Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Panama City Beach / St. Andrews Bay
Walton County Sheriff’s Office: 850-892-8186
Bay County Sheriff’s Office: 850-747-4700
Gulf County Sheriff’s Office: 850-227-1115
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 24-hour wildlife
emergency/boating under the influence hotline: 1-888-404-3922
Beach State Park
End: St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Distance: 63 miles, depending on side trips
Duration: 4-5 days
Special Considerations: Large storms and hurricanes may close
several inlets, requiring some portaging to campsites and points of
interest. No camping is allowed on Tyndall Air Force Base, so a 24-plus
mile paddle is required from St. Andrews State Park to Mexico Beach,
where motel accommodations can be made.
A GPS unit is a vital
piece of equipment in this segment as breakers along the beach may make
it necessary to paddle farther offshore, and fog can shroud landmarks.
Also, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish beachside motels from
condominiums, and most motels are not marked on the Gulf side.
Emerald waters, sugar-sand
beaches and high dunes mark the first two-thirds of this section,
followed by a remote stretch of wild barrier islands and peninsulas.
There are several points of interest and a couple of nights where motel
stays are necessary. Most motels are not marked from the Gulf side, so
GPS points are given on the map for motels located at key intervals.
Paddling is a straight west-east route parallel to the coast until
barrier islands and peninsulas are seen after St. Andrews State Park.
The Intracoastal Waterway is several miles inland, extending from
Choctawhatchee Bay to St. Andrews Bay and beyond, and is not covered in
For state park camping
recommended in this guide, advanced reservations are advisable. Call
toll free 1-800-326-3521 or 1-866-I CAMP FL, or go online to
www.ReserveAmerica.com. Phone numbers are given in specific sections
to reserve primitive campsites outlined in this guide. There is an
8-person and/or four 2-person tent maximum allowed at primitive
campsites. Please keep sites clean and follow all regulations in order
for these sites to remain open for paddlers. These sites are
“pack-it-in, pack-it-out” only, with campers following Leave No Trace
Some important land areas
and water bodies in this segment are in the public domain, to be
carefully managed for ecological, historical or recreational purposes.
To learn more about state parks, log onto
www.FloridaStateParks.org/. There are two state aquatic preserves,
St. Andrews State Park (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/standrews/info.htm)
and St. Joseph Bay (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/stjoseph)
1: Grayton Beach State
Park Campground to Grand Cayman Motel, 14 miles
Comprising more than 2,227
acres, Grayton Beach State Park offers 37 campsites, 30 cabins, five
picnic shelters, three coastal dune lakes, four miles of trails and 13
distinct natural communities, from beach dune to scrubby flatwoods.
There are also 19 listed species of protected animals and plants
occurring within the park boundaries. The park’s beach and dunes, like
most along the Panhandle coast, consist of quartz sand that floated down
rivers and streams from the Appalachian Mountains.
The park has a boat ramp,
but what makes this park so inviting to paddlers is that several
campsites (even-numbered sites from 10 through 20) are directly along
Western Lake, so paddlers can launch or land at their camping area.
Western Lake is open to the Gulf via a narrow inlet except when big
storms such as Hurricane Ivan close it with sand. Some portaging may be
necessary. Check with the ranger’s office for local conditions (850)
231-4210. From the campground along
Western Lake, paddle west approximately a half mile to the Gulf inlet,
and proceed east along the shore. In about six miles, you’ll see an
unmarred area of dunes nestled between coastal development. This is the
1,920-acre Deer Lake State Park. Growing atop the high dunes is a rare
plant: the Cruise’s golden aster. Numerous other flowering plants can be
found in the park’s 11 distinct natural communities, including white top
and yellow pitcher plants, rosebud orchids and pine lilies.
The long boardwalk from
the primary dune to the upland habitats is worthy a stroll as it
traverses an unspoiled vista of rolling dunes with a scenic view of Deer
Lake to the west. The parking lot area has water and a composting
toilet.Regular public camping is not allowed at Deer Lake. It is also
not recommended as a launching spot as the Gulf is 200 yards or more
from the parking lot down the long boardwalk unless you use a kayak cart
to roll your boat. About five miles
from Deer Lake lies a spot you don’t want to miss: Camp Helen State
Park. It is marked along the Gulf by a decrepit pier jutting into the
water. From the pier, you can reach a trail to the upland areas of the
park by heading across the sand in a northerly direction.
