$40 to sleep on the sand? Check out Long Key State Park

If you’ve never slept on a beach, you should add it to your bucket list.

There’s something about the roar of the ocean in the middle of the night that is unforgettable.  I spent the first 23 years of my life within five minutes of the Gulf of Mexico.  I’ve spent every year since within an hour and a half.  I’ve boated, kayaked, fished, swam.  I’ve run on the beach, I’ve snorkeled on reefs, I’ve cruised from island to island in the Caribbean and Central America.

But I’ve never felt the ocean like I did sleeping in a cheap tent on the sand.

Sunset from Long Key

If you’re reading this within four hours of the Florida Keys, here’s what you should do this weekend:

1) Go here and book a campsite at Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys.

2) Put a tent, a kayak, a snorkel set and your fishing gear in the car, and start driving.

3) Forget your responsibilities and go sleep on the beach.  (Unless you have children.  Don’t forget them.)

There’s plenty of great camping in Florida, particularly for those who don’t mind a bit of humidity.  But one of my favorite camping destinations in the state is Long Key State Park.

It’s about half way down the chain of Keys, and it beats the pants off of staying in a pricey hotel on a bigger island like Islamorada or Key West.

Long Key map

Prime real estate, for only $40 a night. Thanks to Google Earth for the screen grab.

The late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg used to tell a joke about beavers.  The joke isn’t important, but the punchline – that beavers houses aren’t lakeside, they’re lake-on – has always stuck with me.  Partly because I always thought (and still do) that beavers lived on rivers, not lakes, and but mostly because it summed up how I think about camping at Long Key.

It’s not beachfront, it’s beach-on.

The campsites at this park (50 or so total, some for tents and others for RVs) are on the sand, and at high tide, water laps up to within feet of the campsites.  Looking out the tent, there was nothing but ocean and 10 feet of sand between me and Cuba.  That’s pretty cool.

No frills camping. I would have slept in the kayak, to be honest.

Each campsite has a full hookup (water and electric), and the on-site restrooms and showers are clean, well-lit and, as campground bathrooms go, fairly pleasant.

And, better still, the campsites are very inexpensive.  Depending on the season, you’ll be paying between $20 and $40 for the night.  Compare that to a hotel in Key West, and you’ve got a lot of leftover money to spend on tacky Florida T-shirts.

The campsites, despite the Overseas Highway passing nearby, are remarkably quiet at night.  There’s not many people “just passing through,” miles and miles from mainland Florida at night.  But on a breezy night, the roar of the ocean is overpowering.  I think it has something to do with the total darkness, and something to do with the lack of competing noises and a lot to do with how close I was sleeping to the water, but it all my years, I had never realized just how loud the ocean is.

There park staff does their best to give the park some other draws.  There’s a few short (less than an hour) hiking trails, and a few short canoe trails (also less than an hour).  But really, if you’re staying in Long Key, you’re there for the water.

Walkway to the water, then nothing but blue.

Kayaks and canoes can be launched right from each campsite.  We stayed at the park for a weekend, and were almost always on the water.  From our campsite, we could paddle around the island and into the shallow lagoons.  We had some success fishing the flats near the park – no bonefish, though.  A fellow angler reeled in a 3-foot bonnet head shark from the shore, just a few sites down from ours.

There are also kayak launches on every island in the Florida Keys.  Many of them are right off the highway.  We dropped the kayak at several other launches on nearby island, cruised around, fished the grass flats and got terrible sunburns.

At night, we fished this pier just north of Long Key.  It’s a bridge-turned-fishing-pier, and it extends about halfway between two islands.  From the end of the pier (about 1/4 mile), you can see huge tarpon and manta rays swimming through the channel.  I watched a manta ray bigger than my car jump from the water and splash back down with a boom.  I could almost hear David Attenborough talking in my head.  It was a lot of fun fishing the pier at night, although our catches got uglier and uglier as the evening went on.  And our always-low-on-batteries lantern didn’t help the cause.

The fishing pier (left) near Long Key. Great views of tarpon and rays, and of course, good fishing.

But the most memorable part of the weekend, without question, was sleeping on the sand and listening to the waves.

If you have a kid and haven’t taken him/her camping, go do it.  If you haven’t been camping in a while, go do it.  If you’ve never slept on the beach, go do it.

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Comments

  1. Sounds splendid,… now to go find a tent.

  2. I’m definitely keeping this spot in mind for my next camping trip!
    I once went camping in my undergrad in Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park on the white sand beach. They have trailer hook-ups and primitive camping. Being in college, we definitely went primitive. Nice place.

  3. For camping florida is a nice place. This place is really nice its Cristal clear water boating, fishing really enjoyable.

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