David Miller recommends Florida Panhandle campgrounds, beaches, museums, restaurants, and parks including how to see the Blue Angels for free.
My fiancé, Brenda, and I have a 2012 Travel Lite 890-SBRX. At 2,050 pounds dry, the Travel Lite a perfect match for our 2012 GMC 2500. When fully loaded, we have several hundred pounds of payload to spare. Even better, we get about 11.5 miles to the gallon with the camper, and 15.5 miles to the gallon without.
Above: Their 2012 GMC 2500 and 2012 Travel Lite 890-SBRX
Brenda and I live in Branson, Missouri. To escape the brutal weather this past winter, I planned a trip to Florida’s Panhandle. By mid-April, the Spring Break crowds would be gone, and there would be greater likelihood of sunshine and warmth.
With three kids in college, we would need to be back home by mid-May. We decided that a full week with two weekends would give us the time we needed to relax, and save enough vacation days for additional truck camping trips throughout the summer.
The Panhandle Plan
With a degree in engineering, I have been accused of being very logical. Before departing, we knew where we were staying each night, the routes we would take, which meals we would prepare in the camper, and which meals we would dine out. The only part of the trip that was not pre-planned was our return.
The original plan was to spend one night on the road on the way down and one night on the way back up. The rest of the time we would be on the beach, sampling seafood, drinking tropical drinks, and taking in historic Fort Pickens.
Above: David and Brenda enjoying the warmth and the Florida’s beaches
There are five main reasons why we chose Fort Pickens. First, it’s the closet beach to Missouri. Second, it’s undeveloped and focused on nature, which we find more relaxing. Third, we like history and the fort would give us a chance to learn more United States history.
Fourth, Fort Pickens Campground is economical at $28 a night, with electric and water. And fifth, I had vague memories of camping at Fort Pickens with my parents, and wanted to refresh those memories.
During our planning, we learned about the Parrothead Rendezvous, a tropical rock music festival in Panama City, Florida. From that point forward, we decided to split our time between Fort Pickens and Panama City Beach.
From my extensive planning, and our recent experience, here are nine tips for anyone considering a truck camping adventure to the Florida Panhandle:
Tip 1: If You Like History, Visit Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens is a historic fort and the centerpiece of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The fort construction was done originally in 1829 and was used in the Civil War and all the way up to World War II.
Above: The self-guided Fort Pickens tour – click to enlarge
There is a well-marked self-guiding tour through the fort that answers most of the questions regarding the history of the fort. They also have a separate well-marked self-guided tour of the surrounding coast artillery facilities.
The self-guided tour went all though the passageways and underground rooms. They used 21.5 million bricks to build the fort and some of the brick work, such as self-supporting arches, was very impressive. They even had reverse arches; upside down brick arches underground to support the weight of the massive cannons in the soft sand above.
The fort was built by slaves. The supervisors of the construction actually joined the Confederacy, although the fort itself remained in Union control through the whole civil war. There is even a claim that the first shots fired in the Civil War occurred at Fort Pickens.
The giant guns could shoot 400 pound cannon balls several miles out to sea. The 12-inch guns could shoot projectiles eight miles. In 1899 they had a fire where they stored the gunpowder and the explosion threw bricks 1.5 miles away across the nearby bay.
If you enjoy history, Fort Pickens is an incredible place to visit and explore. Obviously, I am just hinting at everything on display. History lovers, put this place on your bucket list.
Tip 2: Go to Fort Pickens If You’re Into Birding, Fishing, Surfing, Hiking, Shell Hunting, Dolphin Spotting, or Just Being a Beach Bum
The fort is in this pink circle on the aerial photo. The campground is in the green circle and the red line is the walking path from the campground to the fort.
Technically, the fort, campground, and beach are all separate. That said, they’re all located in Gulf Islands National Seashore on an island shared with the city of Pensacola Beach. The campground just uses the name of Fort Pickens.
Above: The Gulf Islands National Seashore – click to enlarge
The beach is a very short walk from the campground on a very nice boardwalk through the beach dunes. The beach itself is long and wide with pretty white sand. It is great for wading and looking for seashells. Quite a few people were fishing on the beach, and a few were attempting to surf.
Above: Brenda enjoying the beach
There were some good opportunities for seeing wildlife in the park. The park provided a checklist to help keep track of your bird sightings. Evidently there are 345 bird species in the park.
The most entertaining birds we found were the Ospreys. There were quite a few pairs with nests of babies in the trees all through the campground and surrounding dunes. The parents constantly flew to the beach to grab a fish out of the ocean – without going under water – and then flew back to the nest repeatedly all day long. Many bird watchers were seen with binoculars in hand.
The shore birds are protected. Apparently 50% of last year’s Snowy Plover chicks were killed crossing the road in the park. To protect the chicks, the park has a maximum speed limit of twenty miles per hour.
We also saw numerous schools of Bottlenose Dolphins swimming just offshore.
