It was a hot day and I needed a break from the condo and the crowded beach. I have never mastered nor understood the appeal of lying on the sand under a blazing sun, slowly roasting oneself for long periods of time, just to risk skin cancer. So, I grabbed my day pack, some bottled water, and my sense of adventure and headed out to explore some of Florida’s protected natural areas.
Thirty-three miles west of Panama City Beach in Florida is Deer Lake State Park. I had read about Deer Lake in a local travel brochure picked up at the welcome center and added it to my list of places to visit while on vacation. I plugged the park’s location into my GPS, cranked the car’s air conditioning up to “Desert Only”, and waved goodbye to the sweltering masses as I headed out County Road 30-A in search of a new experience.
A half hour or so later I pulled in to the unmanned entrance of Deer Lake State Park. There were no booths or gates to ensure and collect proper payment. Just the old honor system. Unused to such personal responsibility on public lands, I spent a few minutes trying to locate and identify the hidden security cameras that must surely be mounted somewhere. But after several unfruitful moments of searching I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t on hidden camera and that this is really the way it’s done in this state. I took a pay envelope, stuffed it with the three dollar entry fee, tore off the receipt and hung it on my mirror, then dropped the payment into the box and headed to the parking area.
Before getting out of my car I reviewed some basic information on Deer Lake State Park. The state began acquiring property in 1996 with the intention of creating a public space for the restoration of the land to a natural condition. This would allow for studies of the local ecosystems and create a green space in the midst of surrounding development. By 1997 the park had grown to just under two thousand acres and was becoming a popular spot for visitors looking for solitude and a chance to experience nature in a more primitive and pure form.
Deer Lake State Park is named after a rare coastal dune lake located within the parks borders. Dune lakes are found only in Africa, Australia, and Florida. Deer Lake is one of the seventeen Florida coastal dune lakes and is protected by the park. The unique ecosystem was created when the dune lake filled with water, eventually spilling over and into the Gulf of Mexico. Seawater then made its way back into the lake and instigated the biodiverse environment.
The lake is not the only ecosystem in the park. All told, there are eleven different natural communities located within its domain. The show piece being the ancient and vast dunes ecosystem. The mounds of windblown sand are highlighted by coastal plants and trees and offer dramatic landscapes before giving way to the pristine, white sand beach as the park dissolves into the Gulf.
Leaving my car, I walked down a trail leading through a wooded area. The paved path eventually gave way to an impressive elevated boardwalk that allowed visitors to cross the dunes without unduly impacting the balanced ecosystem beneath the supports. The third-mile long boardwalk, offering an interesting and somewhat awe-inspiring trip as it travels through the protected dunes, leads to an impressive view of the Gulf of Mexico and terminates in a handicapped accessible ramp leading to the picturesque beach below.
There were hundreds of acres left to explore, and the pioneer part of me intends to get to them…eventually. For now my wanderlust had been satisfied and my spirit made content to marvel at the beauty of the dunes and the natural beach, devoid of the familiar gaggles of sweaty, over-oiled tourists and their braying offspring. I had a seat, opened a bottle of water and enjoyed the solitude as a refreshing breeze blew in from the Gulf and across the sand. Maybe the sun worshippers are onto something after all.
© 2015 G. Scott Brinkley. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.