Dune lakes are rare ecological gems that occur only in a few places in the world. You can find them in Madagascar, New Zealand, Oregon and in the Florida Panhandle, just west of Panama City Beach. At 800 acres, Lake Powell is one of the largest dune lakes in North America.
The lake is located in Camp Helen State Park, a unique place that’s home to diverse wildlife, five distinct natural communities, pristine beaches and prehistoric middens. Lake Powell is the star of the park. The water is very shallow and brackish. After heavy rains, the narrow “outfall” that separates the lake from the Gulf of Mexico breaks. This allows saltwater and sea life to infiltrate the lake. At some point, the outfall closes, cutting off the lake from the Gulf.
People like to paddleboard, kayak or canoe on the lake. The water is brown, but it’s clean. Minerals and tannins from leaves give the lake its brown hue. If getting on the water isn’t your thing, hiking and biking trails encircle the lake. You’re sure to see plenty of birds, plants and maybe even some larger animals. Pick up a brochure in the visitors’ center that details the native plants that you’ll encounter, including prickly pear and saw palmetto.
Camp Helen State Park has more to offer than Lake Powell. The area was once a family’s private summer retreat before it was purchased by an Alabama textile mill whose employees used it as a recreation area. It’s been a state park since 1997. The nine buildings at the park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lodge includes log beams imported from South America and granite taken from Spanish ship ballasts. The lodge itself is somewhat unique, having a basement and indoor balcony.
The park collects a $4 fee per car to enter the park, but it’s done on the honor system. Watercraft rentals are available at very affordable rates. However, there’s no lifeguard, so take care if you get in the water. Keep in mind this is a natural area and home to several potentially dangerous animals like rattlesnakes, water moccasins, bears and alligators. Just keep your eyes opened, and you’ll be fine.
– If you’re planning to go to the beach via Camp Helen State Park, plan for a long, hot walk. It’s nearly a mile in the sand, and there’s no shade. Young kids probably won’t do great, and it’ll be hard to lug beach gear that far in the sand. But the beach is much quieter than other places along 30A, so it’s worth the trek if you’re seeking solitude.
– The rangers at Camp Helen occasionally offer “moonlight paddles.” For a fee, you can rent watercraft and experience a two-hour interpretive tours under the light of a full moon. The excursions are only for people 12 and older.
– There are barbecue grills and picnic tables, but no alcohol is allowed in the park.