Take a Walk Through Old Florida at Camp Helen State Park
January 17, 2013 by Marla Burns
Do you love the REAL Florida? Do you love OLD Florida? Then a visit to Camp Helen State Park on the east end of South Walton is a must. The protected sanctuary is sandwiched between our largest coastal dune lake and the gulf. Camp Helen is a true gem not to be missed, with amazing views from high bluffs, rustic foot bridges over still waters, forested trails teeming with wildlife, and a bit of Florida history to boot.
The park is bordered by water on nearly all four sides - the Gulf of Mexico to the south, salt marsh and freshwater wetlands to the west, and Lake Powell to the north and east. It's a special place where you can sun on the beach, paddle hidden waterways, or take a nature walk through old growth forests with towering canopies of ancient oaks and magnolias.
When family or friends visit, a trip to the park is the perfect place for them to unwind and quickly slip into vacation mode. Be sure to bring a picnic and set up in the shade of one of the old moss-draped oaks by Lake Powell, one of our precious coastal dune lakes. It's a relatively large lake and a great waterway to explore. On the southern end it kisses the beach and opens periodically to the gulf, allowing an exchange of freshwater with saltwater, as well as lots of aquatic creatures back and forth between the lake and the gulf.
The lake and the rest of the park is a wonderful place to spot wildlife. An American Bald Eagle once glided less than 20 feet over my head during one visit. It looked down and met my gaze, providing a special memory.
On the trail that winds through massive dunes down to the beach, you'll cross a foot bridge over the marsh. Keep an eye out for frogs, fish, and even an occasional alligator. You might catch a glimpse of rare Snowy Plovers nesting, a majestic Osprey diving for a fish in the surf, or one of the many other migratory birds common to our coast.
The remnants of old Jack’s Pier are a reminder of days gone by, when folks would spend lazy days fishing. The old pilings are now home to pelicans, herons, and gulls resting and sunning - keeping an eye out for their next meal.
Camp Helen provides the perfect chance to get out on the water. Take a leisurely paddle along the beach or along the densely forested north shore. If you need gear you can rent a kayak, canoe or paddle board from an area outfitter. There are plenty of saltwater and freshwater species of fish if you want to wet a hook. Surf fishing is also popular with many species feeding near the shore.
During sea turtle season you might luck up and spot a nest on the beach. Tracks from the surf to the dunes made by a rare Leatherback sea turtle can be as wide as 7 feet. Turtles have nested on the beaches of South Walton for countless years and it’s such a special treat to see tracks, a nest, or maybe even spot a mother turtle in the gulf!
If you’re into old Florida history, volunteers and rangers offer guided walks through the park, telling stories of native American Indians and early pioneers who lived on the site. It's fascinating to hear how our ancestors lived off the land long before tourism became common.
Walking around the grounds among old structures, stories from the last century come alive. Tales progress from the 1920’s when development began for recreation, to the 1930’s when the Hicks family purchased the property for their summer home, to the 1940’s when a large central lodge and quaint cottages were built.
From 1945 to the late 1980’s, Avondale Textile Mills of Alabama used the property as a resort for their employees. In 1994 the State of Florida acquired Camp Helen as conservation land, and with cooperation between the State and local community, Camp Helen State Park was born. Some of the original buildings have been restored, offering a fascinating look back at days gone by.
An event unique to the park is the annual Ghost Walk and History Tour, an adventuresome evening with spooky stories and historic reenactments. The event provides family fun and historical education while raising money to preserve the land, maintain the park and continue restoration efforts.
Camp Helen State Park is on the eastern end of SoWal, just east of Inlet Beach. The park entrance is on the south side of highway 98 just before you reach the bridge over Lake Powell. For more information about the park, it’s colorful history, hours of operation (day-use only), fees and amenities, visit http://www.SoWal.com/park/camp-helen-state-park.