Florida Travel

Florida’s Largest Coastal Dune Lake: Camp Helen State Park

The beautiful quaint site of Camp Helen State Park is located on Lake Powell and the Gulf of Mexico on the west end of Panama City Beach. As one of the largest natural dune lakes in the world, Lake Powell consists of 183 acres of Florida’s natural vegetation and wildlife. The Park has some of the most pristine and beautiful beaches in Florida and offers boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, kayaking, picnicking areas, swimming and beach-combing. Camp Helen State Park is open daily from 8 am till sunset with a $4.00 per vehicle admission fee. (honor system – you pay at the entrance). You can find restrooms, a drink machine and exhibits all located at the Visitor’s Center.

We like to escape the worst of the northeast winters and find the Florida Panhandle to be the perfect spot to enjoy some warmth in those long winter months while playing along the white sand beaches without the massive crowds of tourists that fill the area in the summer. Being able to drive down or up highway 98 without traffic and be able to explore all the hidden gems around is really refreshing and something we look forward every year.

Finding Camp Helen State Park while driving from Destin to Panama City was one of those unexpected adventures that we always hope for while setting out on a drive. It’s really not highly advertised (as it should be) and not many people other than the locals know about this Inlet Beach.

We saw the sign and quickly took the turn to the right that brought us to the entrance of the park where we found the honor box and paid the requested $4 before heading to find a parking spot right in front of the Visitor Center.

We went inside to grab a bottle of water and ask for information. One of the park employees directed us towards a hike on the beautiful hiking trails to the gulf coast beach not far away and the other gave us a choice between taking a walk along the Oak Canopy Trail, passing by the historical buildings from the 30’s and 40’s., or down to the Beach and Inlet or walk along the trail that goes under the Lake Powell Bridge (HWY 98) along Lake Powell.

After hearing their informative descriptions, we were so excited and really not sure which one we should pick as we didn’t want to miss any of the beauty surrounding us, and all the hikes were pretty short, so we decided to do all three of them.

First we walked by the historical building which had been recently restored. The setting of these cabins placed on the beautiful grounds with moss covered trees hoovering over them was gorgeous and definitely worth viewing. The Hicks House which was built in the early 30’s is available for weddings and other meetings. Americana Music Concerts are held in the Lodge from December through March and the Recreation Hall is also available for rental for family gatherings and other events you might be looking to host there.

After wandering around the historic camp for some time we set of on a hike to the beautiful undisturbed white sand beach. It is over half a mile from the camp under the trees out to the beach through sanded path. The better part of the walk to the beach was in sand, some of it deep in places and difficult to get through. It is a pretty long walk over dunes and but you’ll see a wonderful assortment of exploration, from beach to marsh to coastal forest along the way before finally seeing the clear water ahead.

Make sure you apply plenty of sunscreen and bring water with you as the whole trail is pretty much straight under the sun and no shade can be found along the way. The beautiful, uncrowded, undeveloped beach is certainly worth the walk.  Once you set your eyes on the Florida’s largest coastal dune lake you forget about everything.

The serene nature and no people around it makes for the most relaxing experience ever. We honestly were at the beach collecting seashells and playing with our toddler in the water for an hour and no one was to be seen anywhere near us. You can go to Lake Powell and rent kayaks, SUPs and even bring your boat. The park serves as a bird sanctuary so you will see a lot of that too.

After a delicious picnic on the beach we headed back through a woodsy area away from the sandy path, pass big moss trees. The old oaks with Spanish moss were beautiful.  We spotted a dear running away and sat on one of the benches along the way watching squirrels play and eat nuts while snacking on our own desert. There seemed to be a few people camping, but it was really quiet and secluded here.

Upon returning to the Visitor Center we took the last of the trails that goes under the highway for another short hike by the water and on some wooden bridges that let us to a marsh. There were plenty of signs along the way telling visitors what they are looking at and many benches to sit and rest with the views of the houses across and Panama City. The hike is about a mile long with plenty of sun and shade in between.

If you like exploring places off the beaten path and seeing a little history along the way all while being surrounded by beautiful scenery, you will enjoy Camp Helen. The Park is a great place for picnic, bird-watching, swimming, basking in the sun, fishing or taking a kayak out in the water. For full list of their events check here.

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