all Florida State Park campgrounds, although leashes are required and restrictions may apply in other areas of the parks. Beaches are off-limits.

All 60 sites have been recently improved with convenient access to two bathhouses, which are air-conditioned and heated.

The gravel-based campsites are more suited to RVs and cost $30 per night, plus tax and the $6.70 reservation fee. As in all state parks, water and electric are included. There are no cabins.

Day visitors pay $6 per vehicle, should you choose other lodging in neighboring Destin.

The sunset on Henderson Beach provided our most memorable evening of the trip. The beach was empty and the sunset amazing as a soft breeze synced with gentle waves easing ashore. It was hard to leave.

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Three Rivers State Park

No phone, no internet, no TV signal. We even lost track of time.

If you do find a cellular signal, barely a trickle if you do, your smartphone can’t figure out where you are. One minute you’re in Central Time Zone, the next in Eastern, just by walking across the campground.

Three Rivers gets its name from the Chattahoochee and Flynt rivers, merging here to form Lake Seminole, which tumbles over a man-made dam into the Apalachicola River.

As a camping experience, Three Rivers was very much the high point of our trip, ranking among our favorite campgrounds in the entire state of Florida.

Every one of the 30 campsites in Three Rivers State Park has at least a partial view of Lake Seminole, and the campground is set in a dense hardwood and pine forest of rolling hills and ravines.

The scene was reminischent of camping on lakes in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. We even saw some leaf color along the lakefront in November!

Bring a book, a kayak and a fishing pole. Nothing more is needed. We were on the lakefront, so we were able to launch our kayaks directly from our campsite. Inland sites, which were spacious and scenic, can launch from the community boat ramp.

The camping fee at Three Rivers State Park was just $15, which includes water and electric, plus tax and the standard $6.70 booking fee for reservations. The park also has one well-equipped lakefront cabin that goes for $65 per night.

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Torreya State Park

Torreya State Park’s campground is on a high bluff above the Apalachicola River surrounded by deep ravines in a dense hardwood forest with a scattering of evergreens, including the dainty Torreya tree, an endangered conifer found only on the high bluffs of the Apalachicola.

There’s not much to do here except hike, and the terrain is challenging as the trails dip in and out of steep ravines. There are 16 miles of hiking trails and several miles of park roads where you can ride your bicycle.

Torreya State Park gets a bad rap for snakes. The rangers even warned us on arrival: “I need to tell you about the snakes. We have cottonmouth, copperheads and rattlesnakes…”

We saw none over three days. Watch your step, stay on the trails and avoid snake havens such as loose rocks, blankets of fallen leaves and high grass.

A historic plantation house sits on a bluff above the river and is open for tours daily, and it is here where we saw the Torreya tree.

The park’s 29 campsites are well-suited for both tents and recreation vehicles, and there’s a cool yurt available for nightly rentals of $40. Full facility campsites are $16 a night, plus tax and the $6.70 reservation fee, and primitive sites are available along trails for $5 per person.

Day use visitors pay $3 admission per vehicle.

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More Florida Rambler articles about destinations in Florida’s Panhandle

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2 Comments

  1. You are missing out by not exploring State Forest campgrounds- hidden, and rarely visited. A perfect example: Womac Creek Campground, on the idyllic Okalochnee River, near Carrabelle. State Parks are overrun, over managed, and expensive.

    • Florida’s state forests are excellent choices for camping if you are willing to forego the amenities of state parks.

      Facilities vary from state forest to state forest, but only a few have the water and/or electric hookups sought by RV campers. There is also an issue of security in an open forest, compared to the limited access to state park campgrounds. State forests also allow hunting, which can discourage campers.

      Still, Florida’s state forests allow you to immerse yourself in untamed wilderness, and I highly recommend them, especially if camping with a group.

      State forests do cost very little, often $5 or $10, and some are even free (but still require permits). I disagree on the cost of camping in state parks, though. The parks we visited for this article ranged in price from $15 a night (Three Rivers State Park) to $30 (Grayton Beach), a real bargain when compared to the cost of private campgrounds. Florida residents over 65 get a 50% discount. I paid just $8 at Three Rivers, and I have to say that Three Rivers rivaled any campground I’ve seen in state forests for a natural experience.

      Thanks you for the tip on Womac Creek Campground. I’ll check it out the next time I’m in the Panhandle. 🙂

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