Florida has something for everyone. Whether it’s the high rise hotels overlooking tourist-filled beaches, theme parks with all your kids’ favorite cartoon characters, or wildlife preserves filled with great hiking, camping, fishing, birding, kayaking, etc., Florida has it all, and they have it year round. One day you can be in tourist heaven, the next day you can be lost in a swampy tropical forest. But one thing is for sure, you’ll need some money to make it happen. How much, is totally up to you. This story is how a family from the midwest makes lifelong memories in the Sunshine State on a budget.
When talking about vacationing on a budget, we can throw out several of the things listed above. High priced beach hotels, theme parks, and all such tourist traps are extremely non-budget friendly. So what is? Probably the same things that are in your own state. Florida has one of the best state park systems in the nation, and one of the most varied. They have parks that feature history, natural springs so big you can swim with manatees in them, caves, rivers, lakes, dunes, bays, wildlife refuges, and of course…secluded beaches. Look for where the locals go to get away from it all. For us, we found paradise along a stretch of the panhandle known as “The Forgotten Coast.”
From our location in northcentral Indiana, it is about a 14 hour drive to the Forgotten Coast. In our Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, it cost us around $160 in gas, round trip, far cheaper than flying and renting a car. So we packed it up with just enough supplies for a week long camping trip! This was our fourth camping trip to Florida’s panhandle, and our second time to this destination: T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It’s on a long narrow peninsula about 45 minutes south of Panama City Beach, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side, and the pristine St. Joseph Bay on the other. This park features about 9 miles of secluded beach on the Gulf side, with some of the tallest dunes in Florida. There are two campgrounds; last year we stayed in Shady Pines, which has larger sites with more privacy and shade, but this year we stayed in Gulf Breeze, which is more open but much closer to the beach (you can literally here the surf from the campground). Both are great campgrounds with easy access to the beach, but Gulf Breeze definitely had the nicer bath houses. A campsite here includes your own water and electric hookups, all for $26/night. For the week, we paid $156 in camping fees, less than a single night would cost in a tourist hotel.
So what does a family do for a week on St. Joseph Peninsula? Live the good life! On the Gulf side, we swam, wave jumped, went shelling, sunbathed, walked the beach, enjoyed amazing sunsets; and after sundown, we walked the beach with our red LED lights watching for sea turtles (2016 has set a new record for the amount of nesting sea turtles), playing with the ghost crabs, observing bio-luminescent phytoplankton, and star gazing in the darkest skies we’ve ever seen. The Milky Way is amazing over the ocean. On the Bay side, we went snorkeling and kayaking. St. Joseph Bay is unique in that there are no rivers or streams that empty into it, keeping it pristine for observing all sorts of crabs, starfish, sea urchins, sea snails, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and if you’re lucky, manta rays. On the peninsula itself, there are two nature trails, plus a much longer wilderness trail that goes out into the seven mile wilderness preserve. There is plenty of wildlife to observe, but we mostly seen deer, egrets, herons, small Florida island mice, anoles, and crabs.
South of the park on the peninsula is Cape San Blas, a small community with lots of locally owned shops and eateries, and vacation rentals. We really only went into the community to buy ice, and the occasional ice cream treat. Cape San Blas does have several public beach access points.
One thing to keep in mind when visiting St. Joseph Peninsula is that it sits right on the time line, so your smartphone will constantly be switching between eastern and central times. The only time this was an issue for us was when we rented kayaks; the park goes by central time, but Scallop Cove II (rental store) goes by eastern time. This messed us up and caused us to lose an hour of kayak time.
There is really no way to describe the memories we make on such trips without seeing it for yourself. Sure, Disney would be nice, but what is more amazing: seeing a six foot tall MIckey Mouse, or holding a starfish you found yourself while snorkeling? The answer is simple for us, and much cheaper.
This how we do Florida…on a budget.
Gas: $160 Camping: $156 Food/Ice: $200 Kayak Rental: $95/two
But don’t trust my words, watch our video!