Some of the most spectacular untouched dunes in Florida and three miles of perfect white sand beach are preserved in Topsail Hill State Park in the Panhandle.
The park offers 15 miles of hiking through the complete dune ecosystem, where you weave through 25-foot dunes, past rare freshwater coastal dune lakes and through pine forests and cypress swamps.
It’s an unusual state park in several ways. Developed in the 1990s, it has a large RV park with all the amenities – 156 sites with water, sewer, electricity and cable TV at each one – plus 22 tent sites and 32 cabins or bungalows for rent. It even has a popular glamping option.
All that lodging makes the campground and cabin area seem like a small suburban development , which is not the wild and natural setting I expect at a state park.
The upside to that cluster of development is that all cars stay there. The rest of the park must be toured on foot, on bike or by taking the free tram that runs hourly to the beach.
Because of this arrangement, this is a park where you should bring your bikes if at all possible. (You can rent bikes here too.)
The other upside: Fewer people venture beyond the tram stops at the beach and thus longer trails and beach sections further from the tram stop are wonderfully uncrowded.
The longest hike at Topsail Hill State Park was our favorite hike in a week of Panhandle exploration.
Hiking trails at Topsail Hill State Park
Other than swimming and beach activities, the other main recreation at Topsail Hill State Park is hiking and biking, and it’s terrific.
My first piece of advice: Ask for a trail map at the ranger office because they do not have any out on counters and there is no signage to indicate where trails go or how long they are.
The park has two paved roads and cars are not permitted on them – one to the beach, which is served by an hourly tram from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and one to a trailhead. The trailhead at Campbell Lake is a mile walk on this paved trail, and we were happy to have bikes to ride there.
Campbell Lake Trailhead overlooks a beautiful coastal dune lake. It has restrooms with flush toilets, covered picnic tables and benches with views of the lake. It’s a perfect place to base yourself before a hike in the dunes.
We chose to hike the Deer Track Trail from there, and we did see two deer as we walked through a shaded wooden trail with lake views. The trail connects to Morris Lake Trail, the longest trail in the park, a loop located between freshwater Morris Lake and the gulf beaches.
These two trails together make about a terrific 4-mile roundtrip. The advantages of these trails are many. They are as far from the busy Highway 30A as you can get in the park, so the traffic noise, which you hear through much of the park, is gone. It is a more remote area of the park where you are likely to encounter the fewest people. It’s also absolutely gorgeous, with towering white dunes and occasional views of the Gulf and lakes. In the fall sunlight, the dune vegetation with its brilliant Seaside Goldenrod in bloom was stunning.
I suspect the highly reflective white sand would make hiking this in the heat of summer quite miserable. On a 77-degree October day, it was heaven. (Do bring water.)
As you hike along the Deer Track Trail, there are several points where the trail adjoins tall dunes and visitors are probably tempted to clamber up to cut over to the Gulf.
Don’t do it.
First, you might actually be several dunes away from the beach. Secondly, it’s very destructive to this special habitat. Third, while it does not appear to be marked on the map, if you turn left where the Deer Track Trail and the Morris Trail come together, you come to a beach access point. At this point on the trail, there’s a covered picnic table and a sand road with plenty of tire treads that leads to the beach.
We visited during an episode of red tide, so while the beach was beyond beautiful, we only spent a few minutes there because we were immediately coughing.
The Morris Trail has markers that take you on the loop. Much of it is sand, so even though it’s relatively flat, it’s not easy hiking.
Note: Don’t bring your bike on the Morris Trail. You’ll be pushing it through sand most of the way.
Rare coastal dune lakes at Topsail Hill State Park
One of the special things about Topsail Hill State Park and this whole section along Highway 30A in the Panhandle are the rare coastal dune lakes.
There are five of these lakes in Topsail Hill, three of which are reachable by hiking. Coastal dune lakes are found in only four countries around the world and in one other state, Oregon. The only place to see these in Florida is Walton County, home to both Topsail Hill State Park and Grayton Beach State Park, which has three coastal dune lakes.
The lakes, which form in extensive dune environments, gather water from rain, streams and groundwater. When they are deep enough, they overflow their sandy shores and spill their tannic water into the Gulf in outfalls. When that happens, saltwater may travel into the lake at high tide, thus the two types of water mix. Each lake is a different mix of salt and freshwater.
