UPDATE: as of 1-1-17, camping is suspended ‘indefinitely’. Call and check before making the drive!
Paycheck, Story and I popped down to FL for an overnight on Perdido Key, just south of Pensacola, FL. April 4-5, 2016
Things to know: Arrive during daylight hours to get checked in and at least 2 hours before sunset to have time to get situated. After hours the gate is locked and it’s 3 miles to the camping area. Plus the parking lot is on the INSIDE side of the gate. So keep in mind, you can’t get out at night.
Even if you do opt to leave your car on the side of the road to go get set up and come check in the next morning, your car isn’t safe (they tow!) and that’s 9 miles of walking, most of it in the sand. Just get there when there’s a ranger, which is every day of the week from 7/8 a.m. (summer/winter hours) until sunset.
There are no water sources/bathroom facilities any closer than the bathhouse/ranger station at the gate, some 3 miles from the start of the camping area. Bring PLENTY to drink (no glass) and a shovel for LNT potty time. PLEASE pack out all tissue, there were many exposed ‘Charmin flowers’ in the dunes and I can only imagine that gets much worse in the warmer months. Just use a pee rag and for pooping, either head back to the flush toilets at the gate or put the TP in a doggie poop bag. They are small, lightweight and colored so the contents aren’t visible. Tie it off, put it in a bigger Ziploc and it’s done. It makes a huge difference in impact!
Camping is free, there is a $15 national park entry fee that is good for 7 days and is also good for Ft. Pickens an hour’s drive away on what was the other end of the island before a storm chopped it in half.
Campfires are allowed on the beach using driftwood, which is not easy to find unless it’s been storming. Ashes must be buried 6 inches deep and the fire must be at least 5 feet from the high tide line. The easiest way is to dig a hole and have the fire in that, using the sand as a windbreak, then cover it when it’s cooled. Some folks carried in wood, it’s for sale locally.
There is a sign on the road in that clearly states no parking past that point. It’s 1/2 mile from the end of the road and the end of the road is 1/2 mile from where camping is allowed, so a mile hike, minimum. Dropping off gear/people at the end of the road is allowed, but take care not to block traffic (it’s a roundabout) and if caught parked (unmanned car) they will ticket. They do patrol the road fairly often.
Camping is not allowed in the dunes due to sensitive vegetation and turtle nesting.
There are many little nooks between dunes that appear to be okay to tuck into, just be sure there’s nothing growing, some have plants and there are 4.5 miles of beach to choose from. Just walk a bit farther to find the right spot. Rangers do patrol most evenings around sunset and they do not ask to move campsites, they ask you to leave. And with your info in hand, they can and will ban future camping efforts at EVERY national park. They are really cracking down on people who don’t follow the guidelines and put themselves, the environment or wildlife at risk. I hope they keep it up! (Update, they did. And stopped EVERYONE from camping there)
That being said, on our way out there were at LEAST 4 tents on the ‘wrong’ side of the ‘Camp anywhere beyond this point’ sign and one man had mounted a high grassy dune to sit and look around. It makes me sad to think an experience like camping on the beach might be taken away from all of us just because a handful of people can’t or won’t follow just a few simple rules.
What we used/what we wish we had brought or known:
We did not need camp shoes, though if the sand were hotter, we would have
We would have liked to have a whisk broom!
Another tarp would have been good to create more ‘porch’ area
We did not expect the wind to be so strong. 12 knots is about as much as our tent could handle.
We brought longer/heavier stakes, but the regular little crappy ‘comes with the tent’ stakes worked, no problem.
We did not have a cooler, so we buried the extra water. It kept it cool!
We have small shovels called prospector scoops that are really sturdy and scoop a LOT of sand fast. They go on every beach trip.
Check the wind and tide info first.
When we go back, we will wait and check in and get set up well into the afternoon.
There were zero bugs in early April!
The dunes offer next to no privacy for bathroom/changing usage. Keep that in mind if camping with a shy person.
