In online travel forums, you can find users jokingly trying to dissuade others from visiting T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
With miles of untamed coast, 35-foot-high sand dunes, maritime forests, and abundant wildlife, it’s not surprising that many want to keep this park along Florida’s “forgotten coast” to themselves.
Another well-guarded tip is that, along with 119 tent and RV camping sites, the park offers furnished “cabins” that look more like resort condominiums without a television. If you want to watch something, try the view from the screen porch -- the wide expanse of St. Joseph Bay.
The 2,716-acre park, situated between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe, sits at the tip of Cape San Blas and is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico and the bay. Despite being regarded as a best-kept secret, in 2002 it was named the top beach in the country by Dr. Beach and is frequently listed as a top beach in national publications. The park contains 10 miles of white sandy shoreline, some of the tallest sand dunes east of the Mississippi, and the opportunity to see sunrises and sunsets -- only a few yards apart in some spots.
Summer, when most schools are out, is the most popular season at this family-friendly park. The Comiskeys of Peachtree City, Ga., arrived for a two-week camping trip as soon as school was out in late May.
“It’s the perfect place for kids,” said Monique Comiskey, who with her husband, Philip, has two teenage girls and a 10-year-old son.
“We’ve been coming here for eight years, since our son was 2. This is what our kids know the beach to be,” she said, sweeping her arm across the expanse of an uncrowded shore. “There’s no arcade, no mini-golf. We’re not one on top of the other on the sand, and there’s plenty of room for them to run around.”
The Comiskeys were intrigued when they first heard about the park from a friend. “We came for a three-day weekend just to see what it was all about, and we couldn’t believe it,” Monique said. “The first time we came the water was calm and a beautiful emerald green. This week it’s been windier and choppy, with more waves. You just never know. Usually we stay out here all day, through sunset.”
After their first trip, the family started to visit St. Joseph several times a year and more recently added a winter holiday to their calendar.
“We’ve been coming for Thanksgiving for three years. We cook all of Thanksgiving dinner and turkey on the grill. And we’re not alone -- the campground is full. It’s a really fun time.”
Popular activities at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park include:
Deer are often sighted along the paved park drive, especially near Bayview picnic area. Other animals you might see include otter, raccoon, squirrels, opossum, armadillo and occasionally fox, coyote, and bobcat. Shore and wading birds, including egrets, great blue heron, and pelicans, feed and nest at the park. Sea turtles come onto the beach during the summer to lay their eggs, and in the fall and spring the park is a stop for migrating birds and monarch butterflies. The park is an excellent birding area, with sightings of 243 species recorded.
Fishing and scalloping
Fishing is extremely popular here -- a Florida fishing license is required for fresh or saltwater. Fish caught in the waters around the park include speckled trout, red drum, flounder, mullet, bluefish, whiting and shark. Bay scalloping is a top activity during the season -- July 1 through Sept. 24. Recreational scallopers are limited to two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell per day and need a saltwater license and dive flag. The preferred method is gliding over grass beds in shallow water using a mask and snorkel to look for the shells.
Boaters enjoy the clear water of St. Joseph Bay for cruising, fishing and snorkeling. At Eagle Harbor, a paved ramp and deep-water access can accommodate most trailered vessels. The park has a marina, but only vessels of registered campers and cabin guests are permitted to leave boats overnight. Near the ramp are picnic shelters, a beach access, outdoor shower, fish-cleaning station and restrooms. Launch fee is $5. Also at Eagle Harbor, the concessionaire Scallop Cove Too rents kayaks and canoes. (Winter rentals from Scallop Cove on Cape San Blas.)
Hiking and nature viewing
The park contains three trails. The 45-minute Maritime Hammock Trail winds through a coastal hammock to a secluded spot along the shore of St. Joseph Bay. The 45-minute Bayview Nature Trail passes through maritime oak, salt marsh, and scrub and runs alongside the bay, with benches overlooking the water along the way. The Wilderness Preserve Trail runs for six miles through 1,750 acres of unspoiled coastal ecosystem and sand pine scrub. Overnight camping is allowed by land or water, and a permit is required for all uses.
The park has nearly four miles of paved road that are shared with motorists, and a paved bike trail extends nearly nine miles beyond the park to Salinas Park on Cape San Blas.
If you go…
T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
8899 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe
Reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica, www.reserveamerica.com, 800-326-3521.
Pets are permitted in campgrounds but not in the cabins and or on the beach. Reservations for primitive camping may be made by contacting the park at 850-227-1327.