AO Review: Florida’s St Andrews State Park & Camp Helen State Park
Doug E 04.22.21
In keeping with one of All Outdoor’s quests to inform its readers of great outdoorsy places, I’d like to share my experience about two of Florida’s coastal state parks: St Andrews and Camp Helen. Both state parks have plenty to offer in terms of hiking, boating and boat rentals, camping, biking, beaching and swimming, and seeing wildlife on land and in the water. Both St Andrews and Camp Helen State Parks do a great job in preserving Florida’s natural coastline, while also offering all the activities listed above, and more. The Florida State Parks Service uses the tagline “the Real Florida” which seems quite appropriate in contrast with the ill-associated “Florida equals Disney” mindset. Let’s explore.
ST ANDREWS STATE PARK REVIEW
My family and I have vacationed in Panama City Beach two years in a row now and St Andrews State Park has become a staple for us when we’re there. There’s a very reasonable entry fee for almost all of Florida’s state parks which are used to help maintain and staff them. One overlooked benefit to the fee during the month of March is that college kids are happy enough to use the beach next to their resorts which frees up the state park’s beaches for a more family friendly atmosphere.
St Andrew’s State Park is situated on the south easternmost tip of Panama City Beach which is butted up to the main channel for shipping and boating between the ocean, a lagoon, and several bays that serve Panama City and Panama City Beach. Across the channel lies Tyndall Air Force Base, so if you like to watch war planes while relaxing at the beach, you won’t be disappointed!
The channel on the east side of St Andrews is typically calmer for swimming if you don’t want the waves of the Gulf side, and also attracts lots of divers, snorkelers, and fisher-men and -women. Dolphins could be seen playing in front of the bow of a large container ship, and there were numerous charter boats running dolphin tours that operated in and out of the channel.
Aside from being surrounded by salt water on three sides of the park, the interior of St Andrews has a ringed road to get you to any of the sites within. There’s plenty of marshes and shallow lakes that alligators and all sorts of fishing birds flock to. Sadly, both this year and last, we didn’t see any alligators here, but our weather was colder in February, which we attributed to our lack of alligator sightings; however, we still enjoyed seeing the ducks, pelicans, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Blue Herons, and loads of other birds that I’m not familiar with.
CAMP HELEN STATE PARK REVIEW
Camp Helen State Park is slightly smaller than St Andrews, but still offers varied activities and amenities. It’s situated between the Gulf and Lake Powell which is one of very few Coastal Dune Lakes in the world. The lake is a freshwater lake, but is connected to the Gulf by a channel. The Florida State Parks’ website explains further:
Lake Powell has a channel, known as an outfall, that runs into the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on the tides and winds, saltwater from the Gulf may enter the lake when the outfall is open. It is common to find different saltwater species alongside freshwater species in the lake. The mixture of these two waters (salt and fresh) create what is called brackish water.
The channel is large enough for small watercraft like speed boats and fishing boats so naturally paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes can explore the lake and the ocean if desired. Camp Helen has paddleboards and kayaks (single or tandem) for rent as well. There are several trails throughout the park which aren’t too long, but give you a good feel for the vegetation, dunes, and wildlife. Camp Helen is also on a preserved textile company resort that was used from the end of World War II to the late 1980’s.
These two Florida State Parks in the Panama City Beach area are great spots to visit if you’re in the area, and do a great job at preserving the natural sand dunes and history. St Andrews and Camp Helen state parks both offer the quintessential coastal Florida outdoorsy experience in their own special ways. All in all, I’ve been to seventeen Florida state parks, so in future articles we’ll take a look at some of the inland parks that include natural springs, trails, and navigable rivers.
One honorable mention specific to the Panama City Beach area would be Conservation Park. It’s just inland of Camp Helen and has 24 miles of well maintained trails for walking or biking. Conservation Park doesn’t have as many amenities, but if you want to get your miles in while being surrounded by Florida’s foliage and wildlife, it’s a great place to check out.
If you’ve been to one or both of these state parks, how was your experience? What’s your favorite state park, in Florida or otherwise?