From the campground to the fort itself is a very short walk on the nature trail. There is a gift shop at the fort and a nice museum.
Tip 3: Be Careful With Fort Pickens Campground Site Selection
We made our reservations several months in advance, but based on the number of campers in the campground, advance reservations were not necessary in mid-April.
Before you make an online reservation, carefully look at the described length of each campsite. The 40-foot sites were reserved months in advance by Class A motorhome owners. The shorter sites were more available, but their length was described on the website as short as 20-feet long.
As this photograph shows, there is heavy vegetation at the end of the shorter sites. A truck camper could not have any room to open a rear camper door or slide out a rear slide if this was the selected site. We chose a longer site and had plenty of room for accessing the truck camper door.
Another thing to be aware of is that they are remodeling the shower house and the one in Loop A is brand new. The one in loop D is very old. It is in acceptable condition, just not very up-to-date.
Also, there are extremely bright yard lights on the shower houses. If you want to see the stars at night, I’d recommend selecting a campsite at a distance from the shower houses. The campsite had water and electrical connections for $28 per night. There is also a separate $8 one week entry fee for the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Above: David washing dishes in their Travel Lite 890-SBRX
One day, while camping at Fort Pickens, there was heavy rain over night. During the storm, the National Park Service actually closed the road which was the only point of access into the campground. By morning, the road was opened back up to traffic, but there was still about eight inches of water over the road. We had no issues with our four-wheel drive pickup and truck camper, but other RV owners might have been more hesitant.
Tip 4: Dine at Flora-Bama, Tacky Jacks, and Lu-Lu’s
The Flora-Bama is a restaurant and bar located exactly on the state line between Florida and Alabama. Inside the building itself, half the activities are occurring in Florida and half are occurring in Alabama. Supposedly, they built the building on the state line to take advantage of which ever state had the most relaxed regulations. The place has a nation-wide reputation for its Mullet Toss, a distance fish throwing contest across the state line.
We had heard about the Flora-Bama by reputation because it is touted as being America’s “Last Great Roadhouse”. I had heard of Flora-Bama for years in the lyrics of “Bama Breeze’ by Jimmy Buffett and “Coastal” by Kenny Chesney.
Two other restaurants that we tried were Tacky Jacks in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Jimmy Buffett’s sister’s restaurant, Lu-Lu’s.
Friends suggested that we check out Tacky Jacks because it’s an authentic place for good food and drinks and not a typical tourist trap. We had appetizers here of blackened alligator and fried green tomatoes. We saw several giant-sized barges go by being pushed by tug boats on the Portage Creek Canal. Highly recommended.
Lu-Lu’s was our fourth meal of the day. We fixed a full breakfast in the truck camper. Then we got to Flora-Bama around noon and ate lunch there. Then we got to Tacky Jack’s in later afternoon and ate there, then we went on to Lu Lu’s and ate again there. We wanted to sample the food, drinks, and atmosphere.
Lu Lu’s is a very casual establishment with many seafood and tropical drink options. Lucy Buffett, who goes by Lu Lu, also wrote a cookbook entitled, “Crazy Sista Cooking: Cuisine and Conversation with Lucy Anne Buffett”. I can recommend both the restaurant, and the book.
Tip 5: Golf, Fish, Camp, and Pet A Possum at Gulf State Park
Above: Parked outside the Nature Center – fitting into a regular parking spot
Gulf State Park is in Gulf Shores, Alabama. We just drove though it to check out the campground. It looked like a very well-maintained campground with 496 spaces. They also have tennis courts, a large swimming pool, and a nature center.
They even had a live tame possum in the Nature Center. I should have asked for more details as to why the possum was there. I assume it had probably been hurt and now required permanent care. They were treating it like a cat. It had a little basket to sleep in and a blanket. It was very tame and they picked it up just like a cat.
Wildlife exhibits were the main attraction. They had quite a few live snakes on display and some big spiders. They also have an 18-hole Par 72 golf course. Their park pier extends 1,540 feet into the gulf and it has restrooms, sells fishing tackle, and has a fish cleaning station.
Tip 6: Get Your Tower Buzzed By the Blue Angels – For Free!
The Naval Air Station in Pensacola is free and open to the public. This is the home base of the Blue Angels, the US Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. They practice every Wednesday and put on a one-hour demonstration at 11:00am.
They have bleachers set up along the runway. Or, you can bring your lawn chairs and get to see and excellent demonstration of flying and complex maneuvers. The Blue Angels also have practice flights on Tuesday and Thursdays directly over Fort Pickens.
As you would expect, the demonstration was very loud. Brenda covered her ears every time the jets approached the bleachers. They sold ear plugs, which is a good idea.
The precision of their flying and their abilities were amazing. The demonstration I liked best was the solo flight past the bleachers. A jet flew by just slightly slower than the speed of sound. We saw it coming very fast and – swoosh – it flew past us in a blink of an eye. A fraction of a second later, the roar of the engines hit us.
