We stumbled on Camp Helen State Park 18 months ago, in our pre-Footpaths days, when we were trying to escape traffic congestion on U.S. Highway 98. We had planned to hike some of the natural areas enveloping the Apalachicola River in the eastern Florida Panhandle but lost patience for the bumper to bumper traffic.
We saw the sign for the state park and exited right – and what an outstanding find it was – the perfect mix of nature and history that we always enjoy. We returned late this November to make an official “Footpaths” visit and to share this place with the world.
The 185 acre parcel, overlooking Phillips Inlet, was originally developed as a private residence in 1928. Unfortunately the husband died unexpectedly in the early 1930’s, leading the wife, Margaret Hicks, to develop the property into a vacation destination with the addition of small brick cottages. In 1945 the property was purchased by Avondale Textile Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama, named Camp Helen, and opened as a resort camp for its employees. Additional cottages were built and a recreation hall was added. In 1996 the compound was bought by the state of Florida and Camp Helen State Park opened in 1997.
Camp Helen, following Topsail Hill Preserve and Grayton Beach, became the third Florida State Park that protect the rare coastal lakes of the western Florida Panhandle. Lake Powell, the largest of the coastal lakes, makes up the northern and eastern boundaries of the park, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at the park’s beach.
The rangers recommended that we start our hike on the Oak Canopy Trail. The trailhead is on the southwestern aspect of the old campus and takes you past the original stable building.
Almost immediately, we found ourselves walking a seashell laden walkway beneath reaching Live Oaks that were draped in Spanish Moss – in case we needed to be reminded that we had driven into the deep south.
The trail switched to compacted sand and wove through a wood largely comprised of Live Oak, Southern Magnolia, Palmetto, and Slash Pine.
Initially we could hear the hum of U.S. 98 to our north, but as the trail headed south, the highway noise dissipated and was replaced by the rhythmic collapse of the Gulf surf.
The Oak Canopy Trail offered up many things but what I found most striking was the tree “architecture”, with Live Oaks cantilevered at 45 degree angles, and marriages of the oaks and Southern Magnolias.
On the floor and in the understory we saw several interesting findings:
Partridge Berry – Its fruits are an important food source for many game birds including Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Bobwhite Quail, and Wild Turkey. Hence it name.
Coral Berry – the uniquely colored berries will often be present on the plant over the winter.
Yaupon Holly – The twigs and berries contain caffeine and Native Americans made a cleansing tea from them. The tea induced vomiting and that is where the plant gets its scientific name, Ilex vomitoria.
Reindeer Moss – is actually a lichen and composed of algae and fungi existing symbiotically, with the fungus providing the structure and the algae the nutrition through photosynthesis.
As the sound of the surf grew louder we found ourselves in a transition zone, where the taller Live Oaks and Slash Pines gave way to shorter Sand Live Oaks, which are more tolerant of the harsh conditions served up by the coastal location including the salt spray, poor soils, and less fresh water. Here the trail was bathed in a dappled sun.
We then found ourselves in the shrub zone, and when we looked behind us, we could see clearly the transition from the taller forest to the low lying Palmetto and stunted Sand Live Oak.
Amongst the dense plant life the photographer doggedly pursued a couple of butterflies to get these shots.
Cloudless Sulfur – larger than most the sulfurs. This one is a male since it is lacking a black border on its wings.
Gulf Fritillary – The white spots on the underside of the wings allow for easy identification.
Shortly after the noted transition the Canopy trail emptied onto the Beach Trail. Here the gait became more challenging due to the loose white sand, but we were rewarded with our first view of the Gulf of Mexico.
The dune zone in the coastal lake region is quite wide. It is some of the most ecologically valuable area of the park, and the Panhandle in general. It is a favored nesting site for nine protected species of birds including Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. Unfortunately we did not see any of those during our Thanksgiving Week visit.
One thing we did observe as we traversed the dunes was the annual Monarch migration, where the butterflies head east across the Panhandle and then turn south along the Florida peninsula, before crossing over the Gulf to Mexico. It was a challenge for the photographer to capture them with a photo as these Monarchs do not meander to feed on flower nectar, but rather travel at top speed eastward.
While it is anecdotal, it was our impression that the number of Monarchs passing through the region this year was significantly reduced when compared to 2 and 4 years ago.
One pleasant sighting that we did note was our first identification of Seaside Goldenrod, looking very vibrant tucked in amongst the assorted dune plants.
I find the jaunt through the dunes fascinating. The trail weaves around and through the tall dunes, with protected areas to both sides.
While the area looks desolate, it is in fact teaming with wildlife activity. Noted was this Ghost Crab acting as a lookout from his hole in the dune.
The Beach Trail parallels the outlet of Powell Lake, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and then lands the hiker on the expansive beach.
This area is active with gulls and shore birds, and here we saw the Bald Eagle pictured in the title photo and the photo below. Note his success in catching lunch.
The buildings in the photo are on the western edge of Sunnyside, Florida, which borders the park to the east on the coast.
After a short stay on the shore we doubled back along the Beach Trail. After a couple hundred yards you reenter the loop trail, and take the path to the right which heads back to the Visitor Center, threading across a salt marsh wetland. To the left is a small inlet off Lake Powell and to the right, the southern part of the huge Lake Powell. Perched in pines above the inlet were these two Great Blue Herons.
Floating on the inlet was this pair of Least Grebes, who will overwinter here and return to the upper Midwest or Canada to nest in the spring. They are diving birds and would dive underwater to feed on aquatic life.
Normally the trail would continue along the western edge of Lake Powell, but due to a construction project to rehab an expansive boat dock, we were directed up a service road and onto the historic campus of Camp Helen where we saw the Rainbow Cottages.
In summary, a hike at Camp Helen State Park takes one through multiple habitats including maritime hammock, coastal dune, wetland, and tidal marsh. In addition, there is an expansive stretch of unspoiled beach that the Florida Panhandle is noted for. Finally, the camp itself presents a taste of southern Americana history.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway (U.S. 98), Panama City Beach, FL
Parking – large asphalt lot just inside the park entrance.
Facilities – nice restrooms in the Visitor Center/Ranger Station.
Trail Conditions – excellent and well marked. The Oak Canopy Trail is compacted sand and soil. The Beach trail is generally soft sand with the a few sections of fabricated walkway.
Benches – several noted
Kids – should do well here. There is minimal elevation change.
Dogs – welcomed on a leash but are not allowed on the beach
Suggested Paired Hikes – The North Trail is 1.8 miles long. The first section is an asphalt all persons path that runs north along Lake Powell. Then the trail becomes compressed sand and dirt and loops through a woodland and along a salt marsh.