Camping on the Beach–Johnson Beach, Florida

September 21, 2011
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Camping on the Beach

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.

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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.

Camping on the BeachCamping on the Beach

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.

Camping on the BeachCamping on the Beach

Camping on 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.

Camping on the Beach

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.

Camping on the Beach

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.

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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.

Camping on the Beach

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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.

Camping on the Beach

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.

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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.

Camping on the Beach

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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.

Camping on the Beach

Camping on the Beach

Directions:

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.

Camping on the Beach

Fee:

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.

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43 Responses to Camping on the Beach–Johnson Beach, Florida

  1. […] wrote more about the trip, and put a lot of pictures on my other website, SouthernHiker. A lot of my camping trips will wind up on there with a link from here to […]

  2. Roy on October 11, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I would love to do this hike myself. However, I’ve heard this is where gay folks hang out (literally). I would make this hike with a female hiking partner for protection …LOL!
    BTW, I don’t mean to sound like I’m gay bashing, because I’m not.

    • JP on October 11, 2011 at 5:17 am

      I’ve heard rumors of certain “adult activities” occurring there within that community as well. The night we went we didn’t see a single person camping besides the wife and I. The good thing about this beach, is that it is so long, it’d be easy to escape other people of any sort just by hiking a little further down the beach.

    • Eric on October 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      I have trekked this route myself. Every 25 yards a naked sextagenarian would pop up from behind the dunes to say hi. Not a pretty site. The history of this area is interesting as this was originally a segregated beach in times thankfully past. the beach is named after Rosamond Johnson the first African- American from the area to die in the Korean conflict.

  3. robert martin on November 29, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    yes a few miles down the beach is gay territory, and if you are a guy alone camping be prepared to be approached ad naseum. too bad too most gays are respectful these are not. i would definitely want a gal with me, hahha, i would want that no matter though.

    forewarned though is forearmed, so to speak..

  4. Outdoor Travel in the South | SouthernHiker on January 21, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    […] Entry Fees:  $8 per vehicle, good for one week, and also accepted in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida District, including at Johnson Beach. […]

  5. Nik on September 6, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Some friends and I camped at Johnson for Labor Day weekend. I just wanted to say thanks for this article, it guided us through a bit of confusion. There were plenty of people out for the holiday but we had an easy fifty feet of space on either side of us, much emptier than any other beach would have been. Love this spot and will definitley return. Already planning ‘Operation: Cold Camp’ for an autumn experience.

    • JP on September 6, 2013 at 6:04 pm

      Glad to help fellow campers out, and I’m glad you found the beach enjoyable.

  6. Robin Sopko on October 6, 2013 at 7:51 am

    DEFINITELY planning to stop there and take “a million” photos in the next year or two. I have a tiny 14 foot camper pulling w/a car (hope to paint “the Bird’s Nest” somewhere on it)- very concerned abt the GA mountain locations that I may not be able to drive up to w/the camper, but thankfully most beach areas are flat LOL..Where can I camp close by and not have to use my entire month’s camping budget? ANY SUGGESTIONS WELCOME for any beach (or 1 mile walk to the beach just fine) in FL/GA/ALA. <3 …cannot wait. "ttownrobin" aka Robin Sopko on Facebook – if you see me be sure to say Hello! I used to live in Pensacola back in the early 80's..thanks for any help! XOXO!!

  7. tara on February 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

    is it still a 2.5 mile hike to the camping area from where you have to park?

  8. Katie-Grace on May 28, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    was anyone able to figure out if they fixed the road. Is it still a 2.5 mile hike in?

  9. Joe on June 10, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Does it bother anyone camping on the east end of Johnson Beach to see nude beach walkers or nude sunbathers there? I know the Panhandle doesn’t have an official clothing optional beach like there is at Haulover Beach down south, but I’m just curious how many actual beach goers would be offended at nudity on the far east end of Johnson Beach.

  10. Crystal Henley on June 18, 2014 at 6:02 am

    From what I read on the nps website its more of a half a mile hike to that area to camp now. So much more convenient. I’ll be sure repost after my upcoming trip for any clarification.

  11. Jason E. on September 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    The road in the park has been cleared of sand, so it’s possible to drop your gear closer to the camping area. But cars aren’t allowed to park along the last 1/2 mile of road, so it’s still at least a one mile trek to the “camp beyond this point” sign. Ultimately it’s worth the effort; having so much beach all to yourself is an amazing experience.
    I would never have discovered Johnson Beach without this article, and I’m very grateful for it.
    (And yes, I passed a naked old guy as I was headed back to my car. He made no advances and was a perfectly nice fellow.)

  12. Jacob on September 28, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Im planning to take on this adventure with some friends, we are seniors in high school though and i was wondering if there were any age restrictions on camping here?

    • Jim on May 28, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      Ashes are exempted!