OUR TRIP REPORT:
We live about 6 hours from the beach, so we got up around 1 on Monday morning to drive through the night. There was a trailer truck in flames on the Interstate, so after a multi-hour traffic delay, a stop for gas and food and several Smart water bottles (I love those, a liter size is so long and slim, it can be squeezed into gaps in our backpacks and 2 can fit in one water bottle pocket. We carried 3 liters of water each plus bought a few drinks for variety since it was such a short hike) We got to Perdido Key around 11 a.m. despite our best efforts to get there by 8!
We paid our entry fee, got handed a form to fill out, circled the station to park and do that, got back in line to hand it over and the ranger went over a few rules and showed us exactly where to park and how far to walk onto the beach to reach the camping area.
Story and I opted to just park and walk instead of getting dropped off and waiting for Paycheck to catch up while we stood in the sun.
The hard-packed edge of the beach near the water made for easy walking, we all wore heavy hiking shoes and boots because I was not sure if the sand would be loose and difficult for walking. On the walk in, we stopped to watch dolphins, there must have been 10 or 12 in the pod, they were chasing fish and quickly moved out of sight, zipping down the shoreline in the opposite direction. Pelicans put on quite a show slamming into the water. We saw osprey, cormorants, sandpipers, gulls and crabs galore. And 2 beached jellyfish.
We walked past the ‘camping okay’ sign and kept going, not wanting to be too close to anyone else! The ranger said there were 2 dozen people camping, there were only 2 who stayed overnight on our stretch of beach. Everyone else headed out by early afternoon. We made friends with our nearest neighbor, a single man who had camped there many times before, and we all walked back and forth between sites to chat several times during our stay, I told him all about Cairn. Our next nearest camper was a solo woman and she kept to herself, despite our friendly waves, so we left her in peace.
After setting up the tent, we went for a long swim. The water felt great and the wind was QUITE bracing afterward! brrr! We had a couple small, lightweight blankets that we spread out and laid in the sun to dry and warm up. We all ended up a little pink! (update…make that red, but only in splotches!) It was getting warm, so we headed to the tent to snooze out of the sun. The wind picked up. From 9 to 11 to 17 knots.
The sand was blowing up under the rain fly, so after some discussion, we took the tent down and opted to wait out the wind, which was due to die down by dusk. It did and while they were at the bathhouse, I set it back up, all sand-free.
After they got back, we walked way down the beach in the dark, shining lights into the water to watch the rays and crabs in the shallows. There was bioluminescent plankton in the sand, so walking activated the light (I think they work like the dinoflagellates in Cayman, in which pressure makes them light up) and our footprints glowed behind us. I was squealing, as ANYTHING glowing is delightful to me. When we turned around to head back, our neighbor’s campfire seemed VERY far away and our calves were burning before we got back to our site! So much for the hard packed sand, the tide was in and it was all soft! The Pensacola lighthouse swept us a few times, there’s a good bit of light pollution on the island, it’s never really very dark. It’s also close to the Air Force base, so all day there are planes and helicopters zipping overhead. And part of the night, but not really after about 10.
We slept without the rain fly on and Story and I stayed up laughing and talking about her baby brother, who opted to stay home this time and was badly missed. We marveled at the stars, despite the lights from Pensacola and the condos to the west, they were quite bright, especially over the water.
The next morning we watched the sunrise and started packing up. We were off the beach by around 10:30, taking our time walking back and picking up some trash along the way. At the car, we were glad to get into the AC and off we went to Ft. Pickens to explore the old fort.
That was a lovely experience, and there was a bonus of the Blue Angels flying overhead for a show while we roamed the passages. They are SO LOUD, we wondered how far north they could be heard or if it was the water helping the sound carry.
After exploring, we headed toward home via the Splinter Hill Bog in hopes of seeing some pitcher plants, though they usually bloom twice-in late May and again in the fall. We were in luck and there were thousands! We also saw sundew, which I was excited about.
Another food and gas stop and several saved up Dirtbag Diaries ‘Tales of Terror’ podcasts later, we were home again!