Bayous, Swamps, and Beaches – Camping the FL Panhandle #TBT
In November, after a week letting New Orleans wash over us with our amazing Louisianan friends, we headed out for a few nights camping in the Florida Panhandle. I had read a lot of good things about the Panhandle (delicious cheap oysters! white sand beaches! tons of cute towns to bike around!) so my expectations were pretty high – but the trip was even better than I expected. We car-camped our way through (as part of a much longer trip that involved two photo gigs for Dmitry), but it would be a wonderful place to bike tour.
I am a devotee of freecampsites.net, and used it to find a lovely spot on the Bayou for our first night. The following morning, we followed 30/30A, a two-lane highway that stays close to the gulf nearly all the way across the Panhandle. We stopped off at Navarre Beach (famous for a long pier that you can walk out onto or fish from), and started out on a 17 mile bike ride west from Navarre to Pensacola Beach – partially on a complete separate bike lane, partially on a shared road.
As we started riding, we were both feeling amazing. I hadn’t been riding much for the past few weeks, but even my highest gear felt like it might be a little too slow. I was flying past endless white sand beaches, thinking I was the best cyclist in the world… until we stopped for a moment to enjoy the view and realized that we had been enjoying the benefits of a massive tailwind. After a quick lunch at Native Cafe in Pensacola Beach (one of the best omelets I’ve had in a while), we got back on the bikes for the 17 mile ride east, back to the car. It took about twice as long as the trip out because of the headwind, and I practiced drafting off Dmitry for much of the ride. But we were very happy to get some riding in!
The next two nights we spent at Grayton Beach Campground – at $25/ night, with showers and electricity at the sites, it felt very luxurious. The campground sites also felt much more private than many of the other places we have stayed recently. I highly recommend site 22, or any of the sites along the lake.
After leaving Grayton Beach, we stopped at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, in between the small towns of Port St. Joe and Appalachiola. Opened in 1929, the homey little spot is the only place I’ve been in the US with an honor bar – you grab your own beer from the fridge or pour your own draft from the tap. Dmitry, who had only poured a draft beer once before (at the Heineken museum in Amsterdam) was so flustered by the excitement that he ended up pouring one lager and one “Dmitry Special” (a mix of blonde and wheat). We still drank it though.
The oysters weren’t served with much ceremony – just 12 raw oysters on the half shell, set onto an orange plastic tray. But they were delicious, well-shucked, and served with a huge assortment of hot sauces.
Our final night, we camped in Tate’s Hell – 187,000 acres of swamp just at the edge of the Panhandle.
The legend of Tate’s Hell (from the State Park’s website):
A tale that has been told for many years recounts how Tate’s Hell Swamp got its name. Local legend has it that a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate, armed with only a shotgun and accompanied by his hunting dogs, journeyed into the swamp in search of a panther that was killing his livestock. Although there are several versions of this story, the most common describes Tate as being lost in the swamp for seven days and nights, bitten by a snake, and drinking from the murky waters to curb his thirst. Finally he came to a clearing near Carrabelle, living only long enough to murmur the words, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell!” Cebe Tate’s adventure took place in 1875 and ever since, the area has been known as Tate’s Hell, the legendary and forbidden swamp.
We weren’t bitten by snakes, and we did not drink that murky water, but Dmitry suffered a mild attack by fire ants and we woke up in the morning to find a flat tire… Otherwise, one of the best camping nights we’ve ever had, and a perfect way to finish off our Panhandle trip!