07 March 2012

This morning we’re leaving St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, a pristine sliver of land off Florida’s Forgotten Coast where we’ve spent the last 10 days. The peninsula is 15 miles long and impossibly narrow, and the entirety of the northern half is protected as a State Wilderness Preservation, accessible only by permit. That means no hotels, no houses, no restaurants, and during our time here, almost no people. The wonderful campground here is just 120 sites split across two loops, and since the park charges a day-use fee and the nearest town is a half hour away, nearly everyone here is a fellow camper.

We love this kind of place: remote, quiet, beautiful, natural. We wouldn’t hesitate in making this a permanent family vacation spot, but others might be disappointed by the lack of services, shopping & entertainment. There’s a seasonal hamburger joint and a couple small markets (more poorly stocked than your neighborhood gas station & far more expensive), but that’s it for services on the peninsula. Port St. Joe is only a few miles across the bay, but nearly 25 miles by car. It’s an easy drive, though, and there are grocery stores, a nice laundromat & a few great restaurants (we liked Pepper’s Mexican Cantina), but we wouldn’t want to make the trip more than once or twice a week. And there’s literally no touristy family-entertainment spots between here and the southern sprawl of Panama City Beach. You’ll have to drive an hour to find a putt-putt golf course.

Which is awesome.

The weather here in early March is still a bit on the chilly side, peaking around 72° but when the wind is low, it’s perfect weather for (p)laying on the beach, which we’ve done on several days. The beaches are wide, pristine sugar-white sand, with veins of shell deposits, and separated from the campgrounds by some of the tallest dunes in the country. On a couple days too chilly for swimsuits, we donned our hoodies and hit the beach looking for shells. We spent six hours one day hunting sand dollars on the deserted northern shores and came home with over two dozen! Amazing. The waves varied in intensity from day-to-day: most days waved red flags, warning of rip currents and strong waves, but on our last day here, the gulf was downright placid. We didn’t see a whole lot of variability in the tides, but the composition of the beach seemed to indicate that it can change dramatically. We never saw that. Even so, the water doesn’t get terribly deep even hundreds of feet from the shore, but the floor is unpredictable, often dropping a couple of feet without notice, so we had to keep an eye out for Jack as he splashed in the breaking waves.

The interior of the peninsula is a 1900-acre wilderness preserve, full of thick scrub, tall pines and palms, all manners of wildlife and waterfowl, and requires a permit (freely available at the park office) to explore. We got a permit one day and hiked along the bay shore for several miles, encountering not a single other human, collecting sea urchin shells and feeling like we’d been dropped on a deserted tropical island. It really was an amazing experience. We encountered hundreds of horseshoe crab shells, a large, dead turtle who just barely didn’t make it back to the water, and a surprise Spiny Box Pufferfish stuck in the sand, still fully-preserved. That was quite a find!

Not a bad street to live on if you ask me.

Not a bad street to live on if you ask me.

@St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

The US Air Force still operates on Cape San Blas, the jut of land that connects the peninsula to the mainland. They also manage the Cape San Blas lighthouse, the cape’s fourth but only remaining lighthouse, which was a worthwhile excursion. We found it all gated & locked up, but we arrived late in the day, hoping to take in a sunset there. The rugged, palm-tree-studded coastline made for some ridiculously beautiful pictures as the sun set.

One thing about being here is we’ve had to deal with some strange time zone issues. Our iPhones and truck clocks adjust automatically based on their location, but we noticed them behaving rather erratically, bouncing around willy-nilly. Eventually I looked at a map of time zone borders and sure enough, the peninsula must be right on top of it. I actually wonder if it has more to do with being a couple miles off-shore of the mainland, or if the time zone border truly does run right near the peninsula. Either way, it turns out it didn’t really matter much, as we’ve had no scheduled obligations and there’s nothing open to have a closing time. Something to keep an eye out for, though, if you ever make it.

And you should, if you ever get the chance. It’s definitely not a “something for everyone” destination, but if you want to visit pristine, undeveloped, white sand beaches in Florida, this is a convenient and lovely spot, and we can’t wait to find our way back someday.