Photograph by Eddie Brady, Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images
Start the day with a sunrise walk on the beach and let the rolling surf lull you to sleep at night by camping on or near the sand. Options range from primitive tent sites to full-service campgrounds. All offer unbeatable natural amenities such as limited light pollution, ideal for nightly stargazing.
Little Talbot Island State Park, Jacksonville
The 40 campsites at Little Talbot Island State Park are nestled in a shady maritime hammock forest on the western side of the undeveloped barrier island. It’s a half-mile walk or bike ride from the campground to the coast, where there are five miles of powder-white beaches. “Bring a bike or rent one at the ranger station to see one of the most stunningly scenic spots in the park,” says Allison Conboy, park services specialist for Talbot Islands State Parks. “At low tide, bike to the island’s north end to look north across Nassau Sound to Amelia Island, west to the wooded shoreline of Big Talbot Island, south down the coast of Little Talbot, and east out over the Atlantic.”
Garden Key Campground, Dry Tortugas National Park
Located 70 miles west of Key West and accessible only by boat, ferry, or seaplane, hundred-square-mile-wide Dry Tortugas National Park is 99 percent water. The limited dry land includes ten primitive tent camping sites. Campers willing to haul in food, water, charcoal, and gear—and haul out any trash—are rewarded with a “bucket list experience,” says park ranger Nick Fuechsel. “The campground is tucked into a grove of buttonwood trees located a stone’s throw from the beach,” he adds. “Camping here, you will see more birds, fish, turtles, and coral than anywhere else in the Florida Keys.”
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island
Stretching 160 miles from Cat Island, Mississippi, to the Okaloosa Area east of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Gulf Islands is the largest of the ten national seashores in the United States. In Florida, there’s free primitive beach camping on Perdido Key and RV and tent camping on Santa Rosa Island at Fort Pickens Campground, a short walk from both bay and Gulf beaches. “The two beaches have completely different sand and life forms,” says frequent Fort Pickens camper Sean Britt. “By day, follow the boardwalk to the soft sand on the Gulf side. At night, take a flashlight over to the bay side. It’s really eerie to watch all the ghost crabs scurry back and forth along the shore.”
When to Go: Dry Tortugas National Park is located in a major flyway for migrating birds, and the spring migration (March-May) is peak bird-watching season.
Practical Tip: On Perdido Key, getting to the primitive camping area requires a half-mile hike through the sand from the end of the paved road.
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