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Camping Connection: Waterfront for Less

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By Chris Reinolds

These days everyone is watching their budget. So are the days of beachfront views and falling asleep to the sounds of gently lapping waves over? Not for campers.

The Florida Panhandle contains some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States and some would argue the world. Between swanky seaside cottages and shiny high-rise condos, lie three pristine state park campgrounds along the Beaches of South Walton.

The smallest and most remote campground is Grayton Beach State Park, which boasts more than a mile of sugar-white sand kissed by the emerald green waters of the Gulf. The park is located near the town of Grayton Beach on County Road 30A, south of U.S. 98. Henderson Beach State Park and Topsail Preserve State Park are nearby. For a mere $19 a night at Grayton, you can park a shiny Airstream or pitch a tent and let the ocean lull you to sleep.

While there’s plenty of activities in the nearby town of Destin, it’s the amazing natural beauty that lures beach lovers back year after year. Grayton Beach was named one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. The luxurious white sand is actually nearly pure quartz crystal. And the ocean’s emerald color is the perfect complement, earning the area’s title, The Emerald Coast.

Dr. Stephen Leatherman (a.k.a. Dr. Beach) writes that the color of the water all along the Emerald Coast is “partly due to the very purity and crystal clarity of the water that allows incredible visibility and light penetration. The other factors include the shallowness of the water and the very high reflectivity of the sun off the ivory white sand.”

Topsail's coastal dunes at sunset.
Topsail’s coastal dunes at sunset.

Because the Florida Panhandle is so popular, beach camping requires serious planning for the peak season of spring break or summer. Grayton Beach Park Manager Dale Shingler doesn’t recommend walk-in camping at any of the area beach campgrounds during peak season. He urges campers to reserve spots months in advance. And if you are flexible, the campgrounds have more open spots in early  fall. September and October allow campers cooler night temps, but hot enough day temps to enjoy the beach.

Spring beach camping, especially in May before the school crowds come, is also wonderful. April is serene and beautiful, but the water is a little cold. May has cool nights, but hot days perfect for body surfing and snorkeling.

At Grayton, campers can take a canoe or kayak out on scenic Western Lake to get a closer look at a salt marsh ecosystem. Hikers follow a nature trail that winds through a coastal forest with scrub oaks and magnolias bent and twisted by salt wind. And bicyclists can enjoy more than four miles of trails through pine flatwoods. For more information call 850.231.4210.

“If you’re looking to get away from it all, this is a really good place,” Shingler said.

Know that shade is a premium at Grayton and other beach campgrounds. Low scrub trees lend privacy but not the cooling effects of tall oaks or pines. Make sure you bring a beach umbrella or a screened enclosure.

The gazebo, clubhouse and lake at Topsail State Preserve.
The gazebo, clubhouse and lake at Topsail State Preserve.

West of Grayton is the larger Topsail Hill Preserve State Park with 170 sites. The campground is an RV park, but is in the process of adding tent sites. Shingler estimated Topsail’s sites will be ready by mid-summer. Cabins are also available. Topsail includes three miles of secluded, white sand beaches with dunes over 25 feet tall. Three rare coastal dune lakes provide freshwater fishing. Although boats are not allowed, fishing from the shoreline yields bass, bream, panfish, and catfish. The camp also features a non-heated swimming pool and shuffleboard courts. Topsail is in Santa Rosa Beach on Route 30A, one mile off U.S. 98. The camping fee
 is $38 per day. For more information, call 850.267.0299.

Henderson Beach State Park is further west and closest to the family activities in Destin. The campground has 60 sites. Boardwalks provide access to the beach for swimming, sunbathing, and fishing. And a nature trail provides visitors a glimpse of the coastal dune ecosystem and abundant wildlife. Henderson is east of Destin on U.S. 98. Camping fees are $21 per day. 
For more information about Henderson Beach State Park call 850.837.7550.

Top photo: The beach at Grayton State Park. Yes, the sand is that white – really!


Locator Map of all the state parks in the Florida Panhandle

List of private campgrounds in Florida

Chris Reinolds and her husband have two young sons. They are still cleaning the sand out of the van.

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