After enjoying the sun-soaked beauty of the Florida Keys and still feeling the pull of mountains, I thought that I’d had my fill of beaches and oceans for a while, but we took a coastal route through the Florida Panhandle to avoid the high speeds and traffic of Interstate 10 and planned to camp near some beaches along the way.
We passed by several communities with evident storm damage, like buildings collapsed by downed trees, and I wondered which storm it had been from and if the residents had ever really been able to recover from the losses.
We checked in to the campground at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, FL, which is located on a peninsula bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, St. Andrews Bay, and a lagoon off the bay. More than half of the camp sites at this park were unavailable due to prior hurricane damage. Our site was on the lagoon side of the park, and while it was still light out, we walked the dogs around the shore toward the bay and explored a nature trail. The sunset gave off soft golden and pink light, and I loved the effect it had on the edge of the water, which looked silver-white. The trail ended at a closed turpentine still and mill. We couldn’t go in and look around, but it gave a little hint to how the landscape and natural resources had been harnessed for production in the past.
We liked this park and decided to stay for an additional night, so we booked another site and explored some more the next day. Dogs weren’t allowed on the beach, but I took a walk by myself and found that I had actually not had my fill of beaches just yet. The beach here was wide and bordered by tall white sandy cliffs and translucent turquoise waves. When I wasn’t looking at the water, I was looking down at the shells and creatures that washed ashore. Everywhere were broken pieces of what had been gigantic sand dollars, and I even came across puffer fish and sea cucumbers!
The white sandy cliffs were replaced by condominiums and high-rise buildings at the park boundary, so I turned back and retraced my steps as the sun got lower in the sky. This walk back turned out to be the most gorgeous sunset on the beach that I’ve ever seen. The jewel-bright turquoise water was mesmerizing to watch as it rolled onto the shore in colors and texture that I’ve never seen in nature before, and the tall white dunes reflected pink in the sunset as a full moon hung in the blue sky above.
As the sun sank lower, a flock of pelicans glided in and swooped down for a feeding frenzy in the breakers.
After that walk, I needed another look at the beach before leaving, so I returned to the beach the next morning, and this time, I also came across live sea cucumbers. I tossed them back into the ocean and had a feeling of amazement at actually being able to encounter these creatures that I had only ever read about (or seen on the Kratts Creatures tv show when I was a kid!).
In addition to looking for interesting shells and creatures, I gathered trash to throw away. When I bent down to pick up a string entangled in the sand, I found that it was actually a cowrie-shell anklet. I felt bad that someone had lost it, but I claimed it as a souvenir, thinking, with a smile, about how much I had secretly wished I had beach jewelry like that when I was a pre-teen visiting the Jersey Shore.
When I finished my beach walk, we packed up and headed out to the next destination, Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola, FL.
The time zone changed from Eastern to Central Time as we approached Pensacola. This was an exciting milestone at first, but it quickly lost its novelty when sunset came around an hour early. The Southeast certainly had been a good location to spend some of the darkest days of the winter.
Our campsite at this park was tucked in a pine forest and located conveniently near the bathhouse. Walking through the campground, we saw two other truck campers, which was unusual for the east coast. Up until that point, we had been the only truck camper everywhere we went. That night was breezy, and we were constantly reminded of the trees around us as pine cones dropped with a ping onto the aluminum roof of the camper all night.
The trails in this park were a combination of boardwalk paths and sand.
The park was located on the mainland bordered by Big Lagoon with views of Perdido Key. A wooden observation tower was probably the highlight of the park and provided beautiful 360º views. It was really windy, so we had to hold onto our hats, and we watched kite boarders on the lagoon getting lifted high in the air by the gusts.
The views from the tower would be the last beach views we would have for quite a while. Although it was hard to pass up the opportunity to taste the fabled beignets at New Orleans’ Cafe Du Monde, (not that we’re visiting cities anyway on this journey) we decided to bypass NOLA and the Gulf Coast of Texas to head inland and take as direct a route as possible to Fort Worth.
After almost three weeks in Florida, we were ready to take on new states and see where the road would take us.