Henderson Beach State Park celebrates 25 years

Annie Blanks
The Destin Log
Dan Laird, park manager, observes a portion of the park's beach Tuesday afternoon.

For the past 25 years, the crystal white sand dunes, abundance of sea oats and relatively untouched nature trails of Henderson Beach State Park have been delighting visitors and locals alike.

The property and surrounding areas were originally owned by the federal government, which used its timber to build wooden sailing ships, in 1928. The Navy eventually sold the land to the 25 fishing families that lived along the coast for $50 per acre, and over the next few decades the land changed hands several times until half of the property was sold to the Henderson family.

The Hendersons worked to preserve the land, and sold it to the state of Florida in 1983 as part of the “Save Our Coast” initiative under then-governor Bob Graham, before being opened as a state park in 1991.  

Today, the state park, is a sanctuary by the sea and a longstanding relic of Destin yesteryear.

 It boasts a massive sand dune network on which sea oats and four other endangered plant species grow, which has and will remain untouched by developments that gobbled up the rest of Destin’s natural sand dunes long ago.

“This is the only piece of the natural dune system this side of the East Pass,” said Park Manager Dan Laird. “All the others have been bulldozed.”

The wildlife and recreation area also boasts 227 acres, more than a mile of pristine beach, nature trails and campsites. The campsites have to be booked in advance, usually up to 11 months in advance, and Laird said the sites stay booked full year-round.

“We have visitors from all over the country,” Laird said.

He added that the park saw 519,000 visitors from July 2015 to June 2016, a record.

“And we’re already up 24 percent so far this year,” he said.

The park has been an integral part of the community for almost all of its 25 year history.

Each year, the park invites around 3,000 kids from local public schools to come and learn all about the environment at Henderson. Education particularly emphasizes the importance of keeping the beaches clean for sea turtles, which nest on the beaches every summer. 

“We try to reach out and offer environmental education to as many young people and adults as possible,” Laird said. “We hope to foster a better understanding of our natural resources so that our environment can endure in longevity.”

Doe Schuster, a longtime volunteer at Henderson Beach State Park, said part of the charm lies in the park’s “old Florida” appeal.

“It gives people that are visiting a chance to see a part of Florida that’s not developed,” she said. “It’s so cool because you go out here on these nature trails and it gets really quiet. It’s like you’re no longer on 98.”

Both Laird and Schuster have high hopes for the next 25 years and beyond at Henderson Beach State Park, adding that the only plans for the next 10 years circle around maintaining and perhaps renovating the park’s pavilions.

“We work heavily with biologists, and they want the park to stay as is,” Laird said. “It will remain in its natural state for as long as we can keep it that way.”