In Florida, private campgrounds are largely the domain of RVers. Many of these facilities on or near the Gulf Coast are RV-only resorts where tent campers aren't allowed. Some private campgrounds may allow tents, but you'll likely be setting up camp in the shadow of a big rig. Experienced campers have learned that the best tent camping spots along the Gulf Coast are in public park lands -- federal, state and in one rare case, a county park. Bypass the barrage of 50-foot-long motor homes with satellite dishes and head to bucolic, peaceful spots where you won't be distracted by the constant humming of generators and fumes wafting by from too many air-conditioned RVs.
Florida's state parks contain clean, well-managed, full-facility campgrounds where tent campers won't feel muscled out by RVs. A few on the Panhandle of the Gulf Coast have beaches that have been rated as "America's Best Beach" by environmental coastal sciences professor Stephen P. Leatherman -- aka "Dr. Beach" -- in his annual survey: Grayton Beach, St. Andrews and St. Joseph Peninsula. The camping areas at these state parks are next to the beach or within easy walking distance. These campgrounds are also recommended by outdoors author Johnny Molloy in his book "The Best in Tent Camping Florida," appropriately subtitled "A Guide for Car Campers Who Hate RVs, Concrete Slabs and Loud Portable Stereos."
A National Treasure
Everglades National Park is part of Florida's Gulf Coast, but it seems like a world unto itself. You won't find beaches here. For the active set there's more than enough outdoorsy activity to choose from. Pitch your tent at the Long Pine Key or Flamingo campgrounds for the night. You could also do some real-deal backcountry camping, a rarity in South Florida. A permit is required for the backcountry camping areas of the Everglades, which are only reachable via a long paddling or hiking trek. This type of camping shouldn't be attempted by novices. The national park was declared one of "The 26 Best Places to Pitch a Tent in the U.S." by Greatist and was the only Florida camping spot to make the health and fitness website's list.
A Noteworthy County Park
Not many county parks make state-wide or national "best" lists, especially for camping, but Fort De Soto Park is a rare exception. This municipal park sits on a group of islands connected by bridges and causeways to St. Petersburg. It has won "Dr. Beach's" best beach award, and the campground has received numerous accolades, including being named one of "the top 10 beach camping spots in Florida" by the Tampa Bay Times. The campground is on par with the best of Florida state park campgrounds, containing full hookups at the campsites and a bathhouse. A primitive camping area is also available. A big plus is the dog-friendly beach area, where your favorite canine camping companion is allowed to frolic off-leash.
A Faraway and Special Place
If it's seclusion you want, head to the most remote place in Florida: Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, due west from Key West. This is as far away as you can get from the mainland and still say you're in Florida and on the Gulf of Mexico. The camping area here is primitive, as it should be in such a remote locale, shaded by palm trees next to a small beach adjacent to a historic 19th-century fort that has been slowly sinking into the sea since it was built. After the ferry leaves for Key West with the day trippers, you and possibly a few other campers will have the island of Garden Key all to yourselves. Veteran Florida outdoors journalist Bob Roundtree has called the tent camping experience at Dry Tortugas, "wilderness camping at its best."
- Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images