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. Montana is one such place for us. So is Wyoming. Michigan's Upper Peninsula is on that list. And so is that spectacular stretch of Florida Panhandle shoreline known as the Emerald Coast.
Stretching from Panama Beach to the east and going all the way to the Alabama border (and beyond) this is an area of contrasts. There are more upscale shopping centers, fine restaurants and busy little chic boutiques along the main east-west route of US 98 than you will find just about anywhere else.
But just off that highway are the most glorious sugar sand beaches we've found anywhere in America. And the water, Oh man. Crystal clear. Turquoise and emerald colored. In some places, it looks like you are in the Caribbean. For RVers, this area offers a wide variety of campgrounds.
In this post, I want to talk about the three state parks you can camp along the Emerald Coast. In a follow up post, I'll tell you about a couple of our favorite private campgrounds.
There are three great Florida State Parks on the Emerald Coast – at Grayton Beach, the Topsail Hill Preserve and Henderson Beach. These parks are between Highway 98 and the Gulf, though to get to the beach from campsites there is a bit of a hike. But the sites at each park are flat, relativey large, well landscaped for privacy and have full hookups. We've been at all of them and none will disappoint. The only downside is that they are very hard to get in during the peak summer season.
Reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica. Book Online or call (800) 326-3521 (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST).
Grayton Beach is on Santa Rose Beach, a small little beach community on Florida Scenic Highway 30A, a a 28.5 mile corridor that hugs the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Northwest Florida’s Walton County between US 98 and the gulf. Scenic Highway 30-A is a tourist attraction of major proportions. It is an eclectic mix of hot Caribbean colors and soft pastels, with architecture to match each community’s charm, whether it be Old Florida’s traditional 2-3 story homes, or the packed together and upscale cottages of Seaside with white picket fences and pedestrian pathways to the shops and eateries. Yet it never feels urban, thanks to miles of greenway trails connecting state parks, preserves and residential areas.
Grayton is about 2,000 acres in size and contains the brackish (salt and fresh water) Walker Lake, which offers excellent fishing. A nature trail winds through a coastal forest where scrub oaks and magnolias stand, bent and twisted by the salt winds. Hikers and bicyclists can enjoy more than four miles of trails throughout the pine flatwoods. The campground only has 59 sites and is one of the nicest camping areas along the Gulf Coast. Each site comes with electricity and water andsome sites have sewer hook-ups. Good luck in finding a spot.
At Topsail – which, if pressed, would be our favorite of the three state parks – you can explore 3.2 miles of secluded white sand beaches with majestic dunes over 25 feet tall. Three rare coastal dune lakes provide excellent freshwater fishing at Topsail. Although boats are not allowed, fishing from the shoreline yields bass, bream, panfish, and catfish. Lakes, pristine beaches, old-growth long leaf pines, sand pine scrub, and a variety of wetlands offer a bird-watching and hiking paradise.
Topsail's campground is so elaborate that it's called an RV Resort – the Gregory E Moore RV Resort, to be exact, which has 156 sites with water, 30 or 50 amp electric, digital cable, sewer, swimming pool, laundry facilities and shuffleboard courts. Bathrooms with showers are heated and cooled.
To get to the beach is a long walk. Most of the campers here bring bikes, or rent them from the campstore. There is a tram that runs from the edge of the campground to the beach, about a 3/4 mile distance. Take your own chairs, umbrellas and food. There are restroom facilities where the tram drops you off. There's a long boardwalk there that leads over the dunes to the beach.
Topsail is also located in Santa Rose Beach, just a couple miles west of Grayton.
Henderson Beach, a few miles west of Topsail down 98, is in the community of Destin. Despite all the busyness of Highway 98 and the trendy town of Destin, you will notice signs at Henderson advising campers to bring in food each night because there are black bears in the area. You feel like you are in the middle of the wilderness at Henderson, though you are in the heart of one of the busiest tourist areas in the region. The beach is sugar sand and takes up 6,000 feet of natural, undeveloped scenic shoreline.
A three-quarter mile nature trail provides visitors a rare glimpse of the coastal dune ecosystem and abundant wildlife and is pet friendly. Pets, though, are not allowed on the beach. Camping at Henderson Beach State Park provides 60 campsites that are located in a secondary dune system. The campground has air conditioned and heated bathhouse facilities. A separate beach access boardwalk with outdoor showers are included in our campground.
The campsites are a mixture of back in and pull-through sites. They have water, electricity, picnic tables, ground grills and clothesline posts. Campsites do not have sewer connections, but a centrally located dump station. Amenities include heated and air conditioned restrooms with showers, coin operated washers, dryers and vending machines
So those are our three favorite state parks out here. All are quiet, relaxed and have a wilderness feel to them, even though you are a three minute drive away from one of the busiest tourist areas in Florida. Again, bring your own chairs and umbrellas. You;ll want to spend a lot of time on those fantastic beaches.
I'll have a second report on the Emerald Coast that lists our two favorite commercial campgrounds, including one that lets you park right on the beach – though it comes with a steep pricetag.