Discover a variety of outdoor activities along Florida's beautiful Emerald Coast. Whether it's kayaking, cycling, camping, hiking, fishing, or SUP, there's something for everyone in Northwest Florida. Learn the best spots to visit from the locals that live there.
In late October I visited Dr. Julian G Bruce St George Island State Park (talk about a mouthful!) along the Forgotten Coast located in the lower panhandle of Florida. This important barrier island provides protection for the Apalachicola Bay Aquatic Preserve and the nearby Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) and UNESCO World Biospher Reserve. In a word, it’s pretty special.
Interestingly, St. George Island is an exercise in balance. Half of the island is developed, with homes, condominiums, shops and businesses on the western end, and the eastern half of the island is home to a state park with 9 miles of pristine sand beach and 12 miles of estuarine shoreline. As one would expect, during the summer months, St. George Island is a haven for endangered sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.
My early fall trip coincided with the seasonal butterfly migration; Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Long-tailed Skippers, and other colorful butterflies dotted the flowering landscape. I chose the one-mile long East Slough Overlook trail that wound through the pine scrub to a slough flanked by Smooth Cordgrass and Black Needlerush. From the boardwalk I was able to observe a Great Blue Heron and several Great Egrets stalking their prey in the shallows. To my delight I also spotted some Southeastern Five-lined Skinks that quickly raced for cover upon my approach.
I took my time taking in the sights from the boardwalk and adjoining sand trail before eventually returning to the parking area near the trailhead. I drove further into the park, stopping to take in the sights along the coastal dunes, including a defunct section of boardwalk that had been damaged by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The surf was a bit rough on this day, so I decided against a walk on the beach, instead turning my attention back into the heart of the park.
Next, I took a drive through the campground to check out the amenities available for camping and noted 60 campsites complete with electricity and water, two bathhouses and a playground. There are current plans in the works to expand the campground with an additional camping loop with up to 30 additional spots, as well as expanding the number of primitive hike-in campsites. Among other amenities, there are two natural kayak launch areas on the bay side, three covered picnic pavilions and 6 covered beach shelters, and restroom/shower areas.
To get to St. George Island State Park, turn onto FL 300 S from Hwy 98 in Eastpoint and follow it 4 miles across the bay. Once on St. George Island, turn left onto Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail/Gulf Beach Dr and drive 4.3 miles to the state park entrance. Other nearby parks include St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe and Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy. Check the Florida State Park webpage for entrance fees and closures.
Tree canopy at Crab Creek Spring on the Chassahowitzka River
I recently spent a few days camping near and exploring the Chassahowitzka River (pronounced Chaz-wits-kuh), or Chaz as the locals call it, along Florida’s Nature Coast in Homosassa Springs. As a destination, this is an area that certainly lives up to the name of Nature Coast. For this trip, I also selected a time frame where manatees would most likely be in residence before warmer weather encouraged them to head back out to sea.
My friends and I had campsites at Chassahowitzka River Campground on W. Miss Maggie Dr, which conveniently also has the only public boat ramp on the river and is just a short walk from the campground, particularly handy if you’ve invested in wheels for your kayaks. If you have to park a vehicle and launch at the boat ramp, there is a fee or $7 for vehicles with trailers or $5 for vehicle only. Although there is quite a bit of parking available at this location, the area can fill up quickly and become congested on a nice day.
Kayak launching area.
Our group rolled our kayaks down to the sandy beach launching area next to the main boat launch. This is a busy area, so take care to look out for motor boats coming in and out of the ramp area as well as fishing lines being attended to by those fishing from the docks. The Chassahowitzka River Store also rents canoes and kayaks in case you don’t have your own boat.
Fish in solution holes at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitza River.
Once our kayaks were launched, we paddled upstream a few dozen yards and made our way into the Seven Sisters Spring to a feature known as the Solution Holes. This natural formation is created by springs eroding their way through the limestone karst over time. They’re breathtakingly beautiful when the sun illuminates them like a sapphire. This location is a favorite with locals and on this trip we even observed a young girl swimming underwater between two joined holes over a distance of about 12′.
Kayak and house at Crab Creek Spring.
