Camping in several of Florida’s State Parks has been very enjoyable trips creating fond memories. In this post I’ll list them by region within the state.
I’ve been camping in the Florida Keys twice. Both were very short, one night visits. The first was in a private campground down close to Key West. I don’t recall the name or specific location. This was back in the 1990’s when I was on a “dudes” trip with my LSU college buddies. I don’t remember much about the trip other than that our camp site was immediately next to the water, and the view looking out over the ocean the following morning was quite peaceful with a fog or mist lingering.
My second keys camping excursion was a solo trip to famous Bahia Honda State Park. It’s well known for several reasons: the historic railroad bridge, the swim beach, and acres of seemingly natural landscape and coastal forest with interesting hiking trails. My campsite was in line with others on the dune overlooking the Florida Straights. It was surrounded by dense vegetation which provided protection from the persistent wind and also privacy from nearby campers. This was actually a business trip, as I was working with the Key West Botanical Garden on a master plan. Since I was traveling alone and driving from Sarasota, I elected to bring my camping gear and experience the “real Florida” rather than stay in another hotel room. I’m glad I did because the weather was perfect for walking along that ocean beach front, swimming at Calusa Beach (along the channel), and hiking a trail through the scrub which I found very enjoyable. I’ve always wanted to return with my family for an extended trip, making several stops in campgrounds along the Overseas Highway.
Additional trips to the Florida Keys were for professional reasons. During the min-2000s I helped work on an interpretive master plan for the Florida Keys Scenic Highway under the employment of the now defunct RMPK Group. This was the planning project of a lifetime requiring multiple fieldwork trips to all portions of the keys, lots of research and history readings, and lots of mapping. This document (linked above) has detailed maps to not-so-well-known points of interest along the highway, much of which is now flanked by the Overseas Heritage Trail.
Though coastal, I consider Sarasota to be part of central Florida as it’s a bit north of the frost-free line. Central Florida extends north into the Green Swamp and Florida’s “springs country” so habitats are diverse with both beaches and forested hammocks.
Of the three camping experiences in this group, Alexander Springs was my favorite because the water is swimable. Alligators are present across the region, but the springs have fewer - and you can see them because the water is clear. We group camped with two other families over a Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I remember waking at daybreak one morning and surprising a deer on the way to the spring head trail.
Tom, a work buddy of mine and I took our sons on a “boys trip” into the wilderness of Myakka River State Park, among Florida’s oldest. I’ve also visited this park with my wife for day-trips where we rented canoes and paddled the gator-infested Myakka Lake. The boys enjoyed the canopy walk and looking down from the observation tower. The birdlife here is pretty incredible, and we also saw deer, armadillos, and other critters. At night while camping we heard the yipping and barking of coyotes in the distance.
This was the closest camping to home in Sarasota, just minutes away. Tom and I again took our sons on another camping and hiking excursion. Tom lives in Venice, so Oscar Scherer was midway between us. I think we only stayed one night so I don’t recall much other than seeing the scrub jays and, again, hearing coyotes during the night. We saw fewer gators, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It’s an easy paddle down South Creek from the park out into Blackburn Bay, but then access to the Gulf of Mexico requires a lengthy paddle north to Midnight Pass or south to Nokomis Beach at Albee Road. This isn’t really doable for young families as portions are in the sometimes busy intra-coastal canal.
I never actually got to camp at Ft. Desoto, but I made numerous day trips. Most involved kayaking in the protected shallows around the island - Mullet Key - but others were beach trips with the family or visiting the dog beach with my pooch. The challenge is that the County intentionally offers no online or telephone campsite reservations. They require you to visit the park in person. This may seem absurd, but it is actually quite effective in ensuring that county and nearby residents are the most frequent users of these Pinellas County park campsites. The historic fortifications are also interesting to tour and offer nice views from the top.
Florida’s panhandle has some real gems for camping and outdoor recreation. The State parks are easy to find, but tent campers should also consider the lands of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Some of these offer no-cost primitive campsites with online reservations. County parks may also be worth a visit.
Florida’s tallest waterfall is actually a modest spring dropping into a sinkhole pit. It’s certainly interesting, and the campground is nicely forested and well maintained. Tent campers won’t feel like their jammed in next to each other. There’s a spring-fed pond for swimming, and other attractions nearby such as Florida Caverns or various larger springs for swimming. This makes Falling Waters a great base camp close to the interstate.
Florida Caverns April 2016:
Florida Caverns album
Swimming in Pitt Springs and Morrison Springs:
Pitt Spring album
I’ve solo and family camped at Big Lagoon State Park next to Perdido Key about four times now and enjoy it always. The facilities are well maintained. It is close to the beach but far enough inland to avoid the constant wind-driven salt spray which can be problematic at the beach front campgrounds. The land provides tall pines and oaks as shade for the campsites, and habitat for birds and other wildlife. The kayak launch is nice, offering options in protected waters or access to the intra-coastal canal. Nearby is a grocery store and even nice restaurants in case you tire of camp cuisine or - as happened to us - you can seek shelter from a passing thunderstorm.
Nearby are so many other attractions if and when your family tires of the beach: the Naval Aviation Museum is chief among these, and there’s a climbable lighthouse on the property. There’s also historic Pensacola itself, Pensacola Beach and Ft. Pickens (although this is quite a drive around the bay) and in the other direction down Perdido Key is the Flora-Bama.
We’ve done a 2-night camping trip at Ft. Pickens Park within the Gulf Islands National Seashore with another family during a period of perfect spring weather and enjoyed our stay very much. Two nights allowed one full day at the beach to get our fix, then we packed up and drove inland to camp an additional two nights at Falling Waters. There are two campgrounds and we ended up in the larger one, (not loop A.) These are mostly devoid of trees I think due to hurricanes of recent decades. Fortunately, I began planning the trip early enough that I was able to use Google Earth in combinations with the online reservation system to identify available campsites with some tree canopy. It worked! We toured the fort one afternoon and stood on the wall overlooking the entrance to Pensacola Bay to watch the sunset. Like Big Lagoon, civilization is a short drive off the state park property and we visited a seafood restaurant one evening for something nicer than camp food and frozen drinks. Below are a selection of photos from our Florida camping trips.
If you’re a tent camper, and it seems we’re a dying breed, you’ll appreciate the books by author Johnny Molloy. He travels around the country (mostly the eastern half so far) tent camping and then writes reviews of them offering specific recommendations for tent campers. I own a few for states near me and have found them useful in choosing campgrounds and campsites within them. For a full list visit his website johnnymolloy.com .