Camp Helen, with its
1930s-era lodge and cottages, will give you a glimpse of how Florida
tourists spent their vacations several decades ago. If you want to go
back farther in history, you can envision the four thousand or more
years Native Americans utilized this site. When standing atop the high
hill, with striking views on three sides and a cooling breeze in your
face, you can fully understand the desirability of this unique geologic
landform. Make sure to stroll along the park’s short loop hike through a
scenic live oak hammock.
There is no camping
allowed at the park, but water and bathrooms are available to visitors
during daylight hours.
About two miles past Camp
Helen along the Gulf is the first of many motels available to paddlers,
the Grand Cayman Motel. A GPS point is provided for you on the map.
Advance reservations are recommended (call 10800-322-4571). A small
market is across the street; a supermarket is located about a mile west
along the highway.There are other motels as you proceed east, the next
one being about a mile away, the Sugar Sands Beach Resort. You can scope
out the various motels ahead of time by logging onto:
http://www.thebeachloversbeach.com, or any number of other websites.
A handy map to motels and attractions along Panama City Beach is the
Panama City Beach Visitor’s Map. The map will show you the approximate
location of motels and attractions along the Gulf and provide telephone
numbers and websites. Advanced reservations are recommended, especially
on weekends and during college spring break periods in March and April.
Maps can be obtained by calling 1-800-PCBEACH. Your choice of a motel
will determine the length of your paddle to St. Andrews State Park.
2. Grand Cayman Motel
to St. Andrews State Park Campground, 17.5 miles
Paddle past the gleaming
white beaches and numerous motels, condominiums and attractions of
Panama City Beach to St. Andrews State Park. A handy reference point is
the Dan Russell City Pier, about five miles from the Grand Cayman. A
supermarket is about a mile west of the Dan Russell pier, along the
beach road. The M. B. Miller County Pier is about three miles past the
first pier. These public piers provide public restrooms, drinking water
and outdoor showers. Numerous restaurants are in the vicinity. You can
shorten your day by staying in another motel along the beach.
About three miles before
St. Andrews is the Richard Seltzer Park, which also has restrooms, water
and outdoor showers.
To reach the St. Andrews
State Park Campground, make a sharp left at the pass between the jetties
and Shell Island, and make another sharp left into Grand Lagoon and
proceed just past the boat ramp. There are numerous campsites on the
water where you can land your kayak (even numbers from 16-38, 96-114,
and 101, 132, 134 and 143). There may be rip-rap (large rocks) and marsh
grass in front of others. The park offers fresh water, showers and
Human history at St.
Andrews State Park began with early Native Americans, who feasted on
fish and abundant shellfish and left behind numerous middens (trash
heaps of discarded shells, bones and other refuse). In the early 1900s,
bathers frequently used the area, generally arriving by boat. The first
known full-time resident during this period was a Norwegian-born sailor
who wrecked his boat on the south bank of Grand Lagoon during a 1929
hurricane. “Teddy the Hermit” decided to homestead and remained until
his death in 1954 at age 74. His makeshift shack once stood between
campsites 101 and 102.The purchase of land for a state park began in
1947 when 302 acres were acquired from the federal government for the
bargain price of $2.50 an acre. Today, after the addition of several
adjacent parcels, at a considerably higher cost, the popular park
consists of more than 1,200 acres.The inlets and bays around the park
are part of the St. Andrews State Park Aquatic Preserve. Considered one
of the most diverse bays in North America, with over 2,100 recorded
marine dependent species, St. Andrews Bay has the largest expanse of
ecologically valuable seagrass beds in the Florida panhandle. These
beds, along with expansive salt marshes, provide spawning and nursery
habitats for a wide variety of fish and shellfish. The beaches and
uplands along the preserve provide habitat and nesting areas for several
protected species such as loggerhead and green sea turtles, the
Choctawhatchee beach mouse, and snowy and piping plovers.
3: St. Andrews State
Park Campground to Mexico Beach, 25 miles
This is a long stretch
without camping, but one of the most pristine, with little or no coastal
development visible. The shoreline appearance is reminiscent of a time
before arrival of Europeans. Only occasional fighter jets and motorboats
will jolt you back to this century.
