It’s quiet here, waves softly lapping on the beach. Shore birds scoot along the surf line. The sun is making its slow descent into a glowing sunset. Sea oats wave in the breeze across rolling dunes.
You can feel it. Smell it. Breath it. Settle into your beach chair.
This is Henderson Beach State Park in Destin.
Ranked consistently as one of America’s Best Beaches, this protected slice of paradise is a pleasant slip of isolation wedged between a pile of high-rise resorts and condos of Sandestin and Destin.
Fall is a great time to visit Henderson Beach State Park, but if you want a campsite, you will probably need to book it well in advance.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.
The Panhandle eases out of Florida’s brutal summers more easily and quickly than other parts of the state. Summer vacation is over on the Redneck Riviera as families return home to Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
Fall is the less popular shoulder season, bridging the gap before snowbirds flock south from the Midwest and Northeast, making it ideal for those who have the flexibility.
The boardwalk from the campground to the beach is a quarter-mile trek through coastal scrub, dwarf magnolia and stunted live oak, gradually opening up to rolling dunes covered in sea oats.
On our walk to the beach during this fall visit, we saw blue jays, cardinals and even a playful red, red robin just bobbin’ along! Migrating songbirds complement the steady presence of native shorebirds.
The time of year also allowed encounters with migrating Monarch butterflies, who pour through Florida’s Panhandle en route to their winter home in Mexico. As they flutter through, the Monarch’s lay their eggs in native milkweed, enabling their larvae to survive.
Note: The campground’s beach-access boardwalk will be closed for repairs from September 2021 through March 2022. Campers will be asked to use beach access points in the Day-Use area. For updates, visit Henderson Beach State Park.
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, Southern magnolia and dune rosemary on its rolling dunes, some of which are 30 feet high.
Day-use visitors are directed to the western reaches of the 250-acre park, while campers take root on the eastern end, creating two distinct areas with the campground beach enjoying the least amount of crowding, crowding significant enough to close the park on many summer days but more relaxed in fall.
Surf fishing is popular, and your catch may include pompano, redfish (red drum), flounder, catfish, whiting and maybe even the occasional cobia.
Unfortunately, kayaking is not allowed in the park and while bicycling is allowed, cyclists must stick to the paved roadways also used by RVs and cars.
For visitors in wheelchairs, an all-terrain beach wheelchair is available to provide access to beach areas. Inquire at the ranger station if none are available beachside.
Pets are not permitted on the beach but are allowed on the three-quarter mile nature trail that explores the ancient dunes and the coastal scrub plant and wildlife community once ubiquitous in this coastal zone now largely overwhelmed by development.
The campground has 60 sites with a mix of back-in and pull-through sites. The maximum RV length is 45 feet.
All sites have water and electric (some 50-amp), picnic tables, ground grills and clothesline posts. A shared dump station is available.
Restrooms with showers have heating and AC, coin-operated washers and dryers.
Pets are welcome in the campground and on some trails but not on the beach.
We found cellular service to be excellent for both AT&T and Verizon, but the lack of an OTA signal for the television in our RV came as a bit of a surprise. For RVs with satellite dishes, there was plenty of open skies.
* No campsites were available for the rest of the year when I checked recently. Check often for cancellations, book ahead for next spring and plan your booking strategy for next fall. These are not easy campsites to reserve.
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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 14 years ago.