I had heard about the famous dune lakes of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Formed by a unique topographic and hydrologic landscape, the dune lakes are separated from the Gulf of Mexico only by the dunes themselves, fresh and saltwater habitats directly adjacent to an immense saltwater expanse. Only a handful of places throughout the world have dune lakes like this, and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park has three!
Exploring on Foot
Covering 1,640 acres, Topsail Hill Preserve has miles of trails and 3.2 miles of sand beaches along the Gulf. I didn’t have my bike with me, but as my husband and I started down the wide, paved trails I wish I had brought it! Families and friends – even one man with his three little dogs in tow – were pedaling along, zipping easily from one dune lake to another. The weather was absolutely glorious, sunny and warm and not a cloud in the sky.
Because I explored the park on foot, I quickly realized walking along at a slower pace had its advantages. The trail was lined with tall pines, palmettos and holly making up some of the many species in the scrub layer. The red berries were so bright they almost seemed to glow against the green-leaf backdrop. We spotted a deer trail winding through the underbrush and across the road, a slight clearing that we only noticed because we were walking.
Native rosemary shrubs were also growing on the edge of the path. Their delicate green color was lovely, but it was their smell that really made me giddy. I couldn’t help it; I bent down on my hands and knees and took a huge whiff. While the odor of rosemary is pleasant and it bears a superficial resemblance to its European namesake, visitors should take note that it’s not edible!
We decided to make our way to Campbell Lake, turning down one of the park’s nature trails. The path was dirt now, and the only sound we could hear was the gentle breeze blowing through the waving pines.
As the Catface Trail approached Campbell Lake, I felt my excitement rising: I was about to see my first dune lake ever. We turned a corner and there it was, stretching in front of us in bright blue, perfectly reflecting the sky above. On one side were the undulating dunes, on the other, forest. Marsh grasses created a border, swaying slightly. It was just so cool.
American Coots, small, black, duck-like birds, swam in one corner of the lake, and a Double-crested Cormorant was diving for food in the center. Small minnows swarmed the shoreline, reminding me of the good fishing to be had here. Species that reside in dune lakes like Campbell Lake must be uniquely adapted to a changing environment. Under normal conditions, water levels fluctuate due to rainwater, tributaries, and seepage from the Gulf as well as the upland areas. During storms, the dune barrier can even burst, sending a torrent of freshwater out into the Gulf, and letting waves of saltwater in.
3.2 Miles of Beaches
No visit to this park is complete without a trip to the beach. Though Topsail Hill Preserve has a tram and multiple stops to shepherd visitors to the beach, we opted to continue walking. A boardwalk elevated us over the white dunes and onto the beach itself, often described as having “sugar sand.” It’s true. Beaches along the Panhandle have very white, very fine sand, made up of quartz from the Appalachian Mountains long ago. Because of the light sand, the water and waves breaking on the beach had a gorgeous emerald color that just begged to be photographed and waded in. I couldn’t help shucking off my hiking boots and dipping my toes into the lapping waves.
I wanted to relax on that beach for hours, but the afternoon sun was rapidly descending and my husband and I both knew it was time to head back. We had seen dune lakes, coastal forest, beautiful flora and the Gulf of Mexico.
I will definitely return to this park. There are more trails to explore, more dune lakes to see and more species to spot. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is certainly named the “crown jewel of the Florida Panhandle” for a reason!
Watch Erika's adventure on YouTube and learn more about Topsail Hill Preserve State Park here.
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. In her first blog, she visits Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach.