Florida is filled with beautiful vistas and impressive attractions, but not all of them are the best place to experience nature’s beauty. For those not seeking an experience on par with college Spring Break, many of Florida’s beaches and parks might not be appropriate. In addition, hot spots can be too popular for their own good at times, with overcrowding infringing upon one’s efforts at relaxation or a pleasant family outing.
However, there are some lesser-known spots that offer not just a sanctuary from the rest of the hectic Florida scene but ample opportunities to interact with the environment. One of the best kept secrets in the state is Camp Helen State Park.
Camp Helen State Park offers every bit of aquatic scenery as the overcrowded beaches, as it is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell. But Camp Helen State Park is far more than a mere beach. In addition to the sparkling waters, the park boasts an abundance of wildlife, trails and even historic buildings.
Camp Helen State Park has a rich history, as Florida’s residents have been active in the area for thousands of years. Archaeologists have uncovered pre-historic mounds in the area surrounding the park, although not much is known about these early settlers. What is known, though, is that the first waves of European settlers saw this area as a desirable place to live, and for a time it was known as Inlet Beach. The site attracted additional attention in the 1920s, when it was developed as a recreational area. This development continued into the 1940s, when several buildings, including the park lodge that still stands today, were added. These buildings were used heavily from the mid-40s until 1987, as the area was used as a vacation resort for employees of Avondale Textile Mills.
And while the park is now open to the public, that doesn’t make it any less of a resort. Camp Helen State Park gives visitors a close look at nature than many other destinations across the state. The park is populated with countless species of birds, from the Mourning Dove to the Blue Heron. Even the Bald Eagle and Turkey Vulture frequent the park, making it a birdwatcher’s dream. There are plenty of other animals as well, with mammals such as the Gray Fox and White-Tailed Deer and reptiles such as the Atlantic Loggerhead Turtle and the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake.
Those seeking some tamer nature can experience Camp Helen’s wide array of plant life, as the park is home to species such as the Red Maple, Southern Red Cedar, Beauty Berry and St. Andrew’s Cross.
And while there is plenty to see at Camp Helen, there is plenty to do as well. The park offers opportunities for hiking, swimming, fresh and saltwater fishing and boating. Though Lake Powell is not very deep, kayaks, skiffs, canoes, pontoon boats and more can traverse the waters with ease. There are also beaches on which to relax and soak up some sun and picnic areas for enjoying an outdoor meal. In addition, the park’s visitor center provides a comprehensive look at Camp Helen’s history and a place to speak with park rangers and ask questions.
Camp Helen State Park is located at 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway in Panama Beach, just west of the Phillips Inlet bridge. The park is open from 8am to sundown, 365 days per year, and admission is $4 per vehicle (limit 8 passengers per vehicle) and $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, and extra vehicle passengers. For more information, call 850–233–5059.