Path provides scenic views and bike path along Lake Powell
By Don Schroeder
Friends of Camp Helen State Park
The cooperation between the State of Florida and the local community that gave birth to Camp Helen State Park more than a dozen years ago remains alive and well! This same working partnership was on display March 30 in the dedication and opening of an environmentally friendly tramway and hiking path under the Lake Powell U.S. 98 Highway bridge opening up the 55-acre portion of the park north of the highway.
Camp Helen State Park is at the west end of Bay County right up against the Walton County line, and runs from the Gulf of Mexico up to Lake Powell, one of the world’s largest dune lakes.
Gulf Coast Community College, Panama City, which led the way in convincing the State of Florida to save the 183-acre plot for a park, also secured a federal grant of nearly $1 million to build the tramway. The college hopes to use the park for environmental study and to continue partnership with the park.
The new tramway reaches out with friendliness to the physically handicapped as well as to the environment. The pathway’s wide hard surface and gentle incline is not only designed for trams (which may provide service at a later date) but is tailor-made for wheel-chair users. Concrete used for the tramway base is the kind that sucks up water just like sand, so there’s no runoff to cause erosion.
Late-morning bicyclers, runners and hikers wound their way through the crowd of dignitaries and onlookers during the speech making and ribbon cutting. There was plenty of room for all comers at the Lake Powell overlook where the festivities took place.
Jim Kerley, Gulf Coast Community College President, spoke with justifiable pride about the new path not only because it opens up the northern park acreage to the exploration of visitors but also because following the decision to build it was finished in just eight months. This ramped up effort was necessary to avoid losing the federal grant.
Lew Scruggs led planning of the tramway for Florida State Parks. He told those in attendance that the park site was home to human kind for some 400,000 years. Initial road excavation on the nearby 98 right-of-way uncovered evidences of early man. Later studies showed that the Camp Helen property was a long-time dwelling place for American Indians, as well.
The park spans the area between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell. This makes for a good park location. Of course the site was ideal for Indians, too, because it offered nearby fishing of both freshwater and saltwater fish as well as shellfish. A large area near the beach is a favored nesting spot for large migratory birds, which also provided food for Indians. And within the small Camp Helen State Park you’ll find many types of vegetation. College botanists have named beach dunes, maritime hammock, sand pine and scrub oak, mesic flatwoods, tidal marsh and depressional marsh.
“The amazing thing is that this large property, which now is preserved as a park, remained in one piece for nearly one hundred years despite its attraction as a site for a resort or condo development,” said Helen Schroeder, Friends of Camp Helen President.