Beyond Destin: Camp Helen State Park
Destin has a lot to offer, and although its beaches are world-famous and its seafood delicious, there are hundreds of hidden treasures in the surrounding area of Northwest Florida that yield for fun adventures, day trips and weekend getaways. This column which will be featured on Wednesdays, will follow the wanderings of reporter, Savannah Vasquez, and explore the many opportunities in Destin’s surrounding area. I invite you to explore with me Beyond Destin.
Are you looking for history, hiking, kayaking a dune lake or just relaxing at the beach? Surprisingly all of these pastimes can be found in one place at Camp Helen State Park in Panama City Beach. Surrounded by water on three sides, Camp Helen is a one-of-a-kind Florida park.
For the history buff
Did you know that this 180-acre state park was once a retreat site for employees of a textile mill out of Alabama? For almost 40 years, beginning in 1945, the area served as a private recreation site with 12 summer cottages, an old wooden water tower a historic log cabin lodge, and several other recreational buildings. Today visitors can get a glimpse into the early days of the park using a brochure from the visitors center and posted signs throughout the compound.
For the adventurer
Several hiking trails are available to explore including one along the dune lake, one that wanders into the pine forest, and one that leads down to the Gulf of Mexico.
The day we visited Camp Helen was cold and blustery so Cristian and I decided to take the sheltered dune lake hike. The trail head began at the visitor center and led along Powell Lake; one of the largest dune lakes on the Emerald Coast. We soon found ourselves beneath the bridge that takes U.S. Hwy. 98 into Panama City Beach.
I was surprised to find such a well kept, paved trail that led underneath and around to the other side of the highway for quite a ways. Because Cristian and I love to hike, we took as many of the foot-paths as we could find. We began with one beside the lake and explored the marshy coast peppered with deer moss and drift wood.
Next we hopped back on the paved trail and took it to the end where it gave way to another foot-path leading into the tall Florida pines. Here is where the hike got truly enchanted. We ventured over a creek that led into the lake, and suddenly found ourselves in a grove of trees covered in Spanish moss.
On the other side of the park we found another hiking trail, this time a forest loop.
With each hike, we discovered a different ecosystem. From swamp to pines, from dry, to wet to sandy; we learned that Camp Helen is home to five distinct ecosystems.
For the beach bum
The beach at Camp Helen is also a hike, but before you give up, know that it is well worth it. A walk out on the sand dune leads to an old, yet picturesque pier. All that is left of the pier is the wooden pylons and a shipwrecked sailboat lies in the sand at the water’s edge. Ironically named the “Last Echo,” the sailboat and pier make for an eerily beautiful photo opportunity.
The beach line also features the mouth of dune lake Powell. The channel leading from the ocean to the lake is a rare sight. Bolstered on both sides by white sand, the water flows in strange currents from the Gulf to the lake forming a mix of salt and fresh water dubbed, ‘brackish’ water in the Philips Inlet.
The pristine beach harkens back to the pre-development days in Northwest Florida and in warmer weather would make for a beautiful and relaxing day on the sand.
So if you are looking for an educational, exploratory or an near-exclusive beach getaway, Camp Helen State Park is the place to go.
Camp Helen State Park is located at 23937 Panama City Beach. Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Cost is $4 per car by cash envelope honor system. For more information visit www.floridastateparks.org/park/Camp-Helen or call 233-5059.