From the campground,
paddle across the channel and continue your journey west along Shell
Island through St. Andrew Bay. This island was formerly known as Lands
End Peninsula and was connected to the mainland, but the Army Corps of
Engineers dredged the current pass as an easier and safer channel into
St. Andrews Bay. Interestingly, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan temporarily
closed the natural pass at the other end of Shell Island, known as East
Pass. It is one more reminder that storms, winds and currents are
constantly reshaping the coastal landscape. Be sure to check with park
staff as to the current status of East Pass. If it is closed, take the
Gulf side of the island. Be careful of breakers along this pass and
others. Take a wide turn around them.
The east end of Shell
Island and the adjacent Crooked Island is controlled by Tyndall Air
Force Base. You can land on these inviting, sandy shores for rest
breaks, but no overnight camping is permitted. You’ll need to stay on
the Gulf side for the rest of this section. Otherwise, some portaging
will be necessary (Crooked Island is not a true island.
Mexico Beach is a small coastal community that offers motels, a small
grocery store (across from the Buena Vista Motel), a hardware store,
numerous restaurants, and a post office. The two gulf-side motels, the
El Governor (850 648-5757) and Buena Vista (850 648-5323), are located a
half mile apart just east of the city pier. For more information, log
http://www.mexicobeach.com/cdc/. Reservations are suggested. The two
commercial campgrounds in town are not on the water, so this may present
an access problem. If you want to use Mexico Beach for a mail drop,
address letters or packages to: (your name), c/o general delivery, U.S.
Post Office, Mexico Beach, FL 32456. The post office is located one mile
inland on 15th Street.
4: Mexico Beach to St.
Joseph Peninsula State Park, 6.5 miles.
St. Joseph Peninsula
State Park is a fitting end to this section, offering a true coastal
wilderness experience. The St. Joseph State Park’s wilderness preserve,
one of only six in the state park system, encompasses the northern 7.5
miles of the peninsula (over 1,750 acres). This is an unspoiled
landscape of large dunes and coastal scrub and grasslands. The preserve
is accessible by foot or by boat, and circumnavigational paddlers can
primitive camp in the preserve at a designated campsite with advance
reservations. Call 850-227-1327 to reserve a site. Payment is due on the
day of arrival and is normally paid at the ranger station, although a
long-distance paddler can pay by phone with a credit card the day of
arrival ($5.00 per person per night). No fires are allowed and campers
must follow “Leave No Trace” principles. Paddlers need to check in at
least two hours before sunset and check out with park personnel.
There are paddler campsites that can be accessed
from the bay or from the Gulf. Campsites 1, 2 & 7 can be accessed
on the bay side. Campsites 3 & 6 can be accessed from the Gulf where you
must hike in from the beach following marked trails and camp in the
designated camping site. There is a limit of five campers per site and
most sites can accommodate 2-3 small tents, with the smallest site being
#1 (two tents maximum).
From the wilderness
preserve, paddle through the clear waters of the St. Joseph Bay Aquatic
Preserve. The shallow bay waters are homes and nurseries for numerous
fish and sea animals such as sea urchins, scallops and snails. Seagrass
beds are lush and abundant. Fishing and summer scalloping are popular
recreational activities.Nearing the halfway point, water and restrooms
are available at the southern end of the state park at the picnic area
and boat ramp (see map). Outdoor cold showers are at the beach
restrooms, across the road from the park’s boat ramp along the bay. The
park also offers canoe and kayak rentals. A small grocery store can be
found about five miles outside the park boundary along 30E.
This stop is an excellent place to take an
extra day off to paddle along St. Joseph
or to hike along the park’s many trails. The peninsula is a
birdwatcher’s paradise; 247 species have been observed at the
park. Following the passage of fall cold fronts, you can spot
hundreds and sometimes thousands of migrating hawks and falcons
passing over and resting at the park on their way to Mexico and South America.
In winter, look for gannets, loons, cormorants and ducks. Spring
migrants include snowy and piping plovers and black-throated and
Summertime brings green and loggerhead sea
turtles to the beaches for egg laying.
The water areas on both sides of the
peninsula are part of the St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve. The
shallow bay waters are homes and nurseries for numerous fish
species and sea animals such as sea urchins, scallops and
snails; seagrass beds are lush and abundant. Fishing and summer
scalloping are popular recreational activities.