The numerous upgrades to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park are almost complete, and the park has released a summer schedule for the tram service to shuttle visitors from the entrance to the park on Walton County Road 30A.
The $7 million project, part of a 10-year improvement plan to the 1,637-acre park that was announced two years ago, includes a new ranger station, a new road to the campground, a playground, 16 additional rental cabins, 22 more campsites, a new tram path, and a mile-long bike path to Campbell Lake.
Park manager Tony Tindell said the tram will run during the summer from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. When the construction of the new cabins is complete, the tram will also drop off visitors at a new, paved bike and pedestrian path.
Also, the new tram path will take day-use visitors and campers to a newly developed area at Campbell Lake, which includes restrooms and pavilions and a beach access.
The improvement plan, which was announced in early 2007, also calls for closing the secondary entrance to the park on U.S. Highway 98.
That ruffled the feathers of some residents who use that entrance to get to the beach while avoiding the crowds.
But Jessica Kemper, public information officer for the Florida Parks Service, said in an e-mail that the plan also called for the area the road runs through to be restored to its natural state. Funding for that job has not been found.
Until the state can find a way to pay for the restoration, "there is no timeline or funding for the removal of Topsail Road, and no plans have been made to close the park entrance or access to Topsail Road ..." she wrote.
Sandestin resident Ed Lawrence says he fishes at Topsail often and fears that closing the back entrance will limit visitors to only a small portion of the three-mile-long beach.
Visitors pretty much will be limited to the area where the tram drops them off, he said. They could walk, he added, but that still would limit access for older residents and disabled people, he added.
Regardless of how far away from the day-use area they want to go, Tracy Louthain with the Walton County Tourist Development Council said two beach wheelchairs are available at the day-use area where the tram drops off visitors.
In addition, the TDC recently purchased three more beach wheelchairs with large bubble tires that allow them to move through the soft sand to improve access to the beaches in South Walton.
According to a press release from the South Walton Fire District, which administers the beach wheelchair program, they will be located at the Pompano Joe's, Ed Walline and Bramble Grove beach accesses.
In fiscal 2007-08, more than 180,000 people visited Topsail Hill, according to figures from Park Service. Its operating budget that year was about $937,500, and it generated more than $1.87 million in revenue.