There is a full moon hanging in a cloudless sky, and it scatters diamond flashes across the surface of the salt run.
A relentless wind sends rows of white surf exploding onto the beach. But beneath the tree canopy – long ago sculpted by the elements into a natural windfoil – a lively fire in an iron ring barely yields to that offshore force of nature.
Across the inlet a long, tall bridge is aglow from stem to stern. And nearer still the old lighthouse continues to beam welcome home signals to nautical wanderers.
On this enchanted night I am reminded of the sheer wonder in the eyes of my children on a similar evening, some two decades past, when we ventured out onto this dark beach and discovered they could create swirls of phosphorous light simply by running their small fingers across the wet sand.
At this magical Florida place of light and shadow and surf.
It’s not just that Anastasia State Park is my favorite place in all of Florida to camp. It’s my favorite campground period. My family has been coming here for more than 30 years. My children grew up here – whooping along its rabbit warren of wooded trails like little savages, exploring amid the dunes, splashing in the surf and sleeping under weather-gnarled trees all a-draped with Spanish moss.
Indeed, spring break camping at Anastasia was an annual event from the time Jenny and Andrew could toddle until well into their teens. Usually it was a dads and kids only affair that eventually came to involve multiple families. We dads had two hard and fast rules: 1. You had to come back with as many kids as you left with and, 2. Extra points if they were the same kids. They played hard into the night and awoke in the morning to the smell of bacon frying. Bleary eyed, they’d stagger out of their tents, one after another, to snag rashers right off the grill.
I don’t care if you’ve been to St. Augustine a thousand times. If you haven’t been to Anastasia you really don’t know the allure of America’s Oldest City. This is where the Tumucuans, to their ultimate misfortune, encountered the Spanish. It is here that laborers quarried the coquina that fashioned the massive fortress Castillo de San Marcos just across the water.
Anastasia State Park is 1,600 acres of woods and estuary and sand. It is four miles of open beach, off limits to cars thank you very much. It is a long narrow salt run – a warm, shallow lagoon protected from the ocean by a dune barrier – home to an impressive variety of shore birds and popular with wind surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and fishers. It is 139 campsites – some large enough to accommodate RVs – strewn among tree thickets and sited so close to the ocean that you go to sleep and wake up again to the sound of the surf. It is home to the endangered Anastasia Beach Mouse and bands of four-legged night scavengers that will steal you blind if you don’t lock your food away.
And maybe the best thing about Anastasia is its proximity to so much that St. Augustine has to offer. Just outside the main entrance is the old Anastasia Lighthouse. Climb its 219 steps and you will be 165 feet above sea level with 360 degree views to die for. Right across the street is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm – not just another Florida roadside attraction and not nearly as tacky as it might sound. It’s quite fascinating, really.
If you decide to go see Steely Dan or Jackson Browne or another favorite band from your youth at the St. Augustine Amphitheater you can’t pick a more convenient place to spend the night – the park is right next door and has a path that gives campers direct access to the show.
From Anastasia it is a 15-minute bike ride to the Bridge of Lions and all that Old Town has to offer. A 20 minute ride through a back exit gate will get you to the restaurants and attractions on St. Augustine Beach. If you are feeling ambitious continue pedaling south and you will sooner or later arrive at Fort Matanzas National Monument, Marineland and Washington Oaks State Park. Or head north through the city and over the Vilano Bridge to get to Caps on the Water, Guana River Nature Preserve and Ponte Vedra Beach. If you are too hungry to wait that long, there are several great restaurants closer to the park, including the Gypsy Cab Co., Mellow Mushroom, O’Steens and The Conch House.
But here’s the thing about Anastasia State Park. Once you actually arrive and set up your tent, the temptation to stay – to not go anywhere – is enticing. You can lose yourself and all track of time amid the dunes and under the trees and by the fire and on the trails and along the beach and in the surf and the salt run.
If you value sense of place, Anastasia is one of those special Florida places that lures you in and only reluctantly lets you go.
(I originally wrote this for publication in Gainesville Magazine in 2016.)