My very first backpacking trip was to Cape San Blas State Park, also known as the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
It all started when my dear friend Jimmy, who I barely knew at the time, posted on Facebook that he would be driving out to the park one weekend and had room in his car for anyone who wanted to go. Looking back I’m surprised I had the courage to reach out to him since I had zero backpacking experience, absolutely no gear of my own, and hardly any camping experience. Yet despite all that, I found myself crammed between two other girls in the backseat of Jimmy’s car as we drove along the coast of Florida.
When we got to the parking lot I had no idea what to expect. After we wandered into the tiny visitor center and paid the $5 camping fee, I hauled the bulky backpack that I had rented from FSU’s campus recreation program out of the trunk of Jim’s car and hoisted it onto my back.
The trail system along the peninsula is 14 miles long with 7 primitive campsites scattered throughout. We made plans to camp at campsite 6 which meant we had to hike for some time before we reached our destination. I had gone hiking before at the various state parks in central Florida but was ill-prepared for what awaited me on the trail at Cape San Blas. The ground was made up of pale white sand that made walking a chore; with the heavy load of a poorly-packed bag on my back I sunk into the sand with each step.
Despite the difficulty, the trail was absolutely gorgeous. We went in November, so the trees on either side of the trail were brilliant shades of red and orange. After hiking for a while we sat down and took a break to eat and pee in the woods, a concept I was still getting the hang of. Before we started along the trail again, Parker taught me how to shimmy into the heavy backpack and adjust it so the weight wasn’t all on my back.
The first major section of our hike took place under the canopy of those radiant pine trees. Birds swooped through the air overhead while smaller animals rustled the grasses on either side of the trail. Having never backpacked before, I started to get comfortable with the weight of my pack against my hips and learned how to adjust my balance in order to compensate for the added height. As soon as I adjusted to the trail it changed entirely.
Over time the pine trees thinned out and the trail was surrounded by rolling sand dunes. The memory of when we first saw the dunes is still vivid in my mind; we eagerly deserted our backpacks and ran up the dunes with the enthusiasm of children. Jimmy and Parker slid down the mountains of sand while the other girls and I ran around in circles. By now the sun was beginning its slow descent into the gulf and the sky was alight with pinks and purples and blues. We climbed to the top of a dune and then ran down to where the gulf crashed along the shore.
To this day, this is still one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Wind gusted in from the Gulf of Mexico and tore at our sweaty faces and tangled hair. Sea oats swayed against the powerful force and waves thundered in from afar. The sky gradually transformed from the orange and blues present in the cover photo to the rich purple found in the picture below. I could have easily spent hours in that spot, lost in the natural world.
We finally were able to tear ourselves away from the beach and wander back to where our backpacks lay deserted on the trail. Luckily the campsite was only a short walk away from where we were, and we reached it just as the sun was kissing the water.
At the time of this trip I didn’t own a tent, so I dug my eno out of my pack and strung it up between two trees. My hammock was just a few feet away from the shore so I feel asleep with the sound of the ocean ringing in my ears.
The next morning we got up and prepared for the hike back. Instead of following the trail we decided to go back to the dunes we saw the night before and hike along the coast until we reached the visitor center. It was a relief to take off my shoes and wade in the cool water, and the sand by the coast was damp which made it easier to walk on than the loose sand on the main trail. We stopped for a rest and ate snacks while we gazed at the water.
After what felt like an eternity on that endless stretch of coastline we made it back to the parking lot and collapsed into Jimmy’s car. As Cape San Blas faded away in the rearview mirror I vowed that I would return before I left Florida. I closed my eyes and drifted off during the car ride home and dreamt about the sand dunes and the seagulls.
During Hurricane Michael, Cape San Blas suffered some substantial damage; the peninsula was severed by the force of the storm and the roads leading to the park were chewed up by the waves. For more information about the status of the park check out this page from the Florida State Parks website. The park didn’t reopen for day use until January of 2019 and they still have a long way to go until it fully recovers.
But when it does, I’ll be there; sunk into the sand and staring out at the sea.
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