Last summer my wife and I decided we wanted to spend a couple of weeks in the panhandle of Florida camping at the beach. The Florida panhandle beaches are well known for their beautiful white sandy beaches and emerald green waters. Ten months in advance we booked a two week camping vacation starting at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka for three nights then St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach for six nights and ending up at St. George Island State Park for five nights. The disaster in the Gulf happened six weeks before we were to depart on this trip. We watched the news daily to see if the oil would make it to the panhandle before our trip or even during the trip. No matter, as the time got closer we decided we would go regardless.
Wekiwa State Park is located at the head waters of Wekiva River and offers its visitors a natural setting to just relax, enjoy a picnic, or take a swim in the cool spring. Being it was the first of July and the temperature was in the nineties we decided to take the inner tube ride down the river. The tube ride took a little over two hours which boasts some spectacular scenery along the river banks. A short bus ride through the park will get you back to the campground.
To get to the spring head by road is seven miles which makes for a great bike ride. However, when the temperature is above ninety and no shade along the highway this ride can get pretty tough. Yet the trip was worth it. The spring head park has a botanical garden with beautiful flowers, trees as old as Florida is, and small waterfalls throughout the gardens. There is a dock at the spring head for people to jump into the crystal clear waters. Mind you, the cool water will take your breath and it is deeper than it appears to be. After the bike ride back, it was straight to the river for a dip to cool off.
St Andrews State Park is situated in the pinewoods near Grand Lagoon on aformer military reservation that has over one-and-a-half miles of beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.The weather was not that good when we first arrived at St Andrews State Park, not much rain, just wind and very overcast; however, for the first few days we made the best of it. Due to the off shore winds the currents were really bad in the gulf and people were advised to stay out due to strong currents. Staying out of the water had nothing to do with the oil spill. In fact, we spent about half of our day just enjoying the beautiful white sandy beaches with many of the local residents as well as fellow campers. The national Guardsmen that patrolled the beach for signs of oil were very polite and informative about the conditions of the beaches as well as the water. We were told they were signs of oil 20 miles off shore but it was not expected to get any closer and they had found no tar balls on the beach.
The first few days of overcast skies and cooler weather were great for leisurely riding our bikes around the park on the two miles of paved road. One afternoon we decided to ride our bikes down the strip of Panama City Beach. This is where reality really set in. July 4th weekend when this city should have been overrun with people, nearly every hotel we rode by had vacancy signs. A city that relies on tourism had very little all because of the offshore tragedy, and the news media. Enough said about that. Late one afternoon we took the time to explore the two nature trails: Heron Pond Trail which takes you on a hike through the flat wood pine forest, and past the Turpentine Still and the trail at Gator Lake which takes you on a scenic view of Gator Lake. No, we did not see any alligators.
The last two full days at St Andrews Park was picture perfect weather. The temperature was back to ninety degrees, not a cloud in the sky with a small ocean breeze. The ocean was calm and clear with little ripples of waves. The beaches were packed with campers as well as local residents.
St. George Island State Park has 9 miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay. The first four miles are assessable by car along the parks main drive and the last five miles are by foot only. If you want to go for a nice walk I suggest you walk the beach that is assessable by foot only like my wife and I did; however, the scenery does not change, but there is a good chance you will find some large conch shells especially at low tide. From the campground to the beach is only one quarter mile unless you want to go to the public beach areas that have bathrooms and showers then it is about one mile to the nearest one.
There are two nature trails located inside the park. The 2.5 mile trail to Gap Point begins in the campground and meanders through the pine flat wood forest to the bay. If one fells adventuress as we did turn south when you reach the bay and work your way along the edge of the water. Our intent was to try and reach the gulf, believe me it is not easy and much further that it appears. After about four hours and traveling quiet a distance it looked no closer than when we started. Mind you, we kept stopping and collecting shells along the way. After about 30 more minutes we came along a trail leading into the woods. We decided to take the trail not knowing where it would lead us and to our luck, it took us close to the public beach area. What a thrill.
Article by Larry West
No matter which campground we were at, it was always a joy to get out the outdoor camping grill late in the afternoon and fill the air with the aroma of food grilling.