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The top 10 beach camping spots in Florida

Editor's note: This story originally appeared online in 2009. We've updated it slightly, but took out references to rates as they can fluctuate. Most fall under $30 for a tent site, but rise for RVs and cabin rentals. Call each individual park for those.

My friends usually decline my invitations to go camping during the summer. It's too hot, too buggy, too this, too that, they say. Nonsense, I reply.

Florida has dozens of great beach camping spots, and most are not crowded from June through August. You just have to know where to go, what to bring and how to survive for a few days without, heaven forbid, air-conditioning.

As I tell my kids, people lived in Florida for thousands of years before AC and cable TV. The trick is to get back to basics. Make your own shade, swim if you get too hot, drink plenty of water and pitch your tent where you can feel the sea breeze.

With one of the best state park systems in the country, Florida has dozens of great places to camp within a stone's throw of the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

1. Long Key State Park | Long Key

Long Key's campsites are literally right on top of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the only state park where you can leave your campsite, walk 100 feet and catch a permit or bonefish. The park has several nature trails, including one for kayakers that runs through a shallow-water lagoon, and 60 waterfront campsites, each with a picnic table and grill.

Call (305) 664-4815 or go to floridastateparks.org/longkey.

2. Cayo Costa State Park | Boca Grande

Surrounded by water on all sides and only accessible by private boat or public passenger ferry, Cayo Costa boasts splendid isolation. With 9 miles of deserted beach to roam and explore, you won't have to worry about crowds. The warm gulf water is great for swimming, snorkeling, fishing and kayaking. Each tent site can accommodate up to eight people. Showers, toilets and potable water are centrally located. Visitors must bring food and drink, but the extra work is well worth it. This is wild Florida at its best.

Call (941) 964-0375 or go to floridastateparks.org/cayocosta.

3. Fort Clinch State Park | Fernandina Beach

Among Florida's oldest state parks, Fort Clinch has one of the best-preserved 19th century forts in the United States. It never saw any action, but it was occupied by troops during the Civil and Spanish-American wars. Located just north of Fernandina Beach off A1A, this state park has great surf fishing, swimming and a 6-mile trail for hikers and bicyclists. Fort Clinch has two campgrounds, one overlooking the beach and the other in a hardwood hammock overlooking the Amelia River.

Call (904) 277-7274 or go to floridastate parks.org/fortclinch.

4. Grayton Beach State Park | Santa Rosa Beach

Another one of the nation's top beaches, this state park is famous for its sunsets. After you get tired of playing in the emerald-colored water, take off on one of the park's nature trails, which weave through a windswept coastal forest that looks like a set from Lord of the Rings.

Hikers and cyclists have more than 4 miles of trails to explore, and canoeists and kayakers can check out Western Lake, a classic salt marsh. The campground has been called one the finest in Florida, and subsequently, people book 11 months in advance.

Call (850) 231-4210 or go to floridastateparks.org/graytonbeach.

5. Anastasia State Park | St. Augustine

Four miles of unspoiled beach is this state park's top draw. Anastasia hasn't changed much since Spanish explorers made landfall here nearly 500 years ago. Besides great surfing, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, the park has an archaeological site where coquina rock was mined to create the nearby Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest Spanish fortress in America. Explore the dunes and stunted oak hammocks via the nature trail or paddle Salt Run, a tidal salt marsh, in a canoe or kayak. The well-shaded campground is one of the best in the state system.

Call (904) 461-2033 or go to floridastateparks.org/anastasia.

6. Sebastian Inlet State Park | Melbourne Beach

One of the premier surfing and fishing spots on Florida's East Coast, Sebastian Inlet State Park has 3 miles of beachfront real estate. As expected, the park is popular with anglers and wave riders, but the adjacent Indian River Lagoon is also a great place to canoe or kayak. They call this the Treasure Coast because after big storms, beachcombers still find coins washed ashore from the doomed Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715. The park's tent campground is within easy walking distance of the beach.

Campsites are $23. Call (321) 984-4852 or go to floridastateparks.org/sebastianinlet.

