A family man with a chronic case of wanderlust, Adam Porter cruises America’s highways and byways looking for the best and “best-kept secret” RV getaways. Recognized as America’s #1 beach in 1995, St. Andrews State Park has lost none of its luster in subsequent years, offering an irresistible inauguration to Florida’s famed Emerald Coast.
Hidden on the southeast end of perennial spring break mecca Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park (www.floridastateparks.org/standrews) offers nearly 1,300 acres of inviting, accessible and family-friendly fun in the sun. The waterfront camping is comfortable and the beauty on both sides of this peninsular park is breathtaking. Explore the wilder lagoon side, drop a boat in at the ramp, fish from the pier or hike the nature trails. Then bike over to the Gulf side to stroll along the sugar-like sand and swim in the glistening emerald waters of what is, officially, one of America’s most beautiful beaches.
St Andrews beach access
photo by Bob Therina
ST. ANDREWS STATE PARK HISTORY
During the 1940s, the park was part of St. Andrews Military Sound and used as a joint base by the U.S. Army and Coast Guard. After World War II ended, the base was converted into a campground. The original park consisted of 15 sandy sites with no asphalt access. Campers today appreciate the growth that has transformed this primitive spot by the beach into a 176-site family camping paradise. In 1995, Dr. Stephen Leatherman (better known as “Dr. Beach”) gave first-place honors to St. Andrews State Park in his annual “Top 10 Beaches” ranking — a distinction that has continued to draw numerous beach enthusiasts over the years.
WHAT TO DO
- Relax on the beach. St. Andrews offers 2.5 miles of gleaming sugar-white sand, plus inviting emerald water on the Gulf side of the park. Forgot to pack something? Drop by the beach concession for all the gear you need to enjoy your day at the seashore.
View from the Grand Lagoon side fishing pier shows picnic and playground
- Cyclists do not have a designated track at the park, so many take advantage of the two-mile stretch of blacktop. Enjoy, but be aware of others on the road — both when on the bike and in the RV.
- Rent a fishing boat or party barge through Adventures at Sea. Call 850.235.0009 or visit www.watersportspc.com. The park also offers public boat rental options. Call 850.527.6103.
- Drop your own boat in the water via the convenient boat ramp near the playground and fishing pier. The fee to use the ramp is currently $12 for a single person with a boat, or $16 for up to eight people.
- Rent kayaks or canoes during the summer season at the park store near the boat ramp. Explore Grand Lagoon or cross the channel to Shell Island.
- Fishermen have their pick of options, from deep-sea fishing to jetty, surf or pier fishing. Catch Spanish mackerel, redfish, flounder, trout, bonito, cobia and bluefish. Fishing licenses and bait are available at the concession. During our visit, my little guy was mesmerized when a few other kids found a starfish and a spiny sea urchin.
Waiting for a handout
- Do not miss the opportunity to watch the pelicans beg for scraps when lagoon fisherman cut bait and clean fish at the lagoon pier. It’s hilarious!
Choose between two hiking trails. Heron Pond Trail winds through a pine forest beyond the Turpentine Still. Gator Lake Trail runs along Gator Lake. Be on the lookout for wading birds, hawks and alligators. You may even spot raccoons or deer.
- Visit the Interpretive Exhibit to view maps, photos and dioramas of the woods, jetties and marshlands, as well as a saltwater aquarium.
- The day-use area offers picnic tables and a playground with a terrific view of the lagoon.
- Swim, snorkel or SCUBA dive in the lagoon and the Gulf.
- Surf on the Gulf side near the inlet. While it isn’t Cocoa Beach or SoCal, it’s a decent, consistent wave most days. During our visit, the red warning flag was waving and the surf was definitely up.
ADVENTURES BEYOND THE PARK
Visit Shell Island directly from St. Andrews via the Shell Island Shuttle (www.shellislandshuttle.com). This small, undeveloped barrier island separating the Gulf of Mexico from St. Andrews Bay is renowned for having one of the world’s highest concentrations of bottle-nosed dolphins. While there is a concession on the boat, pack a picnic for your time on the island. Summer shuttles operate every half hour, seven days a week, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. For spring and fall schedules, call 850.233.0504. Before you come, visit the website for discount coupons on both shuttle and snorkel packages. Hop aboard the shuttle at 4607 State Park Ln., Panama City Beach, FL 32408. GPS: 30.1353068, -85.7415373
Turpentine Mill at St Andrews State Park
Enjoy offshore fishing via a charter from Treasure Island Marina (www.treasureislandmarina.net). Take your pick from nearly 20 professional fishing guides who know where the fish are biting and how to put you right on top of them. Call 850.234.6533 to schedule your trip. The marina is located about a mile from the state park at 3605 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, FL 32408. GPS: 30.144684, -85.748042
Take a canoe adventure on Econfina Creek. Picnic on the beaches and swim in six springs along the route. Choose either a half-day or full day trip. Call Econfina Canoeing (www.econfinacanoeingexpeditions.com) at 850.588.7583 for details. Located at 2107 Joan Ave., Panama City Beach, FL 32408. GPS: 30.1803864, -85.7898015
For restaurants, attractions and more to see and do in nearby Panama City Beach, CLICK HERE.
WHERE TO STAY
St. Andrews State Park Campground (www.floridastateparks.org/standrews)
Both camping loops are situated in the pinewoods on the Grand Lagoon side of the park. This means you won’t have direct beach access; however, the view is sublime. Watch dolphins swim by and fish jumping in the shallows. The 176 improved sites come with partial hookups and basic amenities. While the website advertises a maximum RV length of 45 feet, even 40-footers will find a snug fit here. Sites are sandy but navigable. The campground offers five bathroom facilities with showers; all were nicely cleaned during our visit.
Waterfront camping at St Andrews State Park
- Partial hookups: water and electric (30/50-amp)
- Dump station available
- Picnic tables and grills on site
- Campground designated for campers only
- Family-friendly and pet-friendly
Book through the park website or call ReserveAmerica for reservations at 800.326.3521. St. Andrews State Park is located at 4607 State Park Ln., Panama City Beach, FL 32408. GPS: 30.1353068, -85.7415373
If you have a big rig or would prefer a more refined RV resort experience, CLICK HERE to check out other nearby camping options in Panama City Beach.
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