I hate to do this – but I’m going to let you in on one of Panama City Beach’s biggest secrets, and my own personal favorite spot. Camp Helen State Park lies just 9 miles (ten minutes by car) from most areas of the beach, and in my opinion, is one of Florida’s finest parks. Untouched by commercialism, Camp Helen offers the visitor a rustic yet idyllic setting in which to escape the crowds and enjoy the great outdoors.
What’s the History of Camp Helen?
Prehistoric middens (trash heaps) and mounds have been found within the park, suggesting humans have been in the area for approximately 400 years. Camp Helen State Park was originally known as Inlet Beach to early European settlers and later to developers. The area around Phillips Inlet was initially developed for recreational opportunities in the early 1920’s, with a lodge and associated buildings being added to the property in the 1940’s. Some of these buildings can still be seen today, and give an insight into tourist life along the Gulf Coast back in the day. From 1945 all the way to 1987, Avondale Textile Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama operated Camp Helen as a resort for vacationing employees.
Thanks to the efforts of the local community, Gulf Coast Community College, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Camp Helen was acquired by the State of Florida in 1994 under the Conservation and Recreational Lands Programs, and today offers visitors a first-class state park.
Where Exactly Is It?
Camp Helen State Park is located at 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway, just west of the Phillips Inlet Bridge on the Bay County and Walton County line. The park is bordered on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico, Phillips Inlet, and Lake Powell, which is one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida. The great thing about Camp Helen is that it has it all – wooded nature trails, tranquil lake scenery, and an expansive, open white-sand beach. When you’re here, you feel like you are one with the outdoors, thanks to the natural beauty that surrounds you at every turn, and the peace and quiet that is sometimes so hard to find in the heart of Panama City Beach.
What Can I Do There?
The opportunities for outdoor recreation are unlimited at Camp Helen State Park. Wildlife viewing is extremely popular, as the three different water bodies have created a diverse habitat for wildlife that includes rare shorebirds and Bald Eagles. Camp Helen is a great fishing spot for both fresh and saltwater species, and the park provides numerous nature trails for hiking. Visit the lodge and relax in the rocking chairs overlooking Lake Powell, or head to the beach for swimming, beachcombing, tanning or boating. Camp Helen State Park is open from 8:00 am until sundown, 365 days a year. The admission fee is $4.00 per vehicle with a maximum of 8 passengers, or $2.00 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, or passengers in a vehicle with a holder of an annual individual entrance pass.
What Else is Happening at Camp Helen State Park?
For those who have some spare time on their hands and would like to give back to the community, Camp Helen State Park always welcomes volunteers. A volunteer can do many things, including greeting visitors, conducting tours, helping Park Rangers remove exotic plants or simply maintaining the natural beauty of the beach, waterways or trails. If you are interested, stop by on any Thursday morning at 9:00 am or pick up an application in the visitor center.