Uniquely Florida Camping

By: Terry Tomalin

From primitive camping to full-service grounds, Florida has a full spectrum of camping sites to choose from

Rodgers River Bay, Everglades National Park - As the sun sets over the mangrove forest, a lone alligator leaves its lair and starts looking for dinner. Perched on a tent platform three feet above the brackish water, we are out of harm's way, but still close enough to feel a tingle down the spine, a natural mammalian response to any large reptile.

The 'gator comes within a few yards of our "chickee," the Seminole Indian word for dwellings such as this, but seems oblivious to our presence. Instead, it seems more interested in an egret resting at the water's edge.

We watch as the 'gator moves in for the kill, but the water bird is too quick. The egret flies off squawking and we laugh in delight, having witnessed a spectacle usually reserved for the Discovery Channel.

Welcome to camping in the Everglades, one of the many unique places in Florida where roughing it isn't always so rough.

Everglades National Park, one of the nation's most popular parks, draws visitor from around the world hoping to experience that wild side of Florida usually seen only on television documentaries.

Possible trips can vary in length from overnighters to week-long excursions along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Campers have dozens of campsites to choose from. The chickees are usually the most remote, but the land and beach sites also have a unique charm.

During the winter months, the park is frequented with travelers, who are served on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/ever, or call 305-242-7700. In summer months, some of the park is inaccessible or unsuitable for visitation.

But Florida has literally hundreds of great campsites, from deserted coastal islands ideal for tents to full-service campgrounds that can accommodate luxury recreational vehicles.

North Florida

With its rolling dunes covered in sea oats, Grayton Beach State Park in the South Walton area is undoubtedly one of the state's last great, unspoiled beaches. The park offers visitors a chance to see what Florida looked like when the Spanish explorers first peeked at its shores.

The park has 30 furnished two-bedroom cabins, as well as a 59-site campground, complete with water and electrical hookups and a centrally located restroom facility. The cabins and campsites are all within easy walking distance of the beach. 

The 200-site Fort Pickens Campground located within the boundaries of Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola also offers great camping of all types. Tent campers have their own space, but RV enthusiasts will find a warm welcome too.

The nearby fort, built in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay, is most famous for housing the Apache war chief Geronimo. Reservations can be made through the national park reservation system, 1-877-444-6777. For information, go to www.recreation.gov.

Destin's Camping on the Gulf allows visitors a direct view of the emerald green Gulf of Mexico. The campground has 16 sites on the water, more than 200 altogether, as well as nearby cycling trails and a family-friendly playground. Call 877-226-7485, or go to www.campgulf.com.

Northwest Florida doesn't have a monopoly on great beach camping. St. Augustine's Anastasia State Park has beautiful wooded campsites within easy walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean. It's a favorite destination for birders hoping to catch the fall migration.

The 139 wooded campsites can accommodate both tents and RVs. Each comes with a picnic table and fire ring. The great commodity here is shade, which is welcome especially during the summer months. Call 904-461-2033.

Nearby, the privately run Ocean Grove Camp RV Resort is also 500 yards from the beach, and St. Augustine's historic area is just five miles souths. The resort has some amenities for kids, including a playground, volleyball and basketball courts, kiddie pool, swimming pool and hot tub, as well as a boat ramp for kayaks and canoes. Call 1-800-342-4007.

Head inland and you'll see what Stephen Foster was thinking about when he wrote the Florida state anthem. Suwannee River State Park is a popular stopping-off point for canoeists. The campground has 30 sites, complete with electrical hookups, grills and picnic tables. Call 386-362-2746.

Other options include the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park & Campground in Live Oak; Suwannee River Hideaway Campground; and the Yellow Jacket Campground, with highly-rated private facilities in Old Town with riverfront campsites.

In Flagler Beach, the Bulow Resort has a plethora of oak-shaded campsites, 364 to be exact. Campfires are permitted, and cable television hook-ups are available as well. Call 386-439-9200.

Central Florida

Located at the confluence of the Tomoka and Halifax rivers, Tomoka State Park has some of the most beautiful live oak trees in the state of Florida.

Visitors will enjoy the natural trails that wind through forests once inhabited by Timucuan Indians. The park also rents canoes and kayaks to explore the nearby rivers. Call 386-676-4050.

Heading west, the freshwater springs of Ocala National Forest are a big draw to campers. Salt Springs Recreation Area, about 25 miles northeast of Ocala, has picnicking, canoeing, hiking and swimming in the 72-degree water spring. Alexander Springs Recreation Area is about 30 miles southeast of Ocala and much of the same. A third spot, Juniper Springs Recreation Area, is one of the oldest and most well-known camping areas in the forest. It is about 25 miles east of Ocala and also heralded for its great swimming and snorkeling. 

For a different kind of camping, Hontoon Island State Park on the St. Johns River has six "rustic" cabins, primitive sites and boat camping facilities. This park, near DeLand, is one of Florida's most wild. Another native Timucuan site, Hontoon Island's greatest claim to fame is the large owl totem, carved from a single log, found in nearby waters. A replica now stands in the picnic area, the original having been shipped off to a museum. The park is accessible by private boat or ferry. Call 386-736-5309.

South Florida

Cayo Costa State Park on Florida's southwest coast is accessible by private boat or public ferry. Primitive campsites are available on the Gulf, cabins are on the bay and boat camping facilities are located at the bayside dock. Cayo Costa is a favorite retreat for fishermen and shell collectors.

With seven miles of virgin beach, Cayo Costa is a place where you can walk for hours and forget about civilization. But be aware that campers should only take what they can carry. It is best to travel light and visit during the cooler months when insects are less of a concern. There is no phone service to the island, but you can call the ranger station in Boca Grande at 941-964-0375.

Bahia Honda State Park is straight out of a Jimmy Buffet song-- turquoise-colored water, palm trees and sugar-sand beaches. Florida Keys camping doesn't get any better than this and, as a result, campsites are at a premium.

There are three different campgrounds, each with its own allure, and reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance. The 48-site Buttonwood Campground can handle everything from RVs to tents. The 24-Sandspur sites, smaller, with lower clearance, are in a hardwood hammock and can accommodate pop-up tent trailers. The eight Bayside Campground sites have no electricity and limited facilities. Hammock camping can be done in sites 45, 54 and 73 in the Bayside Campground. Call 305-872-2353.

Another Keys' camping alternative is the Key Largo Kampground & Marina, located at 101551 Overseas Highway. The spacious waterfront sites have full hook-ups (water and electric). There are also two pools, laundry facilities and a convenience store. Call 305-451-1431 or go to www.keylargokampground.com.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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