Picture of a rental cabin in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Guests can rent cabins overlooking the pristine St. Joseph Bay in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

Photograph by M. Timothy O'Keefe, Alamy

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Florida’s wild spaces seem even wilder at night. When the sun goes down, the nocturnal symphony commences, led by croaking amphibians, hooting barred owls, and other calling and rustling wildlife. Experience the state’s amazing array of natural night sights and sounds by sampling a few of the wildest camping sites.

Big Scrub Campground, Ocala National Forest

Big Scrub has the look and feel of the wild and wide-open West. It’s located in the heart of the world’s largest sand pine scrub ecosystem—deep, sandy soil dotted with shrubs and sand pine trees—and it’s a rare campground where you can ride off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, into the forest. “A lot of people think scrub is ugly before they get out here,” says Eve Shackleton, Ocala National Forest special use permit administrator. “This is an imperiled ecosystem unique to Florida, and OHV riding is the best way to experience it.” Hop on the Ocala Adventure Trail to drive a 47-mile loop through the sand pine scrub. Go at your own pace, and steer clear of the resident wildlife, including gopher tortoises, black bears, and sandhill cranes.

T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe

There are two full-service campgrounds near the beach and eight cabins overlooking St. Joseph Bay, but to truly get away from it all, pitch a tent in the park’s unspoiled wilderness preserve. Accessible only by hiking or paddling, the secluded preserve covers the northernmost seven miles of the peninsula. To protect the wilderness area’s sensitive coastal ecosystem and large dunes, camping is limited to seven designated sites. Advance reservations required.

Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine

The surrounding forest shields the campground from blowing sand and salt spray, yet all 139 tent and RV sites are within easy biking or walking distance of the park’s four miles of undeveloped beach. “Camping at Anastasia is unique, as the sites are located in a coastal hammock,” says park manager Warren Poplin. “The wind-pruned trees feel as if they are hugging the sites.” Dolphins and whales are commonly spotted offshore, and a wide variety of birds, including osprey, wood stork, and owls, can be seen in the trees and salt marsh and on the beach or shore.

TRAVEL TIPS

Practical Tip: At Anastasia State Park, bring or rent (inside the park at Island Beach Shop and Grill) a bike to ride along the beach and to the Saturday morning farmers market, concerts, and other events held at the nearby St. Augustine Amphitheatre.

Fun Fact: The Ocala National Forest’s sand pine scrub ecosystem runs north to south along an ancient sand ridge, the remnants of a chain of islands surrounded by water over 25 million years ago.

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