Monday, August 29, 2016

St Andrew's State Park, Panama City Beach


St. Andrews State Park has the most beautiful beach in all of Panama City Beach. The park is located east of the city on a small peninsula with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Grand Lagoon on the other.  You can choose from swimming in the waves of the Gulf or you can swim in a sheltered lagoon. Fishing piers and a jetty are also part of the park. There are even places to scuba dive. If you choose to stay the night you can bring your RV or tent to the campground located on the edge of the Grand Lagoon.

Location: 4607 State Park Lane Panama City Beach, Florida

Cost: $8 per car for day use. Camping starts at $28.00 per night. (You don't have to pay the day use fee if you are camping.)

Operating Seasons and Hours: 8 am to sundown every day

Official Website: www.floridastateparks.org/park/St-Andrews

Date of Visit: Friday, June 17, 2016

My family has been visiting the beaches in the city of Panama City Beach, Florida since the very first week we moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama.  But I've been hesitant to do a post about any of the places we visited. I liked some beaches, but they didn't have bathrooms. Or there were other beaches that were near bathrooms, but they were crowded. I couldn't help feeling like we weren't doing it right.

So I wasn't ready to say that I had found the perfect beach in Panama City Beach - until now.

St. Andrews State Park has the best beach in Panama City Beach.  In fact, I'd say it has the best two beaches.

My family went to St Andrews State Park for an overnight camping trip back in June.  Originally I'd been hoping to stay at a hotel on the beach.  I figured that it really couldn't get any easier than being on the beach as soon as we walked out the back door of our room.  Plus I liked the idea of showering as soon as we were done playing in the sand.

However, due to my husband's schedule, I wasn't able to book us a hotel soon enough to get an inexpensive place for the weekend.  That's when I decided to check out St. Andrew's State Park.  I was hoping to reserve three nights, but again I was too late for that.  I was lucky to find one spot for one night. Morel of the story, make reservations early if you are planning a weekend trip to the beach during the summer.

We arrived at St. Andrew's State Park early in the afternoon.  We took a few minutes to set up our tent at our campsite, and then used that as a place to change into our swimming suites.  After that we piled back in the car and drove the short distance to the parking lot for the beach.

We were well rewarded for our efforts. The sand was beautiful, the water was warm, and so everyone had fun playing with the sand and the water.
After 3 hours of beach fun we headed back to our campsite for some dinner.  My only qualm with the state park was that the campsite was incredibly tiny.  They took what would have been a normal sized campsite anywhere else and squished three campsites in it's place.
But I can't be too mad about the crowded campsite.  Because if they didn't have that many campsites available we probably wouldn't have been able to get a spot when I made the reservation.

The campground had some great amenities like water and electric hookups at most campsites.  There were also several bath houses where we could take hot showers to get the sand off our bodies.  The bath houses each had coin operated washers and dryers.  And each campsite had a clothesline for hanging wet swimming suits and towels. .
The campground had many tall pine trees that provided shade.  Despite the squishy campsites this was pretty perfect.
Our kids woke up early in the morning so we had a quick breakfast and then got ready for the beach again.  This is where having a campsite really paid off. The campsite had cost us $37. If we'd wanted to visit this state park it would have cost us $8 per day. But we didn't have to pay the day use fee since we were camping. So staying over night saved us $16. Plus we didn't have to drive far to get to the beach.
This time we decided to go to the small sheltered lagoon that is situated between the Grand Lagoon and the Gulf. The parking lot for the Gulf beach and the lagoon beach is the same.  If you want to go to the Gulf you just head to the south.  If you want to go to the Lagoon you park on the eastern side of the parking lot.  Both beaches have access to bathrooms, changing areas, and the park store.  And of course both beaches have the beautiful sugar sand that Northern Florida is known for. 
The small lagoon was amazing.  We were there around 8:00 am on Saturday morning. and we were some of the only people at the beach.  It was like we'd found our own little paradise. The kids liked that they could swim in the water without being knocked over by the waves.  We saw lots of fish in the water.  My girls even found some pink floating things that looked like jelly fish tops.  They didn't sting us when we held them. I found out later that this is known as Jellyfish Mesoglea.  It's the last part of a dead jelly fish to decompose.
This lagoon was sheltered from the waves of the Gulf by a large rock wall.  My husband took the twins over there to climb on the wall and check it out.
We stayed at the beach for about three hours.  We had so much fun wading in the water all together.  Even my son who is usually pretty hesitant to get in the water was having fun spotting fish.  

Many more people joined us on the beach.  Several people had stand up paddle boards.  I want to learn how to do that some day, and this lagoon would be a perfect place to learn.  

We could have stayed longer at this beach, but we had to be out of our campsite by 1:00.  So we tore ourselves away and went back to our campground to pack everything up and to take showers.  We had reservations for camping at Falling Waters State Park that evening or else we would have gone back to the beach for more swimming.  

Recommendation: St. Andrews State Park is the perfect place to plan a day at the beach.  The beaches are well maintained and so are the buildings and other facilities.  There are many good beaches along the Florida coastline, and St. Andrews is definitely among one of the best.  It certainly is the best beach in Panama City Beach.

Directions: Perhaps the only drawback to St. Andrews State Park is that you have to drive through quite a bit of city traffic to reach it.  However, I promise it is worth the drive.  The most direct way to reach the State Park is to drive on Highway 98.  This will help you avoid the crowded traffic on Front Beach Road.  Turn onto Thomas Drive on the west side of the large bridge that connects Panama City Beach to Panama City.  Thomas Drive goes south and then east to the state park.  There are a few signs along the way to help you know you are going in the right direction. St. Andrews State Park is located at the very eastern end of Thomas Drive.

Additional Information:  Shell Island is a popular destination within St. Andrews State Park. It is located across the channel from the lagoon.  If you want to visit the island you need to either provide your own boat or schedule a charter.  Personally, I didn't want to spend the extra money when the main part of the park had great beaches.  But visiting Shell Island would be nice if you were looking for a secluded beach adventure.

Places Nearby: If you are looking for a place to visit the beach without paying a day use fee you should check out the City and County Piers. The beaches around both piers are free to visit.  Walking on the piers costs $3, fishing from the pier costs $6. Children under 6 are free.

The Russell-Fields City Pier is located at 16201 Front Beach Road. This pier is the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico. You can fish from the pier or just walk along it and look for dolphins and other wild life. There isn't much parking near this pier, but it is located near the Pier Park shopping area so it's easy to park there and then walk to the City Pier. The beach next to the pier is one of the only dog friendly beaches in Panama City Beach.

M.B. Miller County Pier is located at 12213 Front Beach Road. As with the city pier you can fish from the pier or just walk along it and look for dolphins and other wild life. There is a large parking lot adjacent to this pier, as well as a building with bathroom facilities.  This is where my family likes to go when we are just making a quick trip to the beach.

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I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?

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