Site #6 (4 days); Site #22 (10 days); W/E
This may be our concensus favorite gulf destination with all things considered. It is tops in scenery and beach walking - we could never get to the end of the 7 mile beach, which just get prettier and prettier the further we went. It's proximity to the town of St. Joe was nice - not as cute or with as many fun dining choices as Apalachicola, but a little larger town, with better groceries, laundry, and pretty waterfront park and restaurant. The houses along the road similar to St George, but I'd give a slight edge to St George for laid back visual appeal, and especially for the cute town center with a few dining options (including Doc Myers!) and the tiny but sufficient Piggly Wiggly which had a great beer selection, fresh muffins, and Boar's Head meats. St Joseph also had bay side boat access for our kayak with some better paddling options than St. George. While the beaches and State Parks along Santa Rosa Island, including Grayton and Henderson are beyond beautiful with their bright white sand and turquoise waters, each mile long beach is bordered by towering hotels, and there is not the nature trails or kayaking options of St George and Andrew. We both put St. Andrew just a notch below St George mainly because of the small, not easily walkable beach. On the plus side, St Andrew has a nice nature trail, and is fun to bike within the campground and to the beaches and fish pier. We probably had our nicest site of all on St Andrew, within 40-50 feet of the bay. Still, St Andrew was just not as pretty as Joseph or George. And, St. Andrews' proximity to Panama City could be a pro or a con. Getting to the park through Panama City was a traffic pain, and a highly rated restaurant on the beach was inaccessible due to parking, the city and beaches present shopping and other facilities you might need - including a Camping World.
Site # 6 had a beautiful view from the dinette of our trailer and the campsite over a small pond with an occasional great egret stalking about. It was one of the closest sites to the beach walk and a short walk to bathhouse. However, after we moved sites, we found out that the other bathhouse in the loop was much newer and nicer (and a short walkway separated them. Backing into the site wasn't bad, but had to pull up on soft sand, as the angle of the site was contrary to the direction of travel on the one way road.
View from back of Site 6.
This is the boardwalk from the first loop to the beach.
Site 22 turned out to be better overall - though without the view. Had a lot more room and one of only a couple pull-through sites. While a little further from the beach access, it was closer to the walk that goes to the second campground and their beach access. This walkway had such nice views over the pond and dunes that we often took it on long walks on the beach.
While you can't see the beach over the dunes from the campsites, this view is from the boardwalk at the beach showing the proximity of the campsites.
Funny story (and some park info): We were scheduled to be in site 72 which is on the second, furthest loop in. It is also more wooded, less of a beachy feel, and has a longer walk to the beach, though not terrible. On a walk-by, we saw that site 72, as well as 70 and 68, were not only very tight squeeze between trees for our trailer, but the jungle-like fauna and low wet looking ground came within feet of the trailer that was there. There was literally no where to sit in a chair and get sunlight and I was worried about the site getting wetter as it was damp looking when the area was experiencing a dry spell.
I went to the office the day before we were supposed to move and asked if there was an alternative – if someone had cancelled. They said that site 22 was a non-reservable site and that they expected the people there to be moving on our moving day. We could come back in the morning and put our names on a waiting list for the site. Once on the site we could stay our remaining 10 days. Sounds good, but I wanted to check out site 22 first. It was a pull through on a corner, looked a little open, but still better than #72.
On the morning of our move it was raining. Poured during the night – with less than 2” of rain here, but over 10 inches just 50 miles or so to our west. I walked over to site 22 and found the man outside his 1990 blue and cream colored Vogue Class A coach with Iowa plates. I asked if he had decided to leave and I explained why I was asking. He said he was (which made me very happy), and we had a great chat about where we're going and campgrounds in the area. He was on his way to St. George, one of his favorites and where we had just left. He told us he loves Ft Pickens, one of our future sites, and told us he has the seen the Blue Angles fly overhead from there. He had just left Topsail, which I told him we couldn't get into and I heard it is the best around. He said it is good, and used to be a private campground before the state bought it, but he said his favorite in the area is Grayton Beach.
After noon, I went back to the camp headquarters and they gave us the OK to check into site 22. Yay! I drove back to our site, hooked up the trailer and off we went. As we rounded the corner to site 22 I saw another trailer there hooking up! What? I jumped out of the truck and asked the startled woman what sites she was supposed to be in. “54” she said. “This is 22”, I replied. “No it isn't”, and we walked together to the site sign which indeed said site 54. Oops.