7. Bahia Honda State Park | Big Pine Key

Henry Flagler's railroad from Miami to Key West put this tropical paradise on the map. Twelve miles south of Marathon, this state park has turquoise water, balmy breezes and an endless supply of sunshine that would make Bahia Honda a great location for a five-star resort. Luckily for us, the land has been preserved for the public's use, giving regular folks an easy access point to the Florida Keys' world-famous coral reefs. The park has two boat ramps and three campgrounds, which are a testament to the park's standing as a vacation destination.

Call (305) 872-2353 or go to floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda.

8. T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park | St. Joe

Consistently rated as one of the top beaches in the United States, this Panhandle park has some of the finest white sand in Florida. With access to the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph Bay, canoeists and kayakers can spend a day paddling and never run out of new territory. This coastal barrier peninsula is also an international destination for bird watchers. To date, more than 240 species have been sighted. The park has 119 sites in two campgrounds: The Gulf Breeze area is open and can accommodate large vehicles; the Shady Pines area is more shaded and secluded.

Call (850) 227-1327 or go to floridastateparks.org/stjoseph.

9. Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area | Flagler Beach

Named after Florida folk singer Gamble Rogers, this recreation area has access to both the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, making it a popular spot for boaters, canoeists and kayakers. Sit and watch the shorebirds as they feed on the beach or take a hike along a winding nature trail through a coastal forest of scrub oak and saw palmetto. The 34-site full-service campground overlooks the Atlantic.

Call (386) 517-2086 or go to floridastateparks.org/gamblerogers.

10. Fort De Soto County Park | Tierra Verde

The only county-owned property to make the list, this Pinellas County park has a 238-site, full-service campground that seems to have been created with families in mind. The amenities include picnic tables, grills, fresh water, electricity, washers, dryers, sanitary disposal stations, modern restrooms, showers, play areas and a camp store. The park has more than 7 miles of waterfront recreation, including two fishing piers, nature trails, paved bike trail and a canoe trail.

Call (727) 582-2267 or go to pinellascounty.org/park.

Times Outdoors editor Terry Tomalin has pitched his tent on beaches all over the world. His favorite coastal camp is Polihale State Park on the northwest shore of Kauai, Hawaii, but here at home, he likes Fort De Soto.

About this series

This is the second in a four-part, yearlong series focusing on camping in Florida by Terry Tomalin, St. Petersburg Times outdoors editor.

Stories in this series are:

• Florida's family friendly campgrounds, March; read story at travel.tampabay.com.

• Coastal camping, today

• State park cabin camping, September

• Wilderness camping, December

Turtle time

If you camp near any of Florida's beaches during the summer months, there is a chance you might come across a nesting sea turtle. The most common of these air-breathing reptiles is the loggerhead, Caretta caretta.

These creatures, which return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their eggs, can weigh more than 400 pounds and grow to more than 3 feet in length.

Peak nesting occurs from May through August. If you come across a nesting sea turtle, keep your distance. Do not take any photographs with a flash camera and do not interfere with the animal in any way.

Prepare to get a tad sandy

Coastal camping has its own challenges, especially in Florida. Most beach campgrounds get pretty sandy, so you will need to be vigilant to keep the gritty particles out of your food and sleeping area.

>> Tents: Pick one that is airy, with good ventilation. If you sleep with the screens up and window flaps open, you will be amazed how cool it can be when that sea breeze starts blowing.

>> Sleeping bags: Inexpensive cotton bags work best. Open them up all the way and spread them out over an air mattress, then use an old sheet from home as a cover.

>> Eating: You can buy an inexpensive, freestanding screen room for $100 or less. Set this up over your picnic table for bug-free meals.

>> Tarps: They serve as great shelters during those afternoon rains and will keep the kids in the shade during the hotter parts of the day.

>> Coolers: Pack plenty of ice, water and cold drinks. It is easy to become dehydrated in the heat. Drink a lot and drink often.

>> Accessories: Bring plenty of sand toys, fishing rods, inflatable rafts and sports equipment. Make the most of the beach — leave the electronic games at home. But pack a boom box — Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley and the Beach Boys will make your camping experience more enjoyable.

>> Hazards: Summer is stingray season. Keep an eye out for jellyfish if you are camping on Florida's east coast. The greatest threat is dehydration and sunburn. Lather on the sunscreen first thing in the morning, and reapply often. Drink before you get thirsty. Pack a first aid kit in case somebody steps on a sand spur or sharp seashell.

The top 10 beach camping spots in Florida 05/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 10:43am]

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