Tranquil marshes, unspoiled beaches and secluded campsites await along the Sunshine Stateâ€™s Forgotten Coast
Nestled inconspicuously between Floridaâ€™s vibrant capital city of Tallahassee and the tourist mecca of Destin, the relaxed section of coast that surrounds St. Joseph Peninsula is known as Floridaâ€™s â€œforgotten coast.â€ Far from being a criticism, the apt moniker is an indicator of the regionâ€™s unspoiled natural beauty and undeveloped expanses of beach.
Located south of Port St. Joe on Highway 98 and State Route 30, St. Joseph Peninsula extends out into the sparkling Gulf of Mexico and parallels the coast, thus creating an oasis of bay waters on one side and warm Gulf waters on the other.
Cruising down the forgotten coast in our motorhome, my husband and I watched the sun sink down below the horizon and resigned ourselves to the prospect of yet another late night arrival at our campsite. We always have the best of intentions to arrive at a respectable hour, set up camp and thus avoid vexing our site neighbors. Alas, whether it is due to a rainstorm or a roadway back up, we seem to always arrive in the dark of night and get assigned to the tightest and most awkward spot in any campground.
As we pulled onto the peninsula access road it was a breezy warm night with a sky full of stars. The empty paved road continued for several miles and only the shadows of sand dunes and occasional glimpses of dark calm waters could be seen on either side of us. On our right side, the tranquil waters of St. Joseph Bay and on our left the breezy, salty waters of the Gulf. I was struck by the stillness and feeling of tranquility that came over me as we seemed to leave the world behind.
The peninsula began to widen and we pulled into the campground area of the T.H Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. In the 1800s, the Stone family owned the land that is now the state park facility, as well as most of the land surrounding the bay area. In the early 1900s, the Stones sold the peninsula to the government for military use. The location was opened to the public as a state park in 1967. The 95-site RV camping facility is divided into two sections, Gulf Breeze and Shady Pines. The Gulf Breeze section is perfect for sunshine lovers and warm breezes while Shady Pines accurately describes a heavily treed and blissfully shaded section of sites. The camping areas are equally beautiful and each is just steps from the warm Gulf waters.
We located our site and, having somewhat mastered the technique of silently connecting to power and water in stealthy movements and hushed voices, we avoided the prospect of facing grumpy neighbors in the morning. With our windows open to catch the breeze, we went to sleep that night to the soft rustle of the trees and the rhythmic ebb and flow of the tide.
We arose early the next morning and walked the mere 200 feet to the beach. We were greeted by a wide, white, sugar sand shore that continued undisturbed in both directions as far as we could see. Our sole companions were a couple of fishermen casting for flounder and red drum, and a handful of hungry sandpipers picking through remnants of the waning tide. As we walked, we marveled at the size and depth of the coastal dunes and later learned that they are indeed the tallest sand dunes found east of the Mississippi. The dunes and the sea oat vegetation that covers them are vigilantly protected, as their presence guards against storm intrusion and supports preservation of the beach area. The sea oat plants that grow in and among the dunes create a mesh-like root system that prevents erosion. The dunes are also home to an adorable endangered species, the St. Andrews Beach mouse. This tiny creature is only known to survive in and among the dunes of St. Joseph Peninsula. To protect its dunes, vegetation and wildlife, the state park has developed a boardwalk system.
The boardwalk spans over and around the dunes, crosses marshes, skirts estuaries teeming with life and connects the two camping sections. The boardwalk is a great place to watch birds and migrating butterflies. We walked leisurely past a couple of intent birdwatchers with binoculars and identification books in hand. The park provides a handy checklist of almost 250 birds that live on, or migrate through, the peninsula. Herons, loons, owls, kingfishers, flycatchers and chickadees are just a handful of the bird families that we identified with our untrained eyes. As beautiful as the birds were, they had sharp competition for our attention from the hundreds of dancing butterflies fluttering and tumbling among the dunes and coastal scrub. Each side of the boardwalk was alive with twirling colors as a variety of butterfly species gathered on flowers and bushes like tiny pirouetting dancers providing walkers with natural entertainment.
For a longer walking experience, we laced up our hiking boots and explored both the Maritime Hammock and Bay View trails. Several miles of bike trails and a number of walking trails run along both the Gulf and bay shores. As we hiked, we experienced the rare and beautiful coastal scrub environment, pine scrub and salt marshes. A herd of deer made their way cautiously past us and coastal birds sat perched curiously watching us from above or wading into the shallow-pooled waters along the trails. The park also encompasses the St. Joseph Peninsula Wilderness Preserve. The preserve is 1,750 acres of pristine and protected natural coastal scrub. Hiking in this area requires some good planning for food and hydration as well as a permit from the ranger station.
Famished after a day of hiking, we discovered it is a good idea to have plenty of provisions on-board before arriving at the park. The campground marina does have a small well-stocked concession store, however the prices are somewhat designed for a captive audience. The nearest full-service grocery, as well as an assortment of casual restaurants, is located back in St. Joe, a pleasant 10-mile drive. The trip into St. Joe afforded us a chance to visit the Constitution Convention State Park Museum. St. Joe may be a sleepy paradise now, but in the early 1800s it was known as St. Joseph and the area was the center of Floridaâ€™s fledgling government, serving as the territorial capital and home to the first constitutional convention. Delegates from across Florida wrangled, debated and finally petitioned Congress for admission to the Union as the 27th state. Eventually, the capital was moved to Tallahassee, and now debates in the St. Joe area center around predicting what kind of scallop season the fishermen will have this year.
Fishermen on the peninsula have no shortage of options for maritime prey including blue crab, flounder, trout, mullet and even shark; however, the catch of choice in the area is the bay scallop. The area is well known among anglers for its bay scallop season, which draws coastal fishermen and their nets, buckets and boats to the marinas all around the bay area. Generally spanning July through September, this productive season produces the scallops that are the local dish of preference and declared to be especially succulent and delicious. We missed scallop season, so our attention was focused on another fascinating creature of the sea, the dolphin. During several warm dips in the Gulf waters, we were greeted by schools of dolphins swimming just past us and enjoying their own diversion of flips and frolicking. Like a ritual, the dolphins would pass by twice a day, arching and gliding on the waterâ€™s surface and occasionally flipping into the air, either for our amusement or their own. However, they were not the only creatures on the peninsula with a daily ritual.
Each evening at sunset we witnessed campers gather on the beach in quiet ceremony â€” some with refreshments in hand to make a toast â€” watching the slowly retreating sun. Oranges and pinks danced and bobbed on the waterâ€™s gleaming surface as the campers soaked in the moment and quietly reflected. As the giant glowing orb finally dipped below the horizon, a small cheer would go up through the gathering. Each person knew privately what he or she was cheering for; the beauty and wonder of the moment, friendships forged or renewed, or maybe just another great day of camping. Then quietly, couples and friends drifted back to the homey comfort of their motorhomes for another night of peaceful sleep under St. Joseph Peninsulaâ€™s starry skies.
For More Information
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
850-227-1327 | www.floridastateparks.org/stjoseph