Out of all of the places we've traveled, the Emerald Coast remains high on our list of favorites.
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 a 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 Part Two, I tell you about a couple of our favorite private campgrounds: Beach Camping on the Emerald Coast at Camp Gulf.
In this post, I want to talk about the three state parks you can camp along the Emerald Coast.
Three Beautiful State Parks along the Emerald Coast
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, relatively large, well-landscaped for privacy, and have full hookups.
We've been at all of them and none 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. It's 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, it's all here.
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 and some sites have sewer hook-ups. Good luck in finding a spot.
Topsail Hill Preserve
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 longleaf 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 camp store.
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 Rosa 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 is 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.
Learn more about RVing through Brilliant Destin and The Emerald Coast.
Emerald Coast Campgrounds in Part Two
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.
Now, check out a second report on the Emerald Coast that lists our two favorite commercial campgrounds. One lets you park right on the beach – though it comes with a steep price tag.
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.
Each of these guides is a seven-day guided exploration of one of the coasts. And each stop is a curated view of the best things that we’ve enjoyed on this trip and want you to experience.
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.
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.
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.