We continued upstream for a short distance taking in the view of the houses and another campground before turning around and heading back downstream. We passed our launch point and veered right to explore Crab Creek Spring. This spring has a strong volume of water pumping from it, but it also has a lot of sand debris and underwater vegetation that makes it hard to see down into the spring. A large house sits on the bank nearby.
Spotted sunfish at Snapper Hole on Chassahowitzka River.
Venturing farther downstream and taking care not to get swamped by motorboat wakes, we came to a spring known as the Snapper Hole. This is a favorite of local fisherman, and we were not to be excluded. In our short stop here I managed to pull 3 Spotted sunfish out before unhooking and releasing them back to fight another day. My teammate caught and released two small bass.
Next we tackled the entrance to Baird Creek and paddled up to Blue Spring before pushing onward to The Crack. To find The Crack you have to get out of your kayak at the entrance to a small spring run and wade about 100′ to this unique spring fissure. In the fissure you can see fish and the limestone walls of the spring. On this trip a couple of campers had set up a tent on the banks of the spring, but that didn’t deter the newcomers from taking a dip in the spring.
The Crack on Baird Creek
After visiting The Crack we decided to paddle back to the campground for lunch and do some more fishing from the docks. Read part two for the conclusion of our Chassahowitzka River adventure.
I attended a recent outdoor recreation conference in Panama City held by the FL DEP and during one panel session one of the attendees voiced a question about the cultural divide between tent campers and RV campers. The question was asked, “what is being done to close the division between tenters and rv’ers.” She then went on to explain that it seemed like state parks were catering more to the needs of RV campers and providing less available sites and amenities for tenters. She went on yet further to speculate that the parks were doing less for tenters because they are noisier than RV’ers.
Which Group is Noisier?
Relaxing around the campfire.
This sparked my curiosity as I have had the experience of being both a tenter and an RV’er. Tent camping is affordable for people on a budget and for those that may have a larger group of people that won’t have sleeping berths in an RV. RV’s are designed to have more luxuries than tents, such as noisy air conditioners and outdoor tv displays for watching the game with a large group of friends. I have experienced both groups exceeding acceptable noise levels at times, but I wouldn’t categorically say that one group is noisier than another. Certainly larger families might be in either setting.
Campground Playground. Photo: Creative Commons
Playground areas for children are often centrally located within the campground whereas relocating it to an adjacent area might alleviate a certain amount of noise while still keeping it close to watchful parents. Parents should also actively monitor their children. During a recent camping trip I witnessed several unsupervised children racing around the campground in a golf cart with younger ones trying to jump on and off as the cart bumped and skidded past.
The noisiest groups that I have encountered at campgrounds are the RV tailgater crowd. Not all, but most. The second noisiest group that I’ve had the misfortune of camping near was a weekend crowd of tent camping partiers that consumed alcoholic beverages late into the night. My solution was ear plugs.
Amenity Use and Space Requirements
Hammock Tents Hanging at Anderson Pond, Niceville.
Tent campers do have greater need of on-site restroom facilities, but I have also watched many an RV’er choose to use the park restrooms and showers over their own so they don’t fill up their own waste tanks too quickly. RV’s require a larger footprint than tents and often a larger turn radius in order to access their sites. I haven’t experienced being turned away as a tent camper because there were only RV camping pads left in the park; a tent camper should still be able to set up their tent on a pad if they anchor it with weights instead of stakes. My biggest challenge has been trying to camp with a hammock tent at parks that don’t allow lines to be attached to trees.
RV Photo: MGN Creative Commons
An average tent camping spot should be large enough to accommodate two vehicles and two large tents. This is still a smaller footprint than a large RV site that has enough room for an RV, awning and a vehicle. Both sites usually had a picnic table, fire ring and clothesline. The true challenge comes in accommodating the height of many RVs. Whereas tents have a lower height requirement, many times large tree limbs have to be removed by the park to allow these large rigs access. This is not without risk, as it can expose the tree to diseases which can weaken it.