Besides my immediate embarrassment, I was aghast with the thought that I hadn't actually seen site 22 and was it going to be an improvement over site 72. Apparently site 22 was at the corner of the very next loop (and in my defense, we left site 6 on one road and passed site 54 before arriving at site 22?). It was not only better than 72, but nicer than site 59 as well. Very wide pull through (one of only a few corner sites) with view of the brand new bathhouse with washing machines, and within view of the beach walkway. Struck gold!
The walkway between the two campgrounds.
Things to do at the Park.
Sandy and I started contemplating getting kayaks back when we were ordering our truck for the trailer. We both had sea kayaks in the past, but as part of our downsizing at home we sold the last of them and planned on getting something smaller (and cheaper) later. I did not want to put on or deal with roof racks again, so was contemplating a portable model. Unfortunately I did not have time to adequately research or order one before we went out on the road.
While doing our laundry of all things in Port St Joe, Sandy noticed a sign proclaiming an inflatable kayak sale at Daly's Watersports. I talked to Ed for a while about the Advanced Elements 2 person inflatable kayak he had. I left the store and in between shopping and lunch looked up reviews and prices at Amazon and other retailers. Bottom line is it sounded like a perfect way to go for us and the price was equal to Amazon's (the boat was more, but the paddles and pump were less and made up the difference). Though we are already packed to the max, I think we can manage the extra gear, and don't have to deal with the roof racks. All things considered, this is also a cheaper way to go.
The day after we bought the kayak I was anxious about the set up process and excited to go as far down Cape San Blas as possible to see the sand dune laden wilderness area.
Advanced Elements says it takes about 10 minutes to set up the kayak, so I was planing on half an hour. Actually it wasn't that hard. I took my time because there are countless warning not to over inflate any of the different chambers. The kayak is sluggish as expected compared to a hard shell kayak, but still not as bad as I thought. It even tracked better than expected. There is small plastic keel of a couple inches deep in the aft that helps. Though we were in nearly calm winds.
We kayaked about 5 miles to the flat boat dock in water no more than 2-3 feet deep. Along the way we saw giant conches. The first one was the biggest I've ever seen and it had two smaller ones attached to it. I didn't want to disturb them, but I placed my hand around it to get a feel for its size. I could only get my hand about half way around it. I'm estimating it was 5” in diameter and twice that in length. Later we found a solo conch that I had to pick up. It had to weigh nearly 10 pounds! I could barely lift it out of the water with one hand.
We also saw a bald eagle perched high in a pine and later saw the same bird fly to a sandbar shooing away the gulls and other birds there, to have something to eat.
The shallows near the beaches were absolutely covered in sea urchin shells. In some places the sand flats were alive with fiddler crabs and hermit crabs occupied some of the prettiest little striped conical shells that looked like they had teeth. Horseshoe crabs were also abundant in the shallow water. It also was the first time we've seen a live sea cucumber twisting toward the surface. It was about 2 feet long.
Fiddler crabs run wild upon my approach.
Fiddler crabs running on top of each other trying to escape the approaching human.
We also saw a great egret, great blue heron, and a pair of mergansers diving on this trip.
I walked into the reserve up a dune to get a great view of the aqua blues of the pay toward Port St. Joe and then past the primitive campsite #2 (gosh what a spot!). I followed the path to a great sand dune that rivaled any I've seen in Truro on Cape Cod. The landscape beyond was really breathtaking – one of the prettiest places I've ever seen.
The beach – sunsets, dolphins and fishing.
After weeks of cooler than normal temperatures, our two weeks at St Joe's has been a constant mid-70's with partly cloudy to full sun each day. Cape San Blas turns northward at the park so that sunsets are visible directly perpendicular to the beach – as if we were on the west coast. Beautiful sunsets almost become routine.
It was very difficult to reduce the number of sunset photos!
Campers flock to the beach to watch the sunset.
While it is not unusual to see dolphins, we had only seen them in coordinated hunting and feeding once before and that was less than 6 dolphins on the Indian River in Palm Bay while having lunch at the Yellow Dog Cafe. At St. Joe's we saw schools of dolphins off shore a couple times. On Monday, 2/19/17 while sitting on the beach I pulled myself out of my beach chair because I saw several fins. I grabbed the binoculars and was amazed by the number of dolphins.
