Driving the curving road into T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, there are still remnants of the devastation that Hurricane Michael left on Cape San Blas. Trees are severed in half, construction crews busily work to restore the buildings and access road, and fledgling patches of seagrass are pushing up out of the dunes. I am here to walk with the Turtle Patrol, looking for nests to protect until the babies hatch and make their run for the Gulf. Walking the pristine white sand with the fiery orange sun rising out of the sea, it is hard to reconcile the quiet perfection of this scene with the damage wrought by Hurricane Michael.
Michael’s powerful storm surge completely separated the state park from the rest of the peninsula, pouring in water that connected St. Joseph Bay with the Gulf of Mexico. T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park’s camping area was destroyed, and the nature trails suffered significant damage. Despite the damage, Cape San Blas’ laid-back, lowrise, untouched Old Florida charm was only strengthened by Hurricane Michael. Community members rallied around the restoration efforts.
“Our community is extremely resilient, and all of the businesses reopened quickly after the storm,” said Adrienne Glass of Visit Gulf County. “We even have several newly opened businesses. Although the park is closed for camping, Cape San Blas has a wide array of single family vacation homes available.”
“But, as with life, restoration is a process.”
“Thanks to the incredible efforts of park staff and volunteers, a portion of the park reopened in January 2019 – just three months after Michael made impact,” added Alexandra Kuchta of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “Meanwhile, sand has naturally started to fill in the breach created by the storm, beach and bay access is available, roads have reopened and the park’s concessions have resumed operation.”
Cape San Blas partnered with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation on a restoration project to reconstruct the coastal dunes, and protect them from future damage. Along with all the fresh sand, new sea oats were planted, as well as native dune vegetation.
“The natural communities on the peninsula, such as coastal scrub, have evolved over millions of years and countless storms,” said Kuchta. “The resilient coastal ecosystems in the park are some of the best suited to rebounding after hurricanes.”
As of May 2021, the southern end of the park is open from 8 a.m. until sunset, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is working feverishly to restore camping accommodations, an access road, and additional amenities. The diverse wildlife, shell-rich beaches, and slower pace of Cape San Blas is still very much alive. There are still horseback rides on the beach, hikes on Maritime Hammock Trail, and miles of bike lanes to enjoy. But, as with life, restoration is a process.
“We always welcome volunteers, and anyone wishing to get involved should visit Florida State Parks’ volunteer portal or consider joining the Friends of St. Joseph State Parks, a citizen support organization,” said Kuchta. “The group assists with many park-related projects.”
Hurricane Michael ripped through the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 behemoth, leaving devastation in its wake. Cape San Blas was not spared, but three years later, visitors like Megan O’Toole from Atlanta are still venturing to the sleepy Forgotten Coast town.
“My son and I go to the state park, explore the bay, and go to the beach. It feels safe, and there is so much marine life to see – from whelks to horseshoe crabs,” said O’Toole.
“I like that it is secluded here, kind of untouched, and not commercialized.”
“The beaches are still so beautiful,” said Alex Neville of the Sand Dollar Café in nearby Port St. Joe. “The sun is still setting and rising.”
Cape San Blas is a beautiful place for ecotourism and nature lovers. Happy Ours rents kayaks, paddle boards, bicycles, and offers guided snorkel tours to explore the underwater ecosystem.
Dreaming of a bonfire on the beach, toasting marshmallows, enjoying the sound of evening waves? Going Coastal is a concierge service that sets up beach equipment, cabanas, bonfires, and more for visitors. They also take care of all the cleanup in accordance with Gulf County’s Leave No Trace Ordinance.
Relocated to Port St. Joe, the facility is the epicenter for habitat clean-up, nest monitoring, and restoration projects. Volunteers spend long hours patrolling approximately six miles of Cape San Blas peninsula for nesting loggerhead turtles during turtle nesting season, May 1 through October 31. Visitors and residents are welcome to sign up for a Walkalong Turtle Patrol. It starts at sunrise, and is an unforgettable “voluntourism” experience.
There are three horseback riding outfitters available for bookings. Broke-a-toe Horseback Riding, Rockin’ M Ranch and Two-Bit Stable are all open and offering memorable rides along the coast. The horseback riding is scheduled, and by appointment only but they host quite a few rides each day including sunset and sunrise rides. Rides last about an hour and include photos and a slow leisurely canter along the Gulf of Mexico. Rides depart from Salinas Park Gulfside.