Both groups are entitled to the use of the campgrounds, so what can be done to provide a more harmonious co-existence. As mentioned earlier, relocating the playground can help. Adding a few more feet of wooded buffer between campsites can also help reduce noise and create a better sense of privacy. Most people go camping to get closer to nature, so a buffer would be a welcome addition in most areas. Better enforcement of quiet hours would also be a benefit, although this is hard to do when most campground hosts are unpaid volunteers with limited resources to deal with large rowdy groups.
A more conscious effort to respect other campers should be fostered within the overall camping community. Each person is trying to enjoy the resource with the least amount of interference from others within this small space community. Be mindful of noise levels within your own camp and remind children of the same. No one expects children to be seen and not heard while on a camping trip, but care should be taken to manage them so that everyone can have an enjoyable experience.
You’ve been planning it for weeks and the date of your camping trip finally arrives and the forecast calls for rain. Now what?! I had this very scenario play out a couple of weeks ago for my camping trip to St. Andrews State Park. It had been several years since I’d camped there and I’d been looking forward to a return trip. Now, not only was rain in the forecast, but it called for heavy thunderstorms with the potential for dangerous lightning and damaging winds for the entire weekend. Decisions, decisions.
Runaway Campers custom two-door model
I could have postponed and rebooked it, but I really needed some back-to-nature therapy. Since I now have a micro-camper instead of a tent I decided to go ahead as planned, but I altered my plans a bit. Since I knew the weather was going to be a literal wash-out, I decided to leave the kayak at home and pack the bicycle instead. A bike would allow me to cover more ground quickly during breaks in the rain bands. I also decided to bring the regular and waterproof cameras, laptop computer, DVDs and movie snacks.
I timed my arrival between two large rain bands which allowed me to set up comfortably. I decided against putting up the easy-up tent due to high winds in the forecast, so the tent and lawn chairs stayed in the back of the truck. With the scaled down set-up quickly completed, I grabbed my primary camera and headed toward Gator Lake on my bike. I’d only gone a ¼ of the way and I came across my first photo op, a fawn crossing the road.
After snapping a few photos of the fawn, I continued on to my destination. As luck would have it, the rain had really brought out the alligators and I got a lot of great photos. I checked the radar on my phone and wisely decided I’d better not check out the fishing pier today, and instead I headed back to the camper to tuck into an easy no-cook dinner and watch a mini-marathon of Middleman, Season 1.
Saturday dawned to a frequent and light misting rain. I changed out cameras to my waterproof one and went for a stroll on foot. I encountered the deer again on my way down to the beachfront and jetties. At the beach I was able to get a few shots of a surfer taking advantage of the wave action and then I wandered onward to the lagoon area where the pelicans and herons were enjoying the morning. I contemplated tackling the trail past the Turpentine Still, but decided against it due to the previous night’s rain making things a bit too soggy.
I finally headed back to the camper for a late breakfast. On the way through the campground I heard a woman exclaim from inside her tent, “Oh no!! All the clothes I had in this bag are soaked with water!” I’ll admit that I laughed out loud and I apologize now. I once camped in tents and later hammock tents before graduating to an air-conditioned camper to combat Florida’s heat & humidity. I do not miss rain soaked tents.
Gulf Coast Box Turtle
I checked the weather forecast again. A new band of thunderstorms was approaching with a few hours break afterward followed by major thunderstorms, high winds and tornado watches for the rest of the night well into the next day. Based on this update I decided to take a nap after brunch and then watch a couple more episodes of Middleman. Once the first thunderstorm band passed I was back out exploring the trails near Gator Lake.
Finally, with about 2 hours left before the big storm landed I secured my gear and headed back home. I hated to leave early, but it was the right call. There were several tornado warnings issued that night and there were scattered reports of damage caused by high winds. I still got to explore a good bit of the park and enjoyed relaxing in the camper with the rain pattering on the roof. It’s all about perspective, seizing windows of opportunity and making the best of a situation.
Fall is a beautiful time of year to visit Three Rivers State Park. Nestled on the banks of Lake Seminole near the Florida/Georgia border, this park offers camping, hiking, fishing and boating, wildlife viewing and relaxation. If you’re looking to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, then this is the place to camp.
Kayaking on Lake Seminole.
