I stood between Camp Helen State Park’s dune lake and the Gulf of Mexico, feeling the current push against my legs. Lake Powell’s bronze-colored water flowed past me, where it mixed with the salt water along the beach. Schools of minnows clung to the edge of the outfall, while larger fish swam in its fast-moving center. It was the heat of summer along the Florida Panhandle, and I welcomed the cooling waters against my ankles. Dune lakes like Lake Powell only exist in a few places around the world, and I was in the middle of one!
Camp Helen State Park was originally a retreat for employees of the Avondale Mills, who came to relax along the lake and the Gulf from 1945 to 1987. In addition to the park’s many natural resources, the historic buildings still stand today. I followed the pathway as it wound around the structures, shaded by the wide limbs of trees and scatterings of Spanish moss. Squirrels danced ahead of me, and the buzzy calls of Northern Parulas showcased one of the many bird species that make a home within the park.
A row of “rainbow cottages” instantly struck my fancy, painted in pink, red and beige, completed with covered porches. I could easily imagine the mill employees sitting on their decks during summer evenings, watching the scenery as children played in the grassy lawn or down on the lake’s sandy edges. In addition to these cottages, the recreation hall, stables-turned-linen-storage-site and water tower still stand. Though these buildings are considered historic, the recreation hall is still available for meetings and weddings!
Back on the beach, visitors were kayaking, paddle-boarding, swimming and laying in the sun. Large wooden pilings, remnants of a pier that once stood there, provided shade that I used to apply another coat of sunscreen. Overhead, Least Terns - nesting in the park - let out high-pitched squeals and splashed into the surf in search of shiny fish. In the shallows of the edge of the lake, they bathed in brackish water and rested on mud flats, scattering when people approached and then resettling.
Though I explored the 180-acre park on foot (the park has multiple trails), exploring the dune lake itself provides another Camp Helen experience altogether. Check out the kayaks that are available for rent! If terrestrial terrain is more your style, ask for the park’s free walking guide at the visitor center. The park is available for day-use only, but provides wonderful picnic shelters for meals and snacks overlooking the water.
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About Erika: Erika Z. is a writer, birder and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. Her love of the outdoors and sense of adventure leads her to explore Florida’s state parks, state trails and historic sites in her free time.