Pitch a Tent in South Florida

1. Where to Stay

Jonathan Dickinson State ParkPhoto: Courtesy of Florida Division of Recreation and Parks

Get reacquainted with the camping life at the John Prince Park Campground, a 726-acre park with 50 tent sites (from $24.53) in Lake Worth, just south of the Palm Beaches. Request a lakefront site between Nos. 46 and 68, close to all the necessities: restrooms, petanque courts, horseshoe pits, and abundant freshwater fish (buy a Florida fishing license here ).

Farther north in Hobe Sound, reserve a tidy campsite or one of twelve furnished cabins (from $85; linens and towels not provided) at Jonathan Dickinson State Park near the Loxahatchee River. The cabins have private picnic tables and fire pits for cookouts (ask for No. 6 or 7 if you want a porch) and tack on such creature comforts as A/C, beds, couches, and kitchens.

If you can’t make a clean break from civilization, book a poolside cottage at Tropical Gardens (from $145), an ecofriendly B&B in West Palm Beach’s historic district. Borrow one of the owners’ bikes to hit the sands in Palm Beach, or ask for directions to the semi-hidden Lake Trail, a peaceful path that runs north along the Intracoastal Waterway.

2. Where to Eat

Little Moir's Food ShackPhoto: Courtesy of Little Moir's Food Shack

Trade the fire pit for an alfresco table at Spoto’s Oyster Bar, a block from the lake in West Palm Beach. The sports-bar vibe means campers don’t need to get dressed up (though they might want to shower) before tossing back oyster shooters, a Tabasco-enhanced bivalve served in a shot glass. For dessert, walk around the corner to the dizzily colorful Sloan’s ice-cream shop.

You may have to drive circles around strip-mall sprawl to find it, but Little Moir’s Food Shack, a short hop from Jonathan Dickinson State Park, is worth getting lost for. The interior’s covered in surfboards, bamboo, and life preservers, and reggae’s nearly always on the stereo. Pair the fried fish of the day with a local beer off the shack’s rotating list.

In downtown Lake Worth, the two-story Bizaare Avenue Café, a former thrift shop, is part stylish bistro and part garage sale. Bring extra cash: Nearly everything in the twenties-era house, from new lighting fixtures to used loveseats to freshly baked “pizaares” (pizzalike focaccia bread), is for sale.

3. What to Do

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge Photo: Courtesy of Scott B. Rosen

One of the Gold Coast’s most exotic natural areas isn’t natural at all. Just behind the Palm Beach County Water Utilities building in Delray Beach, you’ll find the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a man-made sanctuary (actually a reservoir of treated wastewater) that’s been retaken by alligators, turtles, frogs, and more than 140 species of birds—great blue herons, egrets, anhingas, sandpipers, ospreys, wood storks, you name it. Bring binoculars for critter-spotting and stroll the free, three-quarter-mile boardwalk.

A short drive west in Boynton Beach, you’ll find similar creatures in a more dramatic setting at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, a northern extension of the Everglades. Circle the tranquil Cypress Swamp path, then go gator-spotting along the grassy Marsh Trail. Needless to say, hikers should keep their distance.

For a change of landscape, paddle the lush, tea-colored Loxahatchee River (the best access point is within Jonathan Dickinson State Park). Rent a kayak or canoe ($14 to $20 for two hours) from the park’s concession store, or if you’re feeling lazy, hire a motor boat ($50 for two hours; high tide only). The brackish upper river travels beneath centuries-old cypress trees, while the saltier lower section is lined with mangroves. Venture out in the early morning to increase your odds of seeing wildlife.

4. Insider’s Tip

Deerfield Island ParkPhoto: Courtesy of Broward County Parks and Recreation Division

Catch the free ferry (service on Sundays and Wednesdays only) to Deerfield Island Park, where you can enjoy 56 acres of blissfully undeveloped Gold Coast land. Besides in-the-know locals (who quickly lay claim to the ten or so grills for Sunday barbecuing), you’ll share the preserve with resident armadillos, sea birds, gray foxes, and the threatened gopher tortoise. Stop for picnic provisions at the Publix (4703 N. Ocean Dr.) in nearby Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, or swing by Pa’ DeGennaro’s Gourmet Deli for to-go sandwiches.

5. An Oddball Day

Dania Jai-AlaiPhoto: Courtesy of Alex J. O'nan

Pack up your camping gear and detour to Dania, just south of Fort Lauderdale, to place some bets at Dania Jai-Alai, the second-oldest jai-alai court in the U.S. (only Miami’s is older). Drop in for a weekend afternoon match, grab a beer from the downstairs bar, and put a $2 wager on your new favorite player. After walking off your buzz along the hardwood forest trail at nearby John U. Lloyd Beach State Park, catch the sunset about twenty miles north at Cap’s Place, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy located on an island in Lighthouse Point, north of Pompano Beach. Take the free boat (runs continuously from 5:30 p.m.) across the lake and head straight for the thirties bar, constructed of Everglades bamboo and wood scavenged from the decks of ships.

6. Related Links

Search the database of the official Florida State Parks site to learn about camping amenities and special events.

If you want to explore other nearby campgrounds, check out the comprehensive listings at Florida Camping.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Website is a good source of local news, entertainment, and dining content.

Pitch a Tent in South Florida