Florida Panhandle campgrounds offer a taste of the seasons without the inconvenience of snow, but beware of the summer crush of visitors from Southern states.
Don’t expect beach weather in winter. Because winter is North Florida’s “off-season,” but you avoid snowbirds, making it easier to book a campsite.
For our Panhandle safari, my wife and I selected a handful of state parks for a balanced taste of this “other” Florida, where hills are higher than landfills, “real” trees spot the horizon and you may actually find a spot to chill on glistening sugar-sand beaches.
The sun still shines here, but dress warm on most winter days.
Suwannee River State Park
Our safari through Florida Panhandle campgrounds kicked off along the legendary Suwannee River, where our kayaks could get wet and our legs could get a workout 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 from South Florida.
We sensed 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. 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, grills and/or fire rings, as well as a dump station. Some sites have clotheslines and lantern posts. Some parks have primitive campsites for backpackers with no amenities.
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 provide hiking options with the shortest trails being less than a mile and the longest trail at 12.5 miles.
Don’t confuse Suwannee River State Park with nearby 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.
Grayton Beach State Park
Next stop for our Florida Panhandle campground safari was a beach long on our bucket list because of the constant praise it receives from coastal ecologist Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, commonly known as “Dr. Beach.”
In 2020, Dr. Beach ranked Grayton Beach the No. 1 Beach in America on his highly regarded Top 10 list.
“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.
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 towns, and two of its newest, the picturesque planned communities of Watercolor and Seaside.
Forest roads in the adjacent 22,000-acre Point Washington State Forest offer many miles of excellent off-road cycling.
Grayton Beach State Park’s campground is recently upgraded, offering 30-amp electric, water and sewer hookups on 59 sites for $30 per night.
Many of the sites are on a dune lake, offering easy access to an afternoon paddle on the water.
The park also offers cabin rentals in a limited-access area of the park featuring 30 two-bedroom duplex cabins.
Each cabin is equipped with a gas fireplace (available November through March), central heating and cooling, kitchen with basic cooking and dining utensils, screened-in porch and outdoor grill. Linens, pillows, blankets and towels are provided.
Cabins are scheduled to undergo renovations beginning June 1, 2021, and will be unavailable after that date for an undetermined length of time.
Dr. Beach should take another look at this beach.
A short hop down the U.S. 98 coastal highway from Grayton Beach, you’ll find Henderson Beach State Park tucked behind the dunes in Destin.
In my humble opinion, Henderson Beach rivals Grayton Beach in its beauty.
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, however, are off-limits to pets.
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 our trip. The beach was empty and the sunset amazing as a soft breeze synced with gentle waves easing ashore. It was hard to leave.
Three Rivers State Park
No phone, no internet, no TV signal. We couldn’t even keep 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 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 is just $16, including water and electric, plus tax and the standard $6.70 booking fee for state park reservations. The park also has one well-equipped lakefront cabin that goes for $65 per night.
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. Of course, it’s not their intention to be seen.
Watch your step and stay on the trails. 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. It is here where we saw our first 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 a $6.70 reservation fee, and primitive sites are available along trails for $5 per person.
Day use visitors pay $3 admission per vehicle.
More Florida Rambler articles about destinations in Florida’s Panhandle
- Best beach camping in Florida’s Panhandle
- Camping at state parks in Florida’s Panhandle
- Celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration in Florida’s Big Bend
- Apalachicola & St. George Island: Delightful town; spectacular beach
- 6 outstanding state park campgrounds along I-75 in North Florida
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.