When we planned out this trip back through the Gulf we made reservations at a bunch of places we knew we wanted to go but wouldn’t be able to just show up and find anywhere to camp. In between those places though we left a month to wander around and see what we found. The first stop in our wander was a free campground on East Bay, which is part of Pensacola Bay.
I’ve seen more than a few full time RVers complaining on the internet that there’s no free camping in Florida or the Gulf Coast in general. I can’t decide if I should correct this ignorance or not. I’m going to take the middle ground and say there’s plenty of free camping all along the Gulf Coast you, but you do have to know where to look. We’ve found great free camping in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. It’s harder to find, that’s true, but it’s definitely there. And while I’m on the subject, the whole free camping thing is not, at least for us, really about being free. That is nice, but what free camping almost always means is fewer people and wilder places, which is the main appeal for us.
The place we stayed on the shore of East Bay is a small campground at the end of a dusty dirt road made of dried Florida red clay. The rains turned it to mud, but not so bad we couldn’t get in and out. Follow the road long enough through the pine flats, bayous and marshes and you’ll find a little campground on the bay. There’s only 12 sites and a crazy online reservation system that ensure most of them will be unoccupied at any given time (despite being “full” if you look online)1. We stayed a total of 10 nights there in two separate trips and never saw the place full. .
So there is free camping in Florida, plenty of it in fact, you just have to find it. That said, this place is probably somewhat unique. It’s a little slice of wild Florida that doesn’t seem like it’s changed much since the Choctaw were living here a few hundred years ago.
It was nice to get back to something a little wilder. I love the south, and it does have some very wild spots, but they’re fewer and further between than the west. East Bay felt wilder than any place we’d been in a long time, probably since Rutherford Beach.
We first visited the area a week earlier on our way to Fort Pickens. The day we arrived they were doing a controlled burn in the pine flats (our neighbor told me there’s a pine around here that only germinates with fire, which could be the reason). The air was filled with smoke and ash rained down on us all afternoon which made the place feel even wilder. That night we had a campfire, but real fire was beyond our camp in the woods. For the most part it was a steady red glow through the trees, but occasionally a dead palm would suddenly bursting into flame with a great crashing roar.
When we came back there were no nearby fires. The first couple days we were there it rained off and on most of the day. The cloud cover never broke. Then one afternoon the sun finally came out and the whole campground turned out. I heard the squeak of Vanagon doors and the zipper of tents being thrown open and pretty soon folding chairs were pulled out to the shoreline, shirts came off and we all sort of sat in silence and enjoyed the sunshine. We do this sort of thing all the time — just sit and do nothing — so I think nothing of it until we get to a campground where people are always off seeing the sights, fishing, doing stuff and all the sudden I feel conspicuous in my doing nothingness. I knew I had found my people when I noticed that everyone here was just sitting, doing nothing, staring out at the sea. There was something about the place that seemed to inspire you to just sit and think. Perhaps it was the droop of the Spanish Moss, or the glaring Florida sun, or the dead oaks along the shore, limbs reaching out like gnarled fingers clawing at the sky. Whatever the case, it was an excellent place to simply sit and feel the warmth of the sun. Or have a water fight.
You had to snatch that sun though. The rain was off and on all week. Mornings started off looking like rain, but by 10 it’d be sunny, which would last until around 2PM, at which point clouds would roll in, the wind would kick up and it would feel like a squall was coming, but then nothing ever made it all the way across the bay and by sundown it was clear enough to watch the sunset.
A couple of mornings a strange warm fog covered the bay, just before dawn the world looked flat and blurred, sea and sky become one and suffused with a blue glow.
The gloom burned off quickly once the sun was up and the last few days we were there the weather was perfect, even if the fish weren’t biting.
While we were there the online system was changed a bit and now you’re supposed to call when you arrive or you forfeit your reservations and the site is available to walk ups. This seemed to be only about half implemented and unevenly enforced, but they’re trying anyway. ↩