Oasis is perhaps the best description of Topsail Hill Preserve. An oasis of nature in a changing world of urban sprawl. Here, a unique ecosystem holds onto its place in Florida’s coastal dune system under the shade of an old-growth Longleaf pine forest and gentle sea breezes. Among ancient dunes, threatened Gopher tortoises and endangered Choctawhatchee Beach mice forage next to four rare coastal dune lakes that lie within the park’s 1,640 acres of paradise. Sanctuary.
Topsail Hill is a shining example of balance between humans and nature by mitigating human impacts in fragile areas of the park while still offering amenities similarly available in more urbanized parks. This has been accomplished by careful land and forestry management practices, including locating the camping, lodging and parking areas near the entrance to the park and supplying tram service for visitors to the beach access area. Visitors can also ride bikes or hike to areas within the park, allowing them to see even more of this amazing place.
Along the hiking and old jeep trails visitors have the opportunity to see both pine and wetland plant communities, including pitcher plants. The park uses controlled burns to keep understory species in check so that pine, wiregrass and pitcher plant species are able to thrive without competition. It is in one of these hydric pine flatwoods where I was first able to see a beautiful native Pine lily in full bloom.
The coastal dune lakes are another important feature within the park, and represents a vanishing resource along much of the coast. These rare and globally imperiled lakes perform multiple functions such as filtration, retention and habitat. Salinity differences caused by outflow and inflow of sea water can vary widely between lakes, allowing for a variety of fresh and saltwater fish and animals. Campbell and Morris Lake are the two most notable lakes within the park, with Lake Stallworth lying on the eastern boundary. Outside vessels are not permitted on the dune lakes, but canoe and kayak rentals are available from the camp store for kayaking on Campbell Lake.
Wildlife finds a home here as well and binoculars or a camera could be beneficial. An early morning stroll to the beach could have visitors crossing paths with Gopher tortoises, White-tailed deer, or even a Loggerhead Sea turtle on its way back to the Gulf after an evening of egg-laying. If walking near any of the lakes within the park, keep a sharp eye out for basking Alligators, since they also call the park home. Watch for wildlife tracks along any of the sandy paths as it may provide clues to some of the park’s unseen residents.
Topsail Hill is an ancient dune from which the park takes its namesake, rising 25 feet above the shore of Lake Campbell and used historically as a navigational marker for vessels. Several archaeological finds have been made at Topsail including WWII metal tracks, a wrecked wooden ship, shell middens and turpentine collection materials. A reminder in case you stumble across any archaeological materials, these are not permitted to be removed from any State Park, so leave them be for future visitors to observe.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is on Hwy 98, although the main entrance is located along Scenic Hwy 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. Park hours are 8 a.m. until sunset, 365 days a year. Check with the park for current admission and rental fees.