Beach camping along The Emerald Coast should be high on your traveling to-do list.
It's one thing to stay along the spectacular beaches of the Florida Panhandle's Emerald Coast. It's another to camp on the beach.
So that's why we bit the bullet and spent way more money than usual to stay in one of the choice beach spots on RV Camp Gulf, a very popular private campground in Destin, Florida.
I know, I know, it's a ridiculous amount of money. You can book a beachfront condo or hotel room for the same price. Or less…
But we did it. It was on my bucket list. So we spent four nights there, wheels on the white sugar sand, yards away from the crystal clear waters. Actually, we spent two nights in one spot, two nights in another.
Beach Camping at RV Camp Gulf
RV Camp Gulf has some 220 or so camping spots but only 16 of them are right on the beach. Those are the high price premium spots and they are packed close together.
We were in our Class B Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL at the time, and it was sandwiched between a monster Class A skyscraper and a huge Fifth Wheel in spot #805 for the first two nights. With our awning out, it came within about five feet of touching the side of our neighbor to the west. To the east, the Fifth Wheel was bout a foot away from our driver's side.
The other two nights we were on the very first spot to the east, site #815. That number doesn't even show on the map of the campground. That's because it is the smallest and trickiest to park in. A Class A couldn't do it. I don't think a Class C could, either.
But our campervan fit just fine. And this was our favorite spot because, while we had a travel trailer very, very close to us on the west, there was nothing to the east but sand.
We loved those beach spots, despite the cost and the packed-in closeness to our RVing neighbors. It's not something we'd do a lot – because of the price – but living on the beach like that was pure heaven. Once we got past the sticker shock.
This was our second stay at RV Camp Gulf. We stayed at one further back on a concrete pad with a patio a while back, about a five-minute walk from the beach.
Because of country regulations, dogs are not allowed on the beach. Thus, RV Camp Gulf's beach sites are not rented to those who have pets.
You need your own beach chairs and awnings. Most of our fellow beachside campers had big canopies they erected in the sand right in front of their RVs. Trust me, you need an awning or canopy. The Florida sun is intense.
There's a great ambiance and sense of community along those beach sites. We met a couple from Louisiana who camped in a Fifth Wheel, painted in LSU's colors. Their beach canopy matched.
A group of Texans took up three spots. They brought a margarita machine and a statue of a steer. Yup. You heard right. One morning, not long after sunrise, they were out in front of their rigs practicing steer roping.
Other campers, from the non-beach sites further back, wander down throughout the day, using the two access points for the beach.
A guy from Tennessee marveled that anyone would pay so much for a spot “when you can have access to the same beach for a third of that cost and by taking only a short stroll.” I can see his point but, hey, camping on the beach is what I wanted. And that's what I got.
When you add in taxes and fees, expect to pay more than is quoted. But call them if you want specifics because, in our two stays, we found the rates fluctuating wildly because of the season and, no doubt, demand.
Besides the beach, Camp Gulf offers clean and private restrooms and showers, a community room with daily activities, two swimming pools, and a full-service camp store.
Other Places to Stay and Visit in the Area
We liked RV Camp Gulf. A lot.
In a previous post, I talked about three much more affordable state parks on the Emerald Coast that we also enjoy on visits here. They, however, are not on the beach. To get to the water, you need to take either a long walk or tram ride.
I'm told there is also beach camping at the far eastern end of the Emerald Coast, near Panama City, but we haven't spent much time in that area so I can't give any suggestions there. We'll check those spots out next visit.
The Forgotten Coastline
Further east and a bit south of Panama City is an area of the panhandle known as the Forgotten Coastline. There are two awesome state parks there a stone's throw from the beach and a charming little private campground called Ho-Hum in the village of Carrabelle.
The Forgotten Coastline is really not a part of the Emerald Coast, however. The water's not that turquoise color and the beach isn't as powdery.
Destin West RV Resort
There is one more private Emerald Coast campground that we've stayed at – the Destin West RV Resort, which isn't in Destin at all but is located on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, west of Destin.
We had an awesome spot there, yards away from the shore of the 27-mile long Choctawhatchee Bay. The spots at Destin West are well spaced, with picnic tables and patios and the resort has its own heated pool and more amenities than you can count.
It's across busy Highway 98 from the Gulf of Mexico, though. But if you stay there you have access to everything at the Ramada Inn across US 28, including its waterfall pool, health club, and beach.
Best Time to Visit The Emerald Coast
Winters along the Emerald Coast can be chilly, down to freezing at night, with temps in the 50's many days. Summers are the busy time. Fall – September through November – is the best time to visit.
Mike and Jennifer's Favorite Places in Florida – all 3 ebooks!
We RVers may wander far and wide but it’s true for most of us that we end up with some favorite “Go-To” places – places that draw us back again and again.
Florida is one of those places for us. And we know it is for many RVers looking to get away and explore during the winter.
That's why we've created three guides, covering Florida's Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Keys.
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Altogether these guides are over 300 pages of content!
FAQ's about Florida Gulf Coast beaches of interest to RVers
What is the weather like along Florida's Gulf Coast?
The weather along Florida's Gulf Coast can vary depending on the time of year and the specific location. In general, the area experiences hot, humid summers and mild, pleasant winters.
The Panhandle region can be quite cool in January. It is seldom below freezing, but daytime highs are typically in the 50s. It warms up about 10 degrees each month.
You can also generally add about 10 degrees for every 150 miles you travel south down the Florida peninsula.
By the time you hit Naples, daytime highs in January are in the comfortable 70s.
Did Hurricane Ian destroy many beach campgrounds on the Gulf Coast?
While it severely damaged almost two dozen RV parks and campgrounds, about 8-10 campgrounds in the Naples-Ft. Myers area were completely destroyed. Most of the damaged campgrounds have been repaired and reopened.
Check with the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds if you have questions or concerns.
Are there any websites that can help me get a reservation for a Florida beach campground?
One of the best resources we can recommend is called Campnab. This service monitors parks for cancelations and sends you an alert when an opening matches your criteria. That said, it isn’t magic. The app doesn’t create availabilities.
The service works – but it is not free.
Campnab offers two ways to use the service. The first is individual pay-per-use scans. These watch for vacancies at a specific park for a specific date. These work well if you know exactly when and where you intend to camp. Pay-per-use scans cost $10 – $20, depending on how frequently you want them to check availability.
The second way to use the service is through a membership. These typically run monthly and are tailored to those who camp more frequently or are looking to maximize their chance of finding a site. Membership allows you to scan multiple parks and/or dates simultaneously. With memberships, you pay a monthly recurring fee ($10, $20, $30, or $50), depending on your needs.
Are there places in Florida where you can literally camp on the beach for free?
Not many. And they are very pricey. If you want to sleep directly on the sand in an RV, you'll have to stay at a developed commercial campground like Camp Gulf on the Emerald Coast or an RV resort like Big Pine Key Resort in the keys. Some state parks like the Gamble Rogers State Memorial Recreation Area in the Atlantic Coast or Bahia Honda State Park in the keys or Fort Desto State Park near St. Petersburg have beachside sites, too.
But are there free, unrestricted RV beach camping spots in Florida?
Sorry, none that I know of that would work for RVs.
There is unrestricted camping on wild beaches on a couple of islands, but you need a boat to get there, and it is for tent camping only. If you want to sleep directly on the sand, there is Anclote Key offshore Tarpon Springs, and Shell Key in Pinellas County. Another favorite is Keewaydin Island between Naples and Marco Island but that area remains pretty devasted from Hurricane Ian.