Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
Camp Helen State Park is one of the great day-use Florida parks we have available in the region. Located just over the South Walton county line and a few miles west of Panama City Beach, this 180-acre Florida state park
is nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell, one of the area’s rare coastal dune lakes. Along with a glimpse of mid-20th Century Florida history, the park features historic buildings, both freshwater and saltwater fishing, nature trails, picnicking facilities, and a walkway to the beach.
Although humans inhabited this beachfront real estate more than 4,000 years ago, from 1945 to 1987 Camp Helen State Park was a private company resort for the employees of an Alabama textile mill. Cottages dating from the 1930's show that the land was used as a resort then as well. Surrounded by water on three sides – the gulf, Lake Powell, and Philips Inlet – it was recognized early on as a perfect vacation spot.
In 1928, Robert E. Hicks purchased 185 acres of land overlooking Philips Inlet and Lake Powell. Here he built a summer home for his wife, Margaret, who named the family compound Loch Lomond. Construction of the lodge, called the Big House, was from 1931-1933. About this time Robert died, leaving Margaret with a family in the midst of the Great Depression, so she decided to add a few buildings, take in paying guests and live full time on the land.
The Rainbow Cottages were built in the mid-1930s offering vacation accommodations on the bluff overlooking Lake Powell. Each sporting a different bright color, the cottages accommodated up to four people and were popular with guests. In 1945, Margaret Hicks sold the little resort to Avondale Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama, which renamed the property Camp Helen, possibly for a family member of Avondale founder B. B. Comer.
Avondale built twelve duplex cottages and a recreation hall. They added a fishing pier on the beach and a boathouse on the lake, and operated Camp Helen as a recreation area for their employees from 1945 through 1987. In 1996, through the persistence of area residents, Camp Helen became a Florida state park.
Today there is no overnight camping or lodging at the park which is for day-use only, but you can still find the activities that generations of Avondale employees and their families enjoyed. You can walk down to the beach for some swimming, beachcombing, and surf fishing. Two nature trails allow for hiking and wildlife viewing, and picnic tables let you enjoy an outdoor meal. Explore the historic buildings to get an idea of what it was like to come to Camp Helen in its heyday. Pick up a complimentary Walking Tour Guide at the Visitor Center to explore the camps historic structures on your own.
Both the old fishing pier and the boathouse are gone, destroyed by hurricanes, but you can still see the pilings where they stood. Fishing is still popular, however, and Lake Powell is great for kayaking as well. Due to its brackish waters, both freshwater and saltwater fish are caught here.
The park is also on the Great Florida Birding Trail and a complimentary trail guide is available at the Visitor Center. Some of the birds that have been seen at the park include:
* Least terns
* Snowy plovers
* Black skimmers
* Brown pelicans
* Caspian terns
* Spotted sandpiper
* Tufted titmouse
* Bald eagle
The focal point of Camp Helen is still the Big House, now a beautiful rustic lodge that hosts weddings and private events. The Rainbow Cottages are being restored and you can peek in the window to view a Florida beach vacation home of the 1940s. Interpretive exhibits are also available at the Visitor Center.
Three trails are available for hiking and nature viewing. One is a paved bike path that runs beside Lake Powell for about a mile and is made from a special environmentally friendly concrete that sucks up water like sand so there’s no runoff to cause erosion or damage to the lake.
The second one, Oak Canopy Trail, winds though a dense canopy of maritime hammock overlooking the salt marsh and duck pond and eventually ends up at the beach. A third path leads over the lake and directly to the beach from the main parking area.
Five distinct natural communities have been identified at Camp Helen that include mesic flatwoods, scrub, basin swamp, depression marsh, and marine unconsolidated substrate. The beach dune and maritime hammock habitats provide one of the last resting and nesting areas for shorebirds along Bay County and South Walton beaches. The beach is also nesting area for loggerhead and green sea turtles.
History tours are provided the first Saturday of each month, May through October. There is also a family-friendly Ghost Tour every October.
10:00 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.
The Department of Environmental Protection’s Camp Helen State Park invites you to their history walk at Camp Helen State Park. Learn about the early history of the park and local area while wandering on a guided tour around Camp Helen's restored historical buildings.
The tour is free with paid park admission fee.
Camp Helen State Park
23937 Panama City Beach Parkway
Panama City Beach, FL 32413
Hours of Operation:
Camp Helen State Park is open from 8:00 a.m. until sundown 365 days a year.
Camp Helen State Park is located west of Panama City Beach on U.S. 98 at the west end of the Phillips Inlet bridge, on the Bay County and Walton county line. The entrance is South of U.S. Hwy 98 and approximately six miles west of State Road 79.
$4.00 per vehicle. Please use the honor box to pay fees. Correct change is required. Limit 8 people per vehicle.
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass.
Domestic pets are permitted in designated day-use areas. They must be kept on a handheld leash that is six feet long or shorter and be well-behaved at all times. Pet owners are required to pick up after their pets and properly dispose of their droppings. Pets are not permitted on the beach or park buildings. Service animals are welcome in all areas of Camp Helen State Park.
The Friends of Camp Helen
P.O. Box 19338
Panama City Beach, FL. 32407
These Northwest Florida State Parks are not far from Camp Helen.