Our August camping trip took us to Florida's panhandle and a state park called Topsail Hill Preserve, 10 miles east of Destin. The park gets its name from the tall sand dunes that rise up to 25 feet--much like a ship's sail. We had heard a lot about this park from other campers so we wanted to check it out. The campground is different from the usual system of secluded loops and circles. Topsail was previously an RV resort so it comes complete with swimming pool, shuffleboard, clubhouse and laundry. Scattered about are some small lakes or ponds, many walking paths, and a fishing pier. Some lots are fully landscaped, including borders of tall pampas grass. Campsites are in loops closer together or laid out in street-like rows. Our site was shady but had less privacy. At the camp store (open 7 days per week) you can pick up a few everyday items, buy area honey or get a T-shirt. They even sell watercolor note cards done by a local artist. I am a letter writer and postcard nut, so I got a few of those note cards ---some with beach scenes.
In Topsail Hill Preserve there are 155 RV sites, all with 30/50 amp service and sewer. There are 22 tent sites. They are secluded in a section by themselves. For the non-camper there are at least 16 bungalows and 16 cabins available. To me the bungalows resemble a park model within a mobile home park. However they come with nice yards and screened porches, as do the cabins. Be prepared to be patient for a spot of your choosing. You can reserve accommodations up to 11 months in advance on reserveamerica.com. We had made our reservations 6 months ago. The park is a popular stop for young families. You may have more luck if your stay is short, a night or two versus a week.
A free shuttle runs daily to take visitors to the beach. A day at Santa Rosa Beach seems to be the most popular activity.
A one mile paved road leads from the campground area to the beach. It snakes through scrub oak and pine and ends at a large parking lot with picnic tables, bike racks, a small shelter, and restrooms. Many people ride bikes or walk the distance while others wait on the shuttle. It is worth the trip to enjoy over 3 miles of white sand and beautiful protected shoreline. A long boardwalk leads over the dunes. If you didn't bring a bike there are bike rentals available by the day or the week. You can also rent beach carts, canoes, or kayaks. I lost track of the number of beach walks I took. It was a good way to pass the early morning or late afternoon. Storm clouds brewed several mornings. Of our 6 full days we got rain on 4 of them. I spotted a few dolphins. There weren't many shells. Other visitors saw turtles or a sting ray or two. One evening I saw a deer grazing on the dunes.
I learned that S. Walton County in the Florida Panhandle has some rare treasures. No wonder they call it the Emerald Coast. There are 15 coastal dune lakes along the 26 miles of beaches in that county. Two of those lakes are in Topsail Hill Preserve. Lake Campbell and Lake Morris are accessible by following a paved nature trail and then by hiking out a short distance. Coastal dune lakes are a rare natural phenomenon and only occur a few places on earth. They are found in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, and Oregon as well as along the Florida Coast. They are as many as 10,000 years old. Each lake has a unique salt content and is home to both fresh and saltwater species. They are shallow bodies of water separated from the Gulf by a ribbon of sand. No two are alike. As conditions change the coastal dune lake can overflow into the Gulf of Mexico or tides and weather can cause the Gulf to push over the sand into the lake. When the lake is breached the opening in the sand is called an "outfall." S. Walton County is aware of how rare these coastal dune lakes are and monitors their ecosystems on a regular basis.
There are 7 other state parks within a short drive of Topsail. We visited 6 of those parks. Henderson Beach State Park in Destin has 60 camping sites. It is just a bit of space sandwiched in between the busy shopping and tourist area but it is popular because of the beach. We took a quick drive around. Then to the east we stopped at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach. It is much larger with 175 sites. We took another drive around. The park sits on a finger of land bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and a lagoon on the other. Another park, Grayton Beach State Park, lies on Santa Rosa Beach. It would be the closest one to our campground, just a few miles away on scenic 30A. It has space for 59 sites.
It is a pretty drive to travel all of 30A from our park and come out on Hwy 98. It takes about 30 minutes to complete if you don't make stops. You pass by little communities with cute names like Blue Mountain, Watercolor, Seaside, Seagrove and Rosemary Beach. A bike trail follows you most of the way. Then north of Destin another state park, Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou, offers camping along a bayou, just off the Choctawhatchee Bay. Of the 4 full-facility campgrounds we visited I thought Rocky Bayou had the prettiest views and the best layout for us. We also visited Deer Lake State Park (named for its coastal dune lake). It is 1,900 acres of protected land and white sandy beach. There are several trails and a boardwalk. You can see Deer Lake off in the distance.
We made several other excursions to nearby areas while in the Florida Panhandle and I’ll describe those in upcoming issues- so keep an eye out!
Directions: From Ridge Manor FL it was a 376 mile drive. We took I-75 north and then got on I-10 west.
We got off I-10 at DeFuniak Springs (Hwy 331) and traveled 25 miles south on Hwy 331 to Hwy 98.
On Hwy 98 we traveled 5 miles west then turned on scenic 30A--you will see the park sign for Topsail Hill Preserve. You could also investigate taking Hwy 19 part of the way, but this I-75 and I-10 is listed as the most direct route.