Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a South Walton Wonder
April 29, 2013 by Marla Burns
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park on the western end of Scenic 30A should be at the top of your must do list. No visit to South Walton is complete without seeing our masterpiece of a park, where wild coastal forest and serene dune lakes meet the glorious Gulf.
There are different stories as to how Topsail (top-suhl) got its name. One story is that sailors and fishermen out on the the Gulf used the top of a high dune in the area as a reference point to locate their position. Another story tells of folks that thought the hill looked like a sail from offshore.
At a recent Coastal Dune Lakes Workshop at the park, Ranger Christopher Horkman explained earnestly how precious our lakes are. Their very existence is a rare phenomenon we are so fortunate to have here in South Walton. And by most accounts, SoWal has the greatest collection of dune lakes on the planet!
Coastal dune lakes are quite unique, and considered globally imperiled by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory. They only exist in Australia's Queensland, New Zealand's Northland, Madagascar and our 15 coastal dune lakes here in the Florida panhandle.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park encompasses 1,640 acres, with 3.2 miles of secluded, white-sand beaches and sand dunes over 25 feet tall. Within the park there are five dune lakes: Stallworth Lake on the eastern border of the park, Campbell Lake, Morris Lake, and two unnamed lakes that are too small to have names.
Ranger Horkman explained that Campbell Lake is 99.9% freshwater and rarely opens up to the Gulf as most dune lakes do. There’s actually a study underway to determine if Campbell Lake is spring fed, but it's yet to be proven. It takes a lot of rain for the park's dune lakes to fill up and break through the dunes, like from a tropical storm or hurricane. However, Morris Lake opens at least once a year, if not more often.
South Walton’s coastal dune lakes are defined by their intermittent exchange of freshwater and saltwater with the Gulf of Mexico. There is limited information as to how dune lakes form. We do know they started forming between two and ten thousand years ago.
They are believed to be the result of long shore currents that deposit sediments along a coastal outlet, like a lagoon or bayou. As saltwater from the Gulf flows into the outlet and the waves and winds build up the sand dunes, the water in the inlet is eventually cut off from Gulf waters and a saltwater body is created.
As the saltwater body becomes more and more isolated from the Gulf, salinity levels drop and it becomes a freshwater lake. The lakes are rare because they are formed and evolve by an opening called an outfall or a blowout that occurs during periods of high water, causing freshwater and saltwater to mix.
When a lake is open to the Gulf, saltwater organisms enter and exit. Many different species enter the lakes - Flounder, Mullet, and Redfish, among others; and shellfish such as clams, snails and shrimp. There’s also a wide variety of freshwater fish, like Bream, Largemouth Bass, and Catfish, to name a few. There are some good spots in the park to fish from the shore, or you can take a canoe or kayak out on the lakes or into the Gulf.
There’s lots of wildlife to view in the park - many species of shorebirds, white tail deer, fox, coyote, raccoons, possums and the occasional bobcat. There are even American Alligators in the park spotted from time to time. They're often called "living dinosaurs" because of their similarities to giant lizards from the past. Alligators as large as 12-feet long have been seen in the park.
Be sure to visit Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and don't forget your camera and binoculars! Take advantage of the quiet solitude that is the nature of this special South Walton gem. Go camping, rent a furnished bungalow, hike the miles of nature trails, fish the lakes, take a canoe or kayak out for a gentle float, ride a bike, bird watch or beach comb, you’ll enjoy nature at its best at one of South Walton’s favorite spots.
Photos courtesy of Marla Burns