Beautiful St. George Island

Above:  I spent two wonderful days camping at beautiful St. George Island State Park on the Florida panhandle, then headed to another barrier island at St. Joseph State Park and spent two days camping there, as well.

I camped for two nights at the wonderful St. George Island State Park on the Florida panhandle.  I first stumbled across this park back in 1995 during one of my cross-country trips and immediately fell in love with it.  It’s at the proverbial "end of the road" on a long, narrow barrier island that’s connected to the mainland by a bridge and features sugar-white sandy beaches that extend for miles along the Gulf of Mexico.  The beautiful campground, with its verdant and secluded campsites, makes this park a perfect place to camp.  Heck, I’d camp here for a month if I could but it’s constantly packed this time of year, so I was lucky to secure a campsite reservation for even just two nights.

I spent much of one day walking a few miles on the beach, on both sides of the barrier island:  on the Gulf of Mexico side facing the open ocean, while watching the waves crash ashore, and then on the quieter sheltered side and its placid lagoon-like bay.  I absolutely love this park and it's long been one of my Top 10 State Parks in America.  But alas, after a couple of blissful days here, I had to leave and continue on my journey. 

Florida is a prime destination for travelers in the winter months, so you can’t just show up at a state park in the winter without a reservation and expect to find a campsite.  I’ve planned to spend the entire winter and spring camping in Florida state parks.  While staying with my brother Don in Connecticut a few weeks earlier, I made camping reservations for each night between November 1 and early April in about 20 different Florida state parks, in all parts of the state.  I can cancel any of my reservations for a small fee if I find a better option for that night, but I like knowing that I have a place to stay each night. 

During the next week, I’ve made reservations to camp at nearby St. Joseph Island State Park for a few nights and then, moving south, for a couple nights at Rainbow Springs State Park near Ocala before I’ll head on to Sarasota. 

Donating Blood... on the Beach?

I reluctantly said goodbye to St. George Island State Park on a sunny, warm Friday morning and drove into the town of Apalachicola, a few miles away on the mainland with a population of about 2,000.  Needing groceries, I pulled into a Piggly Wiggly (yes, that’s really its name), a chain of grocery stores in the south, where I restocked with bratwursts (get it? the "Piggly" connection?), doughnuts, potato salad, and Doritos – my typical traveling fare.  I also got a 10-pound block of ice for my cooler.  After resupplying (and still chuckling over the name "Piggly Wiggly"), I continued east, driving for about 20 miles to another barrier island, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, and found my campsite there late in the afternoon. 

It was a Friday so the campground was much livelier than at St. George Island, with lots of families unpacking for a weekend stay.  I cooked up some Piggly brats for dinner, then lit my candle lantern at dusk and opened my Kindle and read for a few hours at my campsite, enjoying the warm breezes on this pleasant evening.

Saturday morning was sunny and warm, and after getting up, I ate breakfast at my campsite, then packed for an all-day hike to the northern end of the sandy peninsula.  The campground and developed facilities at St. Joseph State Park are at the southern end of a barrier island that’s about five miles long and roughly 200 yards wide, while the rest of the island is totally undeveloped and largely unvisited.  Most folks stay on the southern end, near the campground and park headquarters, but I wanted to see the rest of island, so I planned to hike up the beach for several miles, set up my shelter on a secluded spot of sand somewhere, and spend the afternoon sitting in the shade while reading and enjoying the surf. 

I dug out my trusty, blue JanSport backpack from the bottom of my Thule cargo box, the same pack I’d used in the 1980s when I spent six summers working as “Ranger Del” for the BLM in the Colorado Rockies, and loaded it up with my tent shelter, a rollup chaise lounge, my folding chair and of course some food, ice and water, then started hiking up the beach.  I must've been a frightful sight, carrying a full backpack with a folded chair strapped to the back, but I gradually left the crowds behind as I walked on the white, powdery sand.  After hiking up the beach for a couple miles, and not having seen another person for over a half-hour, I found a secluded enclave in the dunes with a nice view of the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, then stopped and unbuckled my backpack, figuring this would be an ideal place to spend the rest of the day.  I set up my tent shelter for shade, unfolded my camp chair, took out a bottle of cold ice water and sat down to enjoy a peaceful and quiet afternoon on the beach.

And that’s when the flies hit.  Lots of them.  And make no mistake:  these weren’t docile houseflies.  Oh no.  These were vicious, blood-sucking sandflies and they descended on me, one wave after another in a well-planned assault, and started biting every patch of exposed skin they could find.  It was like being in a doctor’s office with a gang of sadistic nurses constantly poking me with never-ending batches of hypodermic needles.  I can deal with hungry mosquitoes, but these vampire-ish flies were in a different league.  I swatted and swatted but the sandflies were tenacious and my insect repellent was useless; in fact, the flies seemed to relish it.  So after 10 minutes of frantic battle, I abandoned ship and packed up everything, then hoisted my backpack once again and headed back down the beach.  Final score:  Sandflies 1, Del 0. 

I hiked for an hour on the beach back to the campground, continually moving to keep the sandflies at bay, and gradually I encountered more and more people as I re-entered civilization.  Every time I stopped to look at a shell or some small creature on the beach, though, the sandflies immediately descended and began attacking, with every wave of dive-bombers drawing a generous amount of my blood.  I walked past several groups of people on the beach but couldn’t figure out why they were here, given the large mass of voracious sandflies.  I even considered taking a poll, asking "Don't these flies bother you?" but didn't want to seem like a wimp.  I was especially perplexed (and amused) at one portly young fellow who was lying, perhaps even sleeping, on the beach like a smallish whale and totally oblivious to the determined sandflies.  I figured that either 1). the sandflies weren’t attacking him for some reason or 2). they were and he didn’t notice, or 3). he noticed but just didn’t care. 

Now, I’m no shrinking violet and consider myself to be a pretty hardy fellow who can endure a fair bit of discomfort:  I've hiked for five miles through the Rocky Mountains while carrying a 103-pound backpack, have slept outside in 25-below weather in South Dakota, and have fought wildfires in Colorado in 100-degree heat while wearing full firefighting gear.  But I was in awe of these folks frolicking in the surf amidst the clouds of dive-bombing, blood-thirsty sandflies.  The last time I experienced hypodermic sandflies like this was in New Zealand in 2001 and that wasn’t a pleasant experience, and neither was this.  So I gave up, left the beach, headed back to my campsite, and called for a truce.  The campground was much more tranquil with nary a sandfly to be seen.  I drove out of the park the next morning still licking my wounds having lost what seemed like three pints of blood.

I don’t want to deter you from visiting the Florida barrier islands, however, because I learned later that the sandflies here mostly die off after the first freeze, which wouldn't be for another month or two.  Next time, I'll visit this wonderful place in the spring, definitely not in early November.

NOTE: St. Joseph State Park was partly destroyed by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.  The campground I stayed at was heavily damaged and the barrier island was cut in two, preventing access.  A portion of the park is now open, apparently, but only for day-use and the St. Joseph campground will be closed for the foreseeable future.  That’s a shame because I enjoyed my stay there – except for the loss of blood, of course. 

St. George and St. Joseph Barrier Islands



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