  13. Mr. GayBob on October 11, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Johnson Beach is not like Pensacola Beach, where males strut around like peacocks trying to give the appearance that they are not gay. Instead, this beach provides a sanctuary for those sun lovers who like to relax and enjoy the scenery

  14. Jim Uren on October 22, 2014 at 4:02 am

    We just returned from a week in the Johnson Beach area. The roads are perfectly clear, you still have to park about .35 miles from the end where you drop off your gear, and it is still a .5 mile hike to the camping sign shown above. You will still see naked people on the beach on occasion, and there may even be a gay/lesbian individual. It is a great beach, great price, and none of the naked, clothed, gay, straight people will bite. We swam with no clothes, we also swam with a few sting rays. Can’t do that in Memphis.

    • jeff sigwart on January 26, 2015 at 10:15 am

      Thanks Jim your thoughts on it sealed it for me . And you are right 🙂 you can’t do that in memphis. well ….maybe at the far end Mudd island harbor.

  15. Laurie on February 25, 2015 at 9:01 am

    Hello!! Thank you so much for this article on camping on Johnson beach, it helps me a lot! Now, I wanna know if there are hot showers in the restrooms? And also…the lasts restrooms are located so far from the camping sites so what do you do in the middle of the night if you wanna go at the restrooms? Thank you for your answers!

    • holoh on April 5, 2015 at 11:28 pm

      Haha. Are you serious? If you have to ask “what do you do in the middle of the night if you wanna go to the restrooms”, you need to be in a campground, not camping on the beach.

    • Jim on May 28, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      In my opinion it’s the most beautiful and unspoiled beach on the Gulf Coast.. Restroom? Have you ever been camping?

    • Somebody on July 7, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      I would like to know the answer about the restrooms as well.

    • Layla on April 28, 2016 at 11:20 am

      Outdoor shower at end of road going back toward civilization. Not hot water.

      To go to restroom you are supposed to use a bag and tie it and pack it back out as you leave, but most just go behind a dune far away and bury in the sand.

  16. Fearless Nomad on March 5, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for the info and the great pictures. I can’t wait to spend a week camping on the beach here!

  17. George on April 26, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I’ve gone for a walk down here but haven’t camped yet. It is definitely primitive camping. No restrooms or electricity or running water. If you have to ‘go’ in the middle of the night there’s a giant litter box behind your tent…

  18. johnsonbeachbum on May 3, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    The minimum hike from where you can park to where you can camp is one mile. Immediately after a tropical storm, the last half mile or the entire 2.5 miles of road might be closed. It takes from a few days to a week or more to clear the sand and reopen.
    So call ahead after any major storm.
    Nudity is common out in the area where camping is allowed and further east. I would say it is 50/50 gay and hetro in popularity.
    The regular locals will enforce their rules which are basically do not bug others and do not approach others nude. And cover up when ever any textiles are close enough to tell that you are nude.

  19. Kemberlie on June 12, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I would think you would do what we do w/the dogs as far a potty breaks go. Pick a dune or water & if you poop, take a bag & pick up after yourself to dispose of later & perhaps several ziplock a to hold the smelly stuff till you return to base. Just a thought…..that’s what I would do, as to be courteous of others who would visit the area.

  20. casey on June 15, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Just got back from johnsons beach me and my wife did a one night camp just past the camping sign and we had a amazing time it is a beautiful place to camp and we seen just one nude person and had no problems with any one we where the only campers there and after dark we got naked will go again for a weekend

  21. Gina on June 30, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Relax and enjoy the sun and sand. Nudity is there, but you probably won’t see it and you certainly don’t have to participate. If you are covered when you walk by, people will cover up out of respect. Also, keep your distance from other beachgoers unless you are invited to join them. People don’t walk 2 miles to be on top of others, right? Respect privacy.

    This is not a place for the kiddos either. Remember…the 2 mile walk goes both ways, which is tough on children who are tired from their beach day.

  22. Lenora on August 24, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Beware…Johnson Beach does have a new Ranger who LOVES to hide in the dunes and wait for innocents to skinny dip. He carries a 9mm handgun, stun gun and mace on his side (because it is SO violent there!). Once in the water he rides his four wheeler out of hiding and arrests them. Yes, I did say ARRESTS them…complete with handcuffs, ride to jail and vehicle being impounded. And very harassing in the process. Very sad he feels the need to be so sneaky, and that a person cannot skinny dip in the evening on a secluded beach with no one else in sight! Barney Fithe alive and well on Johnson Beach!

  23. Gabrie on October 1, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Can I bring my ATV to get to the campsite?

  24. Rhonda Young on February 13, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Would this area be a safe location for a mother and 2 teenage girls?

