Camp Helen is celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend. The state park offers a natural beach experience that you can only get in a few places throughout the region.
If you are looking for something to do this weekend, consider driving out to Camp Helen State Park on the far-east end of Walton County.
On Saturday, March 25, the park is celebrating its 20th anniversary and activities are planned to go along with the cake.
Come early and explore birds on the park's nature trails with the Bay County Audubon Society, or take a guided walking history tour, both from 8:30-9:30 a.m.
At 9:30 a.m., learn about Lake Powell through the photojournalism of Emily Ellis and the Lake Powell Community Alliance.
From 10-11:30 a.m. watch a documentary made by Elam Stoltzfus that was aired on public television about the rare coastal dune lakes.
The official celebration with cake will take place at 11:30 a.m. at the lodge.
Then at noon another opportunity to take the walking history tour of the park will be offered.
The camp has a lot of history to celebrate, going back to when the Native Americans roamed.
Middens found on the property testify that the Native Americans were there first, as long as 4,000 years ago. Because of these findings, the camp is designated as an archaeological and historic site.
In the early 1920s the area was developed as a recreation site and included a hotel.
Robert and Margaret Hicks bought the entire parcel in 1928 and built what is now the lodge.
In 1945, an Alabama textile mill known as Avondale Mills bought the property and used it as a privately-owned company resort for its employees. Avondale used it until 1987, and named it Camp Helen for one of its owners' wives.
In 1996, Lynn Cherry was in charge of the environmental program at the then Gulf Coast Community College and they were looking for land to use for an environmental center for their programs.
"I remember reading a letter to the editor in the local paper from a citizen who lived in Inlet Beach who was bemoaning the fact that the parcel was about to be bought by a developer," said Cherry. "I said, 'There is the property for our center."
The writer of that letter was Helen Schroeder.
"When I lived at Inlet Beach, we used to walk and we went onto that property and saw how beautiful it was," Schroeder said. "When someone told me it was for sale and a developer was going to put a Seaside-type development on it, I didn't think it should be developed. I wrote a letter to all the papers and put together a petition."
The Gulf Coast Community College lobbied the state to purchase the property, and it did.
The state of Florida purchased it from Avondale in 1996 through the grassroots effort to save the 183.5 acres from private development and opened it to the public in 1997.
Some of the buildings on the property that were used by the mill employees have been restored to their original rustic beauty. One of the restored buildings is the lodge, where visitors can relax in the rocking chairs looking out over Lake Powell.
The lodge will hold about 100 people and is available to rent for weddings and other events.
The park is bordered by water on three sides -- on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the east and north sides by Lake Powell, which at 867 acres one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida.
The park is open year around for day-use for picnics, beachcombing, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, bird watching, studying nature, hiking, and both freshwater and saltwater fishing. Enjoy a nice stroll down the nature trail, or enjoy a walk on the beach.
The park embraces nature and is sought out by those who enjoy a quieter beach experience. Claire Bannerman, who resides at Watersound Origins, is one of those.
"Sundown in particular from the front porch at the lodge overlooking Lake Powell is very special with the Gulf on your right and the bridge span on your left. You realize the power of water and the movement of people," she said. "We kayak early Saturday mornings under the Inlet Beach bridge, and out to the Gulf when the water is right. It is easy to put in at the boat ramp. It's a place of beauty, history and quiet."
Bannerman keeps a season pass to support the park and enjoy its events. Her granddaughter attends the camp's summer programs.
On the walking tour, you can visit the historic structures including the Hicks house.
Learn about the park's history at the Visitor Center, see photos and memorabilia from the park's past as well as well as wildlife displays.
Some people tell tales about the park being haunted. Cherry said while she has not personally seen any ghosts there, she does believe the people who say they have seen them.
For more information on Camp Helen, visit www.friendsofcamphelen.org.
To learn more about joining the Friends of Camp Helen, pick up an application in the Visitor Center.
Park hours are 8 a.m. until sunset, 365 days a year.