I met up at with fellow NWFLOA teammate, Glenn Phillips, at this park for what we hoped would be four days of kayaking and fishing. Unknown to us, we had a couple of things working against us. Although the weather was perfect for camping and hiking, the sudden drop in high temperatures from 87 to 60 seemed to have turned the fish off. The other kink was alligator hunting season had opened and hunters were out scouting for their potential trophies and based on our sightings, there were plenty of alligators in Lake Seminole.
Alligator at Three Rivers State Park.
Did I mention the alligators? I appreciate and respect alligators. They are magnificent prehistoric remnants representing patience and power. These ambush predators lie in wait, often stalking their prey silently from just beneath the surface of the water and then they explode from the water in a terrifying flurry of gnashing teeth. We encountered several alligators during this trip, and even though several came in for a closer look, they left us alone and went about their business of finding an easier meal.
Alligator with potential prey.
Alligators were present and abundant on each day of the trip. The fish, however, were another story. The only people we saw having any luck with the fish biting were a couple of people at the campground pier hauling in catfish. I had been fishing for bass or bream, but without even a nibble. I began to blame the alligators on the poor fishing simply to boost my self-esteem. In all honesty, the alligators were probably living off of small mammals like raccoons that came down to the shoreline to drink and find food. Judging from the alligators plump size, they definitely weren’t missing any meals.
Three Rivers State Park has over seven miles of hiking trails and we took advantage of almost all of them. We rode our bikes over to Eagle Trail and struck off armed with camera’s hoping to get a few shots of the Bald Eagles that call the park home. No such luck on this outing, but the scenery was still amazing. Over the course of the weekend we also tackled Lakeview, Ridge and Dry Creek trails. I had hoped to photograph some of the Fox squirrels and Gopher tortoises that call the park home, but they proved to be elusive on this visit as well.
One thing that was abundant at the park was White-tailed deer. I saw several small groups of them throughout the weekend. Gray squirrels were also a common sight throughout the campground areas. The campground has 30 campsites, some of which are located right on the shore of Lake Seminole. There is a BBQ/picnic pavilion, boat ramp and dock and a cabin available for rent. It’s a beautiful park with more than enough space to roam and do your own thing.
Jim Woodruff Dam
We took the kayaks out daily to fish and explore. Lake Seminole is fed by two rivers, Flint and Chattahoochee. The Jim Woodruff Dam at the southern end of the lake in the nearby town of Chattahoochee controls the flow of water into the Apalachicola River. If you’ve spent any time at all in the panhandle of Florida you’ve no doubt heard of the water wars between Georgia and Florida and how the throttled flow of water into the Apalachicola River has had a devastating impact on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. The balance between the needs of an ever-growing population and the requirements for the survival of a sensitive and vital ecosystem are at odds and it is the hope of many that the mighty and historic Apalachicola River and Bay can be saved before it’s too late.
Fisherman on Lake Seminole.
In order to get a better look at the hydroelectric dam, we took a short ride over to Chattahoochee to check things out. It is a very impressive structure and popular with the locals for fishing. I asked one woman what they were fishing for in the rushing waters and she told me that they usually catch bream. While chatting and taking photographs, two boats pulled up just outside of the boundary line to tie up and fish the rapid currents. The most ominous thing I saw, however, was a large sign on the dam that read, “A warning horn will sound before the initial release of water from the damn. Water will rise suddenly without further warning. Persons in or near the water should immediately seek safety when the horn sounds.”
Great Blue Heron
From the dam we headed over to the east bank of Lake Seminole to check out the Army Corps of Engineers Eastbank Campground. It offers water/electric hookups, laundry facilities, a bathhouse and dump station as well as a variety of outdoor areas such as boat ramp, fish cleaning station and picnic areas. It was clean, open and well-kept. Definitely worth considering if other camping venues are full.
At the end of each day, which seemed to be filled with equal parts kayaking, fishing, hiking and bicycling, beautiful sunsets would set the sky on fire and then shortly thereafter campfires would blaze to life. Perfect camping weather to be sure. As the sky darkened a field of stars would appear to make one truly appreciate the peace and serenity to be found on these shores.
Sunset over Lake Seminole
Three Rivers State Park is located in Sneads about an hour west of Tallahassee. For more information visit the Florida State Parks website.