In 2014, our vacation options were very limited due to the wife’s new job, which lead to a quickie vaca over Thanksgiving weekend to Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Shores National Seashore. While 2015 has been much nicer to us for getting away, our wanderlust and eagerness to get out of Indiana lead us to another Florida adventure over Thanksgiving weekend. Being our third trip to the Sunshine State this year, we’re getting to be pros. Black Friday has no appeal compared to the sea.
We made plans for our final camping trip of the year, with reservations at St. Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach. Typically we stay away from the tourist areas, but with my daughter living in Panama City, it seemed like a perfect excuse to stay there. Those plans got changed a bit at the last minute, as just days before Thanksgiving, my daughter moved back to Indiana! It meant no Thanksgiving dinner with her, but she would be home for my birthday. Onward we went to Florida for Thanksgiving.
After a long night of driving, we took the scenic route from Pensacola through Fort Walton Beach, Destin, and finally Panama City Beach. We set up camp at St. Andrews St. Park, which frankly exceeded our expectations. When Florida says they have the best state parks, I’d have to agree. You literally drive out of a tourist trap and into a serene wooded region complete with wetlands, ponds, gators, shore birds, deer, ocean beach, bay beach, jetty, etc. The campground is at the back of the park with the Lower Grand Lagoon as the backdrop. There are trails to be hiked, history to be found, beaches to swim, shells to be collected, wildlife to be viewed. Lots of opportunities for fishing and kayaking too, though this time of year the local outfitters were closed which meant no kayak or boat rentals from the park. That was literally my only complaint for the entire weekend. Just gives us more to look forward to whenever we make it back.
We took a stroll down to the beach that first day, it was mid-70s and Kaden went swimming in the “kiddie pool” section, which is simply a protected swim area between the beach and jetty that makes it safe from waves and rip currents. Kaden could play to his heart’s delight while Robin was shelling along the shore and I explored and took photos. We were surprised at just how fast the sunset came on, as the park is just inside the Central Time Zone, meaning the sunset was at 4:42pm there. We were able to watch the gorgeous sunset and still get back to camp, change clothes, and make it to Margarittaville by 6pm for our Thanksgiving dinner.
On Friday, we took a quick trip in tourist land for supplies (wood, ice, alcohol) and then back to the park to enjoy the amazing weather. Last year at Pensacola Beach, while it made it to 70 by mid-afternoon, it was just too cold to get wet. Not this time. Night temps fell to about 60, day temps were at 80. The water was chilly, but honestly, no worse than Lake Michigan in July at Indiana Dunes, and we’ve swam in that plenty of times. So Kaden had a full day of swimming and playing, Robin collected more shells, and I hiked around the peninsula, taking photos of birds, deer, and even a dolphin. I also hiked around Gator Pond, but no gators wanted to show anything more than their beady little eyes poking out of the water for a few seconds at a time.
The deer in this park obviously have a very limited range. Being surrounded by salt water or tourist town, they only have the 1200 acres to make home. They are extremely accustomed to people, wandering through the campground, and one even walked right up to me while I was hiking the trails behind the park. Watch video for the experience:
That evening we enjoyed cooking over the campfire and watching the full moon rise over the bay.
Saturday, we drove down to our favorite beach in Florida, at St. George Island State Park. It’s about an hour drive south of Panama City, but the worst part was just getting through Panama City. From the campground and through town took nearly another hour. And that is why I don’t much care for staying near tourist areas, heh. Once we arrived, we paid the fee to drive the extra 5 miles through the protected section of the park, where they recommend only off road vehicles go. They didn’t question us when they seen the Subaru! The eastern end of the island is fully protected from development, mostly fishermen go out to this end. They stay at the end or along the bay for fishing, which means we had the entire beach side to ourselves. We only ran across one other person during all the hours we walked the beach. Now that is paradise. Just like last time we went out here, it had some of the best shelling we’ve ever seen.
Once again, the sunset caught us off guard, leaving us to walk the beach back in near darkness. It was beautiful and serene, except for the mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned for them. Here are some videos of our St. George Island experience:
Sunday was pack up day, but Robin and Kaden got another two hours of beach time while I tore down camp and loaded the car. It was a 14 hour drive home through horrible traffic, we got home at 4:40am and I was at work at 6am.
Totally worth it.