Current:Manatee Springs State Park, Sunny with predicted high temp 70 F
The Emerald Coast of Northwestern Florida has many wonders. The sand is probably the whitest I have seen anywhere and the emerald to turquoise colored waters rival anything I have seen in the Caribbean. It also has high rises, and traffic, and requires some skill to manage with a dog. The cool (can you say cold?) temperatures were not a surprise. Southern Florida is warm in winter. I spent enough time in Ocala to know that winter frosty days are not unusual in Northern Florida. And the “dry season” isn’t always that dry.
Still, unless you want to barrel through the state on interstates, the Emerald Coast through Pensacola, Destin, and toward Panama City is the best way to get to another secret of Florida, The Forgotten Coast. We decided to skip 30A and stayed a bit north to travel highway 98 toward Panama City.
A great resource for dog owners is a website called BringFido.com, with listings of dog friendly resources all around the country. In a state famous for No Dog beaches, with that trusty little website I found a surprise. With the exception of St Joe Peninsula State Park (our destination) most of the beaches in Gulf County are dog friendly! Amazing!
The warm sunshine was glorious when we parked the rig at the Pier at Panama City Beach, in a huge empty parking lot next to Margueritaville. There is a small area west of the pier for a few hundred feet that is not only dog friendly, but no leash required. Abby got a dose of playing in the water and we got another dose of pure white sand, this time accompanied by bright sun and balmy breezes. Almost warm enough to take off the jackets!
Still in the morning hours when we arrived, the touristy town with beach shopping and bright colors was fairly quiet, traffic was minimal, and people were scattered. Looking around, I could only imagine what this place might be like just a little bit later in the season. Spring Break is approaching in another couple of weeks and I don’t think I would want to be here then.
After our relaxed respite on the beach, we continued east along the coast toward Panama City, a town that seemed a bit worn for wear. Best find for us was a rig friendly car wash, where we managed to get the salt and sand washed off the MoHo and the Tracker before heading for another salty, sandy beach camp.
Early afternoon arrival at St Joseph Peninsula State Park was perfect. When making all the crazy reservations I worked on last summer, I decided to skip this park, but last week thought better of it and added two nights using ReserveAmerica. Most of the Florida State Parks that I have reserved seem to use this system. On arrival, we were glad to have a reservation since even in early afternoon the park was nearly full.
Our first afternoon and evening were simple, with walks on the boardwalk and through the campgrounds with Abby, and beach walks for me. No dogs on the beaches here, but there are several trails around that do allow dogs on leashes.
Saturday morning we decided the weather was perfect for a bay kayak, and drove around to explore the peninsula a bit before deciding where to launch. The campgrounds are about half way down the long, narrow curve of Cape San Blas, with the northern end of the cape protected as a wildlife preserve. With a simple free pass obtained at the entry station, we were allowed to drive into the reserve. Thinking that the road (showing up on google maps) went all the way to the end, we were surprised to discover that the road was gated, and it was a 6.5 mile walk to the northern tip of the reserve.
Instead, we parked at the beach access parking lot, and with cool temperatures, clouds, and shade, decided to let Abby wait in the car while we walked across the dunes to see the beach. At 12 years old, Abby seems to finally get the idea that we will return, and we didn’t see any evidence of frantic dog after our 45 minute walk. Even a short walk on the beach with the two of us was nice, since sometimes in places like this we need to take turns. I tend to be more the beach walker and Mo will walk Abby on the roads and trails around the campground.
Mid-afternoon, the sun was out in full force and we decided to launch from the Bay Picnic area. What appeared to be a muddy launching beach turned out to be firm sand with no drop off and a few inches of water. It was probably the easiest launch ever for us!
Kayaking the bay was perfect, with glassy water much of the time, and now and then a slight breeze bringing up a few gorgeous ripples reflecting on the sandy bottom. After a mile or so, we passed the rental cabins in the preserve, and the sand dunes and scrub forest were empty of anything but birds and an occasional hiker. (Judy, this photo is for you! Abby rides in front of Mo and her life jacket is orange, so that is why you may not see her in the photos all the time, but she is there.)
The water was never more than a few feet deep, and several times we saw huge conch shells. At first, thinking it was a great find, I tried to pick the heavy shell up with my paddle. Even with two of us trying to get to the shell, we couldn’t get it up. A bit later, I found another one and managed to pick it up, only to discover a very disgruntled black critter inside. We saw several more, and figured out that it wasn’t worth trying to get one because they were probably all inhabited.
Cape San Blas curves back around St Joseph Bay to the north and east, with the tip of the cape very close to the mainland. We wanted a simple kayak, not a marathon, so we spent about two hours on the water and traveled only halfway toward the end of the cape before turning back.
After supper, I decided to take another walk over the boardwalk to the beach to catch the sunset. I think about half the campground population was out there, many of them with a drink in their hands and their beach chairs, ready to toast the sunset. The previous night had been beautiful as well, but with some clouds and cool winds there hadn’t been nearly as many people.
The night skies were dark and brilliant with stars after the quarter moon went down. There were cardinals and mockingbirds everywhere, egrets and herons in the pond behind our site, pelicans and stilts on the beach, and even a bald eagle just east of the campground. This is the Florida I wanted, the Florida I imagined when I said to Mo, “Let’s spend a winter in Florida!”. I think the sunny day kayaking on St Joseph Bay may have won her over.
There are many many photos in my google photo albums, and in the interest of bandwidth I have only put a few of them here. If you have the time, check them out here