  25. Betty on April 3, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Not this past October but the one before, my boyfriend and I went here to primitive camp because it seemed like such a unique experience. We were making a late breakfast on the beach when I noticed a dude who stood out like a sore thumb walking back by the dunes. He was carrying his black t-shirt and in dark denim jeans on a 90 degree day. I needed to put the other half of the bacon back in a cooler which was in our tent. When we set up the night before it was super windy, so the front of our tent was facing away from the water. We’d set up our little canopy closer to the water, which is where the breakfast making was happening. I’d made a mental note about the dude, but wasn’t thinking much of it. I ran over to the tent, opened the flap, and there he was. Long story short, he propositioned me for sex multiple times and tried to take my picture. He had me kinda trapped behind the tent, out of view from my boyfriend who was rinsing his hands in the ocean (from touching the bacon) and distracted by the oodles of sea life. He said he and his girlfriend (who I doubt was real) were out here looking for their swinger friends who said they were in the primitive campground. He kept asking me if I was sure I wasn’t “Melissa”. We reported it to the rangers, who didn’t seem to care, with the exception of this one lady. She said they were aware of the “activities” going on there, but the person who owns the land (I’m still under the impression that it’s federally owned property??) doesn’t want to do anything about it. After all the research I did before going there, I never read anything about anything like this happening to people. There was a picture of a family on the website advertising the primitive camping, for christ’s sake. It wasn’t until afterwards that we googled it again with a few more key words and found that it was indeed a stranger hookup spot for gay people and swingers. I am an ally to the LBGTQ community; nudists and LGBTQ people don’t bother me at all. What bothers me is the national park service willingly put us in danger. They have these rules that force you to break the buddy system, like leaving your car .5 mile from where you can unload, but you can not leave the car unattended, etc. The experience ruined the trip, to say the least. I’m just thankful I got away from him and he didn’t break my neck and rape my dead body in the dunes. I’m disappointed that they don’t warn people and clearly still do not. I couldn’t sleep that night so we packed up at three in the morning and got the hell out of there. Don’t go alone. Don’t go just as a couple. Bring a rape whistle. And a sun hat, the heat is brutal.

  26. Nik on April 17, 2016 at 11:07 am

    I was wondering if there was showers on the beach

  27. Patricia Rath on April 18, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    I am a married 63 year old female wanting to camp on Johnson Beach. (1), is it safe? (2), how far a walk is it from where you can park to where you can camp? (3) is there a shower/restoom house where you leave your car and is there hot water? Thanks for your assistance.

  28. Shawn Cruz on May 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Hello! I live only 10 minutes from Johnsons beach and this my favorite place for weekend fishing and camping trips with my son. We have never seen a naked person (ever)on the beach and we go every chance we get. I will have to say that I avoid any beach in this area around Memorial Day though. The water is clean, people are great and fishing is awesome. I have lived here for 15 years and still call it paradise. Take it from a local.

  29. Leah Walbourne on May 7, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Hi! Did you happen to notice anyone with dogs out there? I am planning to bring my two very small pups and am hoping the park rangers do kick me out!

    Thanks!

  30. Marsha on May 14, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    I have 2 teenage girls interested in going and wanted opinion on safety. Also where do you check in and pay, is there an age limit, and are reservations required?

  31. Cory on May 28, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    This is the worst camping experience I ever experienced. The hike from where you park is 2 miles with all your camping stuff . we set up after 4 long hours walking through sand we finally got set up and was exhausted.. After a few hours of setting up our camp site we was swimming and enjoying the beach when we was approached by the federal game warden and given a 100 dollar situation for illegally camping.. We was surrounded by other campers and tents and we was told to leave ..after unloading everything me and my girlfriend had to repack up and drag all our stuff back to the drop off spot.. As we was leaving the game warden officer issued more campers tickets for illegally camping..in order to camp you have to register and we all did .. Then we had to walk a mile just to were your allowed to park your car just to find parking tickets on everybody windshields.. A day of misery cost 230 dollars in fines and my memorial day weekend ruined.. It’s a trap by both agency’s.. There’s no place in this area where locals can enjoy the beach and camping .. It’s all owned by private condos and the one place. They advertising is a trap and a exhausting waste of a day… It’s just to extort money through fines.. Do not go camping there .. Goto the koa s camp grounds for relaxing leisure time because you will hate the beach after you experienced what we all have..

  32. Amy on May 29, 2016 at 11:27 am

    This place is a joke. You walk a half mile in the sand with all of you stuff and then walk another mile to park your car. It took us four hours to get to our spot and apparently we were 1/4 of a mile from the proper camping spot and got a hundred dollar ticket and we’re told to leave. The officer was extremely rude and didn’t ticket any of the other campers on either side of us. Also after getting back to our car we had another $130.00 ticket for parking too close to the sign. It looks like a beautiful place to camp but it’s totally not worth it. I will never go back to that beach.

  33. Stephanie Creek on June 21, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I have been trying to get ahold of someone to ask about Johnson’s Beach for almost a week. Where do I pay the $8 fee and who do I contact? I don’t see anywhere that I can go to contact anyo e for this. Any help is much appreciated. Thank you!!

  34. Joy on June 29, 2016 at 8:01 am

    We camped for 3 days on Johnson’s beach and it was a wonderful experience. Be prepared to tow all your things 1/2 mile (at least) so a boogie board or snow sled is ideal. We got up early, before anyone, and headed to the outside showers at the entrance of the park to shower. It was too hot to be out there all day so we lounged up under the shelters (where the showers were located) mid day while it was the hottest. By 6pm, we headed back out to our site and paradise. Nobody bothered our things while we were away and that was awesome! We will be back every June from here on out! Thanks, Johnson’s Beach!!!!<3

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