Tip 7: Don’t Fly Past the National Naval Aviation Museum
Above: The National Naval Aviation Museum
This free museum is located within the Naval Air Station. It is excellent and has hundreds of historic and modern aircraft on display. They have many detailed exhibits and presentations. It could easily take a half day to see everything on display.
There is a separate theater that focuses on the training of pilots for WWII that occurred in the Great Lakes area. When the war started, the Navy bought two old ferry boats that were on the Great Lakes and converted them to mini-aircraft carriers. Then they trained pilots to land on the mini-carriers.
The crash rate was extremely high because the carriers were so short, and the pilots had not yet been trained. When a pilot would crash in the lake, the Navy pull him out of the water, give him another plane, and make him try to land again. The lake is full of hundreds of vintage WWII aircraft. The museum theater was designed to give the impression you were underwater looking at sunken planes.
Tip 8: Climb the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
Built in 1859, the Pensacola Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on the Gulf Coast and can be seen twenty-seven miles out to sea. It is still in use.
To reach the top you have to go up 177 original cast iron stairs. It would definitely be scary for a person afraid of heights.
The view from the top is great and you can see all of Pensacola including Fort Pickens. We could look down and see our truck camper. We could also see where the Blue Angels were parked across the street.
The Pensacola Lighthouse has a nice museum (adult admission $6). They have furnished the 1869 lighthouse keepers quarters exactly as it was nearly 145 years ago. The lighthouse is supposedly haunted by ghosts and was featured on a television show about haunted sites. Don’t let that spook you.
TIP 9: If You Like Tropical Rock, Don’t Miss Parrothead Rendezvous
Parrot Heads in Paradise, Inc. is a not-for-profit network of over 200 clubs around the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, and Australia. Since the organization was started, they have raised $40 million dollars and have 3.4 million volunteer hours donated to various charities. We joined in September 2014.
We have monthly meetings that always involve live music and food. We also participate in area fund-raising events for various charities. The big event is the “Phlock at the Rock” which is a two-day event on the shore of Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri.
The event has raised well over $100,000 for charities since it was started in 2002 including Children’s Miracle Network, Community Hospice of America, and the American Diabetes Association. This year Phlock at the Rock is August 15th and 16th.
As members of the Ozark Mountain Parrothead Club in Springfield, Missouri, we were aware that the Panama City chapter has been holding their annual Parrothead Rendezvous for ten years.
Above: Brenda on the beach in Panama City, Florida
The money raised at Parrothead Rendezvous goes to help at-risk children and families in that county. They had one band perform on Thursday, three bands on Friday and four bands on both Saturday and Sunday. They also had raffles, a silent auction, and unlimited games, contests, and food.
Above: A cake at the Parrothead Rendezvous
Parrothead Rendezvous was quite a party with tropical music, drinks, and dancing in the sand. It doesn’t get any better.
Above: The Raccoon River Campground in Panama City Beach, Florida
For Parrothead Rendezvous, we stayed at Raccoon River Campground in Panama City Beach. It was the closest campground to the Parrothead Rendezvous and had several good reviews. It was a little more than a two mile walk. We walked it three times and took a $12 shuttle the last time.
The rate of $56 per night included electric, water and sewer hookups. The shower house was in good shape. The campground is very wooded with tall pines throughout. I did make reservations but they were not full. Reservations were probably unnecessary.
Next Year: Weather To Go
April is the perfect time to visit Florida’s Panhandle. Everyone we talked with said March is jam-packed with kids on Spring Break, and May starts the busy family tourist season. If you can, April is the time to go. Many Florida locals also said April often has the best weather; nothing but sunshine, and 80 degree days.
Unfortunately, that’s not the weather we had this year. It was cloudy and rainy every day we were there. As we turned to head back to Missouri, the sun came out and we saw blue sky.
Did the less than sunny weather deter us from wanting to go back to Florida’s Panhandle next April? Not a chance! We’ll definitely be back for more Pickens.
Bonus Story: Avoid the Bankhead Tunnel
On our way to the Panhandle, our GPS directed us to use Highway 98-42 and took us through Mobile making multiple turns. The GPS didn’t get us lost, but it did take us to the Bankhead Tunnel.
With just seconds to spare, we saw the highway sign: Maximum Height 12-Feet. Knowing our truck camper rig is 10’9” tall, we proceeded into the tunnel. Inside the tunnel, side-to-side clearance was extremely tight. It was not a drive suited to the faint-of-heart.
After we went through, we Googled the Bankhead Tunnel facts. It’s 21-feet wide, which means that each lane is around 10-feet wide. My truck camper mirrors are 8’9” for the width of the truck. That means my mirrors were clearing the walls and oncoming traffic by mere inches. My strongest advice for truck camper owners is to avoid the Bankhead Tunnel. Never, ever, again.