The dune lakes at Topsail Hill State Park are beautiful and make the longer hiking extra rewarding.
The most accessible dune lake, Campbell Lake, can be kayaked by renting equipment from the camp store. (The kayaks are kept at the lake; you must get life preservers and paddles and carry them on foot to the lake, which is a mile away.) The park does not allow outside kayaks to be used here for fear of introducing non-native plants.
The cabins at Topsail Hill State Park
Topsail Hill has a lot of cabins compared to other state parks – 32. They come in two styles – 16 smaller bungalows and 16 larger cabins.
The bungalows, which sleep four, are smaller, closer together and located in an older forest. The cabins, which sleep six if you use the sleeper sofa, are laid out on a loop that looks like a suburban street with small young trees. Both bungalows and cabins are located in the same area and are served by the same tram stop that takes people to the beach a little more than a half mile away.
We stayed in a cabin and it was simple and modern, equipped with the necessities. There are two bedrooms and two full bathrooms; heat and air conditioning. (No fireplace.) Bring your own soap, shampoo and paper towels. (They did have dish soap and coffee filters.)
The best part of the cabin is a wrap around screen porch with rocking chairs and a picnic table, and, of course, the location in this spectacular park.
We had plenty of minor issues – burned out lightbulb, a shower we could not make work, a dead nightlight, a roach (welcome to Florida). We had to get a ranger to come show us how the lock works (press on the door as you turn the dead bolt). Our cabin did not have a barbecue or fire ring; it seems others did.
It’s a given, there’s no wifi, except at the camp store/café. Cell service is adequate.
You are close to Eglin Air Force Base; expect occasional F-15s overhead as well as Blackhawk helicopters.
Camping at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
The campground is one of the largest in a Florida State Park with 156 RV sites and 22 tent sites. It even has an operation called Fancy Camps that provides a glamping experience. (More on that below.)
They call the campground the Gregory E. Moore RV Resort and it truly feels like a resort, with sites laid out around a small lake and recreation center. The state purchased an existing RV park from a private owner in 1998 and combined it with an existing preserve to create Topsail Hill State Park.
Topsail Hill State Park camping sites have water, 30- or 50-amp electric, digital cable, sewer, (non-heated) swimming pool, laundry facilities and shuffleboard courts. The maximum RV length is 45 feet
The tent sites are in a separate woody loop and include an elevated tent pad, a fire ring, and water and electric hookups. A restroom with showers is located in the tent camping area.
Here’s a Topsail Hill State Park campground map.
Glamping at Topsail Hill State Park
The company that has the camp store and kayak concession at Topsail Hill also operates Fancy Camps where, for $130 a night, you can stay in a fully outfitted tent with a queen bed, linens, rugs, lamps and even portable air conditioners or heaters.
Chatting with a staff member with a Fancy Camps T-shirt, I asked who the market for glamping was. “Instagrammers,” I was told. Well there must be a lot of them, because the two tents are booked for weekends this winter.
The glamping area is adjacent to the tent camping loop and overlooks a field where deer graze some mornings and evenings.
Topsail Hill State Park: Exploring Highway 30A & Timpoochee Bike Trail
The glamping staff made a point that one reason people will pay $130 a night to glamp there is the proximity to Highway 30A.
While I might think tent camping is about cooking dinner at the campfire, the glampers, I was told, want to hit the restaurants and bars on 30A.
Highway 30A is a 19 mile stretch of two-lane road along the beaches of Walton County. It passes by Topsail Hill State Park and Grayton Beach State Park as well as a multi-million-dollar homes in the glamorous Seaside, Watercolors and about a dozen other communities. Residents of 30A include a number of celebrities.
There are some very scenic sections of 30A, especially where it crosses over coastal dune lakes. What I especially love about 30A is the Timpoochee Trail, a paved bike path that hugs the side of 30A the whole way. It is a scenic ride but also a great form of transportation, and you see many bikes making use of it. We saw literally hundreds of bikes for rent along the trail.
Here’s a useful mile-by-mile guide to the Timpoochee Trail. We biked the section closest to Grayton Beach State Park and after driving all of 30A, think it’s the most scenic section to bicycle.
Planning your visit to Topsail Hill State Park
State park website for Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.