Henderson Beach State Park: A sparkling gem of the Emerald Coast

Laura Hall Under the Radar
Pleasant day on an un-crowded Henderson Beach.

Henderson Beach State Park was purchased in 1983 from the Henderson family estate and open to the public on March 29, 1991. Part of old Highway 98 that came through Destin is still in use at the park.

Donna Stiles says, “I remember years ago riding down that road.”

Going even further back, did you know that thousands of years ago this beach and all of Destin were a sandy, offshore island? Today you will find dunes in their natural state that have not been destroyed by development.

Henderson Beach offers over one mile of natural scenic shoreline that borders the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Right here in the heart of Destin it offers a three-quarter mile, pet friendly, nature trail that provides a rare glimpse of the coastal dune system. Fall of the year finds the dunes covered with a canopy of wildflowers including the orange and yellow Blanket Flower, the Spanish Needle and bright, sun yellow asters.

These native wildflowers attract Monarch butterflies as they migrate south to Mexico for the winter. Year round we find the majestic sea oats twisting in the wind with their extensive root systems as they capture sand and stop erosion.

Sixty campsites are available and reservations can be made up to 11 months ahead by calling Reserve America at 800-326-3521. These sites stay booked so call early. Over 422,000 visitors came to Henderson Beach last year, contributing over $21,800,000 into the local economy.

The park is a very busy place and could not be kept in its pristine condition without the vital efforts of a local citizen volunteer group called “Friends of the Emerald Coast State Parks” which is a Citizen Support Organization (CSO). This dedicated group of citizens is interested in the welfare of the parks within our community and diligently works to raise money to use toward park improvements.

Presently, the Destin CSO consists of 50 members with Donna Stiles serving her fourth year as President. They are dedicated to park preservation and its enhancement for recreational and educational uses. Recent projects funded or partially funded by the Friends include, children's playground, building projects, equipment purchases and interpretive displays. In 2012 the Henderson Beach CSO was elected top CSO of the year for the entire state of Florida.

Consider joining and enjoy many benefits that come with new membership to the CSO. They have three levels of yearly membership: Student, $10.00, Single/Family, $20.00 and Patron, $100.00 These benefits include 12 free visits to Henderson Beach, a discount at the gift shop and are invited to attend the free annual picnic. Membership in the organization does not involve a commitment to volunteer but opens up a world of volunteer opportunities and will help fund park improvements. For more information call 650-5928.

Volunteers are always needed to free up the Rangers for their important duties. Assisting in staffing the Ranger Station is most typical, collecting entrance fees, monitoring phones and the radio, assisting with school tour groups, working in the gift shop, or perhaps planting sea oats. If you would like to volunteer, they will find a place for you. This will be your legacy to pass on for all the generations that will continue to come to our beautiful park into the far distant future.

Henderson Beach provides so much for the community. Along with the CSO they provide monthly star gazing, paddle and surf competition, as well as over 300 private events, weddings, reunions and environmental education to over 200 school groups reaching over 6,000 school children. Rangers and volunteers explain the importance of our natural resources including endangered plants and marine animals like the sea turtles. Henderson Beach is a sea turtle nesting beach which is protected by the park Rangers.

Dan Laird, park manager, tells me, “This year we had five successful nest with an average of 100 eggs per nest. Makes for a busy night on the beach.”

I’m told, “The park is an extremely affordable venue for beach weddings, reunions and other large group gatherings. The park contains six pavilions, and some are available for private gatherings. Pricing will depend on the number of guests in the party. Reservations are easily made by contacting the Events Coordinator, Carolyn Williams at 269-1062. Six pavilions offer access to the beach and four provide ADA accessibility requirements.”

In the midst of the fast and furious development of Destin, stands this quiet and serene park filled with many natural, undisturbed, wonders of our area. Mr. Henderson would be proud to see his vision of protecting this pristine area going forward year after year.

Laura Hall is a freelance reporter and longtime Destin resident.