Camping on the beach is one of those ideal dreams I always thought would be cool to experience. It brings me back to a time when there were beach parties and surfers were able to roam the shorelines without concern. Now, there are very few places in the United States where spending a night in the beach by a campfire is allowed, but one of those few places is right down here on the extreme western edge of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Johnson’s Beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore located in Perdido Key, Florida (the last town before hitting the Alabama state line). This small section of seashore is home to one of the best undeveloped beaches in the area, as well as the former location of Fort McRee, a Confederate fort that guarded the Pensacola Bay (only a single battery remains of this Fort).
It also happens to be one of the only places where camping on the beach is still allowed. To reach the camping location, however, is not an easy task.
The Perdido Key Seashore area encompasses both sides, a long stretch of beach on the South and Big Lagoon on its North. Prior to Tropical Storm Lee, a two lane road passed between the two bodies of water for approximately 2 miles. While cars couldn’t park at the end of the road, they could unload and park about 0.5 miles from the end.
Unfortunately, the tropical storm we had a few weeks ago buried the road in sand, forcing its closure. So instead of hiking 0.5 to 1.0 miles to the camp site, a 2.5 mile hike is required for now.
Primitive Camping on the beach is not allowed for the first 2.5 miles or so from the entrance. After that distance, camping is allowed on the beach anywhere east of this signpost.
Since the road was closed, hiking to the campsite began at the large parking area just past the entrance to the National Seashore. These will be the last restrooms you will see. From here, hikers hike along the wide, sandy beach with all their camping gear. If you’ve never done any beach hiking before, be aware, the soft stand can be harder to hike than any mountain. I’m an avid hiker, but this simple 2.5 mile hike did a number on my calves. There are hard surfaces that can be found along the hike, but they are not necessarily in a straight line or consistent.
Other than the sand, the hike to the camp sites can be quite pleasant. Simultaneous views of the Gulf of Mexico, the sand dunes, and Big Lagoon on the other side make for an enjoyable experience. Keep a look out for the Pensacola Lighthouse appearing just over the dunes while hiking. The lighthouse on Pensacola is still functioning and can be seen rotating over the dunes when darkness sets in over the beach.
On the Friday Night we hiked out to the camp site, we only came across two other people on the entire hike, and they were walking back to their cars. Once we reached the primitive camping sign, we never saw another person and had the entire beach to ourselves for the night. The only exception was the park rangers making frequent trips through the area on their four wheelers at all hours of the morning.
Setting up camp on the beach can be very different from setting up camp elsewhere. The biggest issue is dealing with all the sand one is bound to track in. No one wants to sleep in a sleeping bag full of sand. To compensate, we used our tent’s footprint as a front porch and staging area for sleeping. This was extremely helpful in keeping sand out of the tent, though far from full proof.
The other major issue with camping on the beach is the ability to dry off and clean sand and salt from the body after a swim. All I can suggest is bring two extra towels, a third pair of clothes, and just be prepared to deal with sand and salt for the night.
Cooking on the beach was interesting due to the wind. We built a make-shift wind barrier for our stove by digging a hole and then building a sand wall up to surrond the flame.
My favorite part about beach camping, though, was building a fire on the beach. It wasn’t the bonfire party that I envisioned from the surfer party days, but it was enjoyable to sit by the fire and the ocean at the same time.
One note, bringing firewood to the beach was a bit impracticable and finding driftwood was not as easy I had hoped, so be prepared to cook without the use of a full size fire.
The morning sunrise over the Gulf was another beautiful moment during our camping trip on the beach. The ocean breeze can get somewhat chilly, even in a sleeping bag, and the warmth of the sunrise made all the difference in the early morning.
For the return hike, we decided we would seek a little respite from the soft sand and hike back along the closed road. There are several boardwalks that go from the road to the beach, so we hit the first one we came to.
The sand covered road seemed almost apocalyptic. It was completely deserted and barely visible at times due to the sand. I couldn’t help but think about how this road would be the way roads would look if we were the last people on Earth after some great storm.
Because of the depth of the sand, the roads weren’t really any easier to hike back along than the beach. They did provide some better views of the Big Lagoon, though, and the bridge over Perdido Key. This made for a nice way to conclude the hike with a loop hike.
From Hwy. 59 in Gulf Shores, Alabama:
1. Turn Left and Drive East on Beach Blvd./Perdido Beach Blvd. for approximately 15.8 miles
2. The beach road will begin to make a sharp curve away from the beach. At this point, turn right onto Johnson Beach Road. A sign will indicating Gulf Islands National Seashore will indicate the location of the turn.
3. Follow Johnson Beach Road to the park entrance gate.
There is no camping fee to camp on Johnson’s Beach, the park, however, does charge an $8 admission fee that is good for one week, and is also accepted at Fort Pickens in Pensacola, FL.