Tranquility & Activity at Camp Helen State Park
July 18, 2017 by Manny Chavez
On the east side of South Walton just east of Inlet Beach, turn off Highway 98 and through the gate of Camp Helen State Park and be amazed how fast you go from freeway frenzy to total tranquility.
The 183-acre park is surrounded by water. To the east and north is Lake Powell, (our largest coastal dune lake). To the south is the Gulf of Mexico and salt marshes that accentuate the pines along the lake. All this natural habitat makes for enjoyable hiking, canoeing, swimming, fishing, bird watching, or just silent contemplation, if that is your quest.
Kayaks can be rented at the Visitor’s Center, or if you bring your own canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, the put-in area is just a short distance from the parking area. Once on lake Powell, paddling south will take you to the Gulf. The lake outfall takes you right to the beach and is pretty much “open” year-round and, once there, the white-sandy beach is a great place to relax, do a little shell-hunting, fish (fresh water and salt-water species meander back and forth between the lake and the gulf), or take pictures of what is left of the Camp Helen fishing pier that once stood proudly on this secluded beach. One too many hurricanes have worn the pier down to vertical pilings, leaving a very surreal reminder of days gone by.
Take a hike and enjoy both the north and south trails that offer quite different points of view. The north trail takes you from the park northward down UNDER Hwy. 98 and starts off as a wide, paved walkway extending 0.8 mi. before giving way to a sandy trail for another one-mile loop: total roundtrip, 2.6 miles. This walk will take you along the western edge of Lake Powell with nice shaded areas and benches dotting the scenic lookouts.
The south trail will take you on a totally different journey through the white sandy dunes bordering Lake Powell and salty marshes, eventually popping out on the beach with the old Camp Helen pier and emerald gulf waters beckoning your arrival. The south trail can either lead you directly to the beach (0.6 mi.), or through the Oak Canopy trail (0.3 mi.) and then onward to the beach or back to Camp Helen. Good idea to lather up with sunscreen and insect repellent prior to the journey. Walking tours of the park are offered on the first Saturday of each month beginning at 10 a.m.
The Camp Helen free Summer Movies & More happens most Summer Wednesdays begining at 5:30 p.m. at the park’s Recreation Hall with a brief interpretive program led by a Camp Helen Park Ranger or other expert. The program is followed by a fun campfire hot dog roast and s’mores feast put on by the Friends of Camp Helen.
Kids love this outing and, once they have indulged their dogs & s’mores, they are treated to a family movie in the hall. On a recent visit, the interpretive program was conducted by Gulf World employees who brought along “Baby”, a twelve-year-old Savannah Monitor (giant lizard) which kept the kids enthralled with some wanting to touch the scaly monster!
Although these programs are free to the public, donations are accepted and will go directly to the Friends of Camp Helen State Park to be used to benefit the park’s resource management projects and interpretive programs. The usual day-use park entrance fee is waived for these programs.
During the Winter, (January through March), the park offers their Americana Concert Series featuring folk music and activities.
The beauty of Camp Helen State Park is not lost to Plein Air painters as they are frequently seen transferring their interpretations to canvas. They can literally gaze in any direction anywhere in the park and work at capturing the luminous natural light that really is captivating.
Not to be overlooked as a wedding and events venue, Camp Helen is reasonably priced for guests up to one hundred. The scenic grounds and moody lodge overlooking Lake Powell are a perfect setting to say, “I do.” The lodge, tables, and chairs are included in the wedding/events package, but all food will have to be brought in or catered. Call 850-233-5059 for details.
Ghost stories abound surrounding Camp Helen State Park. On quiet afternoons, a walk alone can get quite spooky with tales of ghost sightings hitting close to home. One can imagine or possibly witness a lone porch chair rocking on a windless day near the lake.
Like most Florida State Parks, Camp Helen relies heavily on volunteers and their own Citizens Support Organization (CSO). The Friends of Camp Helen State Park, a non-profit group, supports the goals, objectives, and needs of the park. According to Camp Helen State Park Manager Wesley Myers, additional interpretive programs will be added soon. “We just try to stay low-key and be this little jewel that we are for the Panhandle.” Little jewel indeed…a must stop for all.
For more information regarding the park, future programming or volunteer opportunities, call 850-233-5059. Visit them at www.floridastateparks.org/park/camp-helen. For Friends info, visit www.friendsofcamphelen.org or go to www.Facebook.com/friendsofcamphelenstatepark. Location: 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway (on Hwy. 98 just west of the Lake Powell bridge). Open daily from 8 a.m.-sunset. Admission fee: $4/vehicle (8 passenger limit); $2/pedestrian, bicyclists, extra passengers.