At first they traveled collectively parallel to the beach from my right to left. I estimate there were a minimum of 30 dolphins! I say that because in one moment I saw two groups of about 12 dolphins above the surface at the same time some 100 yards apart while there were also other scattered fins above the water. When they travel you usually see them rise and fall quickly, but at times like this they seemed to be collectively at the surface of the water.
Lucky for us, the dolphins started their hunt directly in front of us (guessing 150 yards or so off shore). Also lucky we had our binoculars. We could make out certain distinct rolls. First we noticed that the dolphins in the lead and turned back. Some dolphins seemed to stop in place, sitting on the surface.
The most fun to watch was the trio of dolphins who same side by side in complete unison. They circled in a way that reminded me of cowboys reigning in cattle. I think the analogy is fitting, because I think that is exactly what they were doing. As we saw in the Banana River, but now on a much bigger scale, the dolphins began to shrink their circle until the surface went wild with thrashing and splashing as the dolphins had corralled their prey and were feeding.
They repeated this a second time a little further out to sea, and during this round up we saw the coolest thing ever. One dolphin soared into the air about three times. On his second jump he came out high enough so that only a bit of his tail remained in the water. As he came down he twisted, landing on this side to (I expect) to make the maximum splash – exactly like you see sperm whales do on the insurance commercials. :) I am making a lot of assumption here, but I would guess that this was another means to scare the game fish back toward the center of the pod. Unfortunately, we did not have a camera with us, so I have to remember this day by describing it.
One one beach walk I came upon these unusual tracks.
I followed them until I found the source.
He wasn't happy with my in your crab face camera style and he reared up for this shot.
Even without sunsets or wildlife, the beach at St Josephs were just fantastic, and seemed to go on forever.
Things to do near the Park.
Town of Port St Joe is under a 30 minute ride from the park. Reid Ave is a 4 block long main street type shopping/dining area that runs parallel and one block away from the main drag Rt30/98.
For lunch after doing our laundry we were going to go to Joe Mama's Pizza but they don't open till 4, so we went to our second choice Indian Pass Raw Bar. Four stars on Yelp, you get your own beer out of the cooler on the honor system and mark it on a little pad at your table. Oysters are the specialty, but we opted for the lunch special, grilled grouper sandwich. It was satisfactory, but nothing special.
Indian Pass Raw Bar (from Joe Mama's Pizza).
We stayed in town all afternoon getting a couple essentials and a gift, so that it was nearly sunset before we were ready to leave. So why not go to the Sunset Grill on the way home? The sunset was amazing and the best part of the meal. Though the house salad was better than average. The entrees were a little pricy, and the house special sounded great – a grilled captains cut grouper with a coconut curry sauce and shrimp on top. But for $36, we opted for one of the other fresh fishes of the day, the snapper. You select how you want your fish cooked and then the sauce (if any). Options were cajun (Sandy got that), lemon dill, and I got crab with pecan lemon butter. Sounds rich but the sauce was not noticeable and the fish tended to be too dry.
Leaving the Sunset Grill.
Sunset from our table at the Sunset Grill.
One night we went out stargazing at the walkway to the beach and met a nice family from Georgia. They raved about Joe Mama's Wood Fired Pizza, so we have to go back. They said everything there is good including the chowder and the chicken wings! And the pizza is “upscale.” We made a second trip to St Joes I think because we hadn't had a pizza on our trip and went to Joe Mama's. It was tremendous. And the wings were as good as advertised.
Basil and Prosciutto pizza at Joe Mamma's was as good as it looks.
They also recommended that when we get near Panama City to go to Uncle Ernies.
Met Dawn and Bob Kidd from Boothbay Maine, as they were in the site across from us (23). Turns out Dawn is originally from Worcester, MA and Bob worked in the Admissions department at Clark University (my alma mater). Another commonality is that Bob and Dawn just bought their trailer this past October, and so are using this winter as a practice run before going on a country wide trip later this year. Bob said that they were headed to Topsail for 5 days on February 14th, and as with other people, I told them we couldn't get in there when we tried in August. Bob said he was told just to keep trying as there are cancellations. As he just started booking in October, he kept trying until he got a site. Good deal, Bob.
I'll finish with two more sunset photos.
On to Saint Andrews State Park....