By William E. Males
Year round get-away opportunities for campers and fishermen . . .
Coupled between two of the greatest state parks in Florida, Panama City Beach has for over a century remained one of the world’s favorite getaways places. Both of these parks have incredible natural beauty and scenery that maintains a fascination for visitors year round.
On the east send is St Andrews State Park which is picture perfect and seductively inviting with its sugar white sands and emerald green waters with over one-and-a-half miles of beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and Grand Lagoon. While in the warmer spring and summer this park is every water sports enthusiast’s paradise. Here every member of the family can enjoy swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving, while the cooler fall and winter months remain excellent for year round hiking, beachcombing, kayaking, canoeing of renting a pontoon boat from the parks own boat rental service. With two fishing piers, a jetty, and a boat ramp there are various fishing opportunities for anglers.
On the west end is Panama City Beach’s other beautiful state park located on the eastern border of Inlet Beach, just before the Lake Powell Bridge. Camp Helen is bordered on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico and has one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida, Lake Powell. These coastal dune lakes are extremely rare worldwide and both Panama City Beaches state parks have one. Here in the United States these coastal lakes can only along be found along the Gulf Coast. With its picture perfect life filled natural areas ranging from the coastal dunes flowing with their sea oats to the salt marshes found along the Gulf to its freshwater wetlands with the sand pine scrub along the lake. Camp Helen has offered more than a few proud rewards to even novice anglers at both its freshwater and saltwater fishing areas. With the year round full-facility campsites, as well as primitive youth group camping, this park is a favorite destination of many whose camping experience is enhanced with the park’s concession offering snacks, souvenirs, and replacement fishing tackle for those lost on the big one that got away.
The park also has two wonderful nature trails that wind through a rich diversity of coastal plant communities providing a splendid opportunity for bird-watching. Those exploring the park area will appreciate the prehistoric middens and mounds indicate that humans lived in the area more than 4,000 years ago. These “middens” are actually trash heaps that have been found within the park while the mounds are often the sites where primitive housing was erected, both suggesting humans have been in the area for approximately 400 years .
Camp Helen State Park was originally known to early European settlers as Inlet Beach. This name continued to be used by early developers as the area around Phillips Inlet was initially developed for recreational opportunities back in the early 1920’s. In 1928 Robert E. Hicks purchased 185 acres of land overlooking Philips Inlet and built a summer home for his wife, Margaret, who named the compound Loch Lomond. It was in the late 1930’s when construction of the historic lodge and associated buildings was completed. Later in 1945 the Avondale Textile Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama purchased Loch Lomond from the Hicks family, and at that time renamed the property Camp Helen. After that 12 duplex cottages and a recreation hall were built and for 39 years the Camp operated a resort destination for their vacationing employees. Many of these historic buildings still exist today and can provide an insight into tourist life along the Gulf Coast back in the day. From 1945 to 1987the employees of Avondale Textile Mills were privileged to use Camp Helen as a vacation resort for their families. The Camp Helen story might have ended there were it not for persistent area residents who believed the space should become a state park. Camp Helen was acquired by the State of Florida in 1994 under the Conservation and Recreational Lands Programs, and today offers visitors a first-class state park, thanks to the efforts of the local community, Gulf Coast Community College, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In 1996, their dream became a reality and today the Big House, as it is affectionately called now, welcomes visitors to Camp Helen State Park.
Visitors to Camp Helen State Park will enjoy the newest addition of a nature trail on the north side of U.S. Highway 98. Because the path was designed with an over-sized walkway to accommodate those with special needs it has quickly become the favorite of most users whether they’re just hikers or enjoying it as a biking trail just under a mile long as meanders around the north side of Camp Helen. The trail is user friendly to all ages with the bonus feature of shaded rest areas with benches where one can stop to enjoy the views.
Those visiting Panama City Beach will find at Camp Helen a variety of opportunities for outdoor recreation. With its the plentiful wildlife, nature watching has is extremely popular with the both novice and camera buffs alike, as the three different water bodies have created a diverse habitat for wildlife that includes rare shorebirds and Bald Eagles. This is a proven great time getaway all year long; so make it a point when in Panama City Beach to visit the lodge at Camp Helen and relax in the rocking chairs overlooking Lake Powell, or head to the beach for swimming, beachcombing, tanning or boating. Hope to see you there soon.