Florida's Wildest Beaches
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park occupies the upper half of a lengthy spit, protruding northwesterly from Cape San Blas. This undefiled park is out of the way of major population centers (Tallahassee is 75 miles distant) and therefore truly merits its claim of isolation. Statistics reveal just how easy it is to find quietude out here. There are nine miles of gulf beach, 10 miles of bayshore, and 2,516 acres of parkland, much of it consisting of hardy sandpine scrub and pine flatwoods.
An area at the north end, unviolated by roads, is a designated wilderness preserve. From the park road's end to the tip of the peninsula is 7.5 hikable miles. You can easily find a remote spot on the beach and fish, swim, and sunbathe to your heart's content. Kayaking and scalloping are popular on the bayside. Bird-watchers know St. Joseph Peninsula as a prime location for sighting hawks - especially the sharp-shinned hawk - during their fall migration. All told, 209 bird species have been catalogued on the peninsula. Monarch butterflies pass through en route to Mexican wintering sites, too. Mammals include deer, foxes, skunks, and bobcats.
The only thing we'd question about the park is the sanity of a ranger who greeted us at the gate. When we told him we were writing a book about beaches, he giggled in a high-pitched voice and replied,"Oh, just what I need...another travel book." When we asked for a brochure on the park, he giggled again and said, "Ah-ha! Plagiarism." Having just spent the previous three weeks diligently combing the counties along Florida's remote Nature Coast/Big Bend area for firsthand experiences of places that few travel writers trouble themselves to visit, we were in no mood for his bizarre barbs. But we held our tongues, chuckled agreeably, and pressed on into the park. It was, after all, a beautiful fall day and no time to be complaining. Soon enough we were laughing at him, not with him.
Four boardwalks and an access path from the cabin area lead onto the state park's ample white-sand beach. Several boardwalks got chewed up pretty badly by Hurricane Georges in 1998 but should be repaired by the time this reaches print. As for the dunes . . . well, they were in the process of recovering from damage inflicted by Hurricane Opal on October 4, 1995, when Hurricane Georges meted out more punishment. On average, they lost three feet of elevation and from 20 to 40 percent of their size. Something like 40,000 of the stabilizing sea oats planted in the wake of Opal were taken out as well. The beach itself has narrowed in some places and widened in others. Even though the beach and dunes have been adversely impacted by this recent spate of hurricanes-a sad reality that is true all over the Panhandle-they are still lovely to look at and play on. Time, of course, will heal all wounds.
Eight furnished cabins on the bayside bearing names like "Starfish," "Trout," "Conch," and "Snapper" are available for rental ($55 to $70 per night, depending on the time of year), and 119 campsites with hookups are located in two areas on the gulf side of the spit. Primitive camping can also be done by hiking out on the wilderness preserve. The cabins blend in with the landscape, and they're a fair cut above the typical rustic-to-dilapidated state-park lodgings. A recent renovation has spruced them up considerably. Cabin and camping reservations are accepted up to 11 months in advance; call the park directly.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Star Route 1, Box 200
Port St. Joe, FL 32456
Location: West end of St. Joseph Peninsula, 8.5 miles northwest of Cape San Blas on SR C-30E.
Parking/fees: A small per vehicle entrance fee. There are camping fees in the two developed campgrounds from March 1 to October 31; the rate goes down between November 1 and February 28. There is a nominal charge for camping in the wilderness area. Cabins rent on a nightly basis year-round.
Hours: 8 A.M. to sunset.
Facilities: Concessions, lifeguards, picnic tables, and showers.
Insects: the park service does not spray for flying insects.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication