When I first visited Camp Helen State Park near Panama City Beach, Florida, it was my birthday weekend. The agenda was all mine to do as I pleased. I love to go online when I travel and look up nearby attractions. Although I’ve been going to PCB for over 30 years, I knew there were still hidden gems to be discovered. I was rewarded with Camp Helen on this trip.
Admission was $4 for the day and although it was mid January, I was ready to explore and swim. Armed with a small backpack, I stepped out of the car and began to explore.
Camp Helen used to be a company resort for a mill in Alabama from 1945-1987. Several tiny pastel colored cabins sit atop the hill beside a modern visitor center. The old stable, kitchen and staff quarters are across the way with informative markers and audio clips describing how they were used in days past.
Just beyond the modern bathhouse is a gravel road that dips down the hill and joins a small bridge crossing over into the sand.
The round trip walk to the beach beach and back is only .6 miles and easy going, unless you are dragging a loaded beach cart with obstinate wheels, but that’s another story.
A sign warns of alligators in the coastal dune lake that is within the park. Sadly, I have not been lucky enough to have seen a gator here despite many visits, but I remain hopeful.
Once in the sand, the path is dotted with several well crafted benches made by a local Boy Scout for his Eagle project. As the mom of an Eagle Scout, I love coming across the projects of other Scouts.
The short walk is rewarded with one of the cleanest and prettiest beaches I’ve been to. The legendary white sand of the gulf is kissed by the waves on three sides and the tea colored waters of the lake on the fourth.
On my first visit, the lake and ocean melted into one another and swirled around the remains of a pier that had been damaged in a hurricane.
The waves were mild and the water was cold but that didn’t stop me from sinking my toes into the icy gulf. The temperature that day was near 60 but the water was a good bit colder. I had brought a plastic bag in case I found any shells scattered in the sand. Imagine my delight when I realized that there were indeed hundreds of shells along the beach and even more in the water. A sandbar made it possible to walk at least 40 feet out and soon I was up to my waist in the water and squealing like a kid at the treasures I was finding.
There were scalloped shells everywhere! Whole conch shells were less in number but I found several. I don’t know the names of all of them so I called them by their descriptions. There were cinnamon rolls, tiny cigars, little shelves and twisty shells.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed what looked like a sand dollar floating in the waves. It was!! I leapt and grabbed it in my hand. It was perfectly whole and about the size of a quarter. I was able to get it back home still in one piece. It now has a place of honor on a sliver of driftwood decorating my bedroom dresser.
An older couple, snowbirds, walked down the beach and seemed to enjoy seeing someone else get so excited about the shells. They had a contraption the man was using to scoop up sand and shells which he dumped on the shore for her to sift through. Other than this couple on their daily walk through the park and a lone woman doing yoga, the beach was mine.
There are walking trails at Camp Helen; some paved, some more natural. Kayaks and canoes are available for rental. There is no overnight camping other than the small staff that maintain the park.
I’ve returned to Camp Helen several times over the last two years and even came across the same snowbird couple again. I’ve visited during many different seasons and despite the waterline along the shore changing with each trip, it remains one of my favorite spots in the Florida panhandle.