I’ve lived in Florida my whole life. I’ve watched dirt roads become paved roads, cow fields become subdivisions, and tiny unknown campgrounds become packed tourist attractions. The campground trend isn’t unique to Florida. A record 58 million American households went camping in 2022, according to a survey by KOA. That number has been steadily climbing every year since the start of COVID. Campgrounds are packed. In Florida, many state park campgrounds are fully booked within minutes of opening for reservations. That’s always been the case for a few popular snowbird spots, but now even the inland campsites can be difficult to secure on a whim. It’s becoming nearly impossible to take what I call “campcations” here in Florida.
The Florida State Park system is built for families. Campgrounds usually include restrooms with hot showers, ranger-led activities, and clean tent pads or RV sites. There are daytime places to explore like spring-fed swimming holes, shady hiking trails, or history museums. For this reason, the state parks are always my number one recommendation for new campers, especially those with small children. But the growing popularity of camping makes it increasingly difficult for local families to enjoy sleeping under the stars.
3 Necessary Traits for Booking Campsites at Florida State Parks
- Persistence: logging on multiple times every day looking for cancelations
- Speed: Have your cursor hovering over the “book now” button the second a campground opens for your desired date.
- Flexibility: You’ll have better luck if you don’t limit yourself to a particular campground, activity, or date.
This system doesn’t work well for local families wanting to get out of the house on a rare unbusy weekend. I can’t plan my weekends a year in advance. I’m lucky if I can plan my weekday in advance, to be honest! Fortunately, there are other options. While they may not have all of the amenities of the State Parks and may take a bit more planning on your part, these can be great camping destinations for Florida families.
4 Secrets to Finding Family-Friendly Campsites in Florida
Hipcamp is a website that allows you to search for unique campsites. All you have to do is enter your dates and camping style to find a spot best suited to your family’s needs. It could be glamping in a covered wagon, a farm stay with miniature ponies, or a simple plot of dirt near a popular swimming hole. Many of the campsites are on privately-owned land and not in a proper campground. Be sure to read reviews from recent visitors and check the amenities offered before booking. Some HipCamps do not have restroom facilities or running water/power.
- National & State Forests/ WMA Land
We have several National and State Forests in Florida and almost all of them offer some kind of camping opportunities. These campgrounds tend to be more rustic than state park campgrounds and sometimes only offer bare-bones amenities. There are some hidden gems, like Juniper Springs in the Ocala National Forest and the Silver Lake Campground in Withlacoochee State Forest. But even these previously unknown campgrounds are now fully booked most weekends, so you’ll want to stick with that “flexibility” trait outlined above if you want to camp there. National Forests and Water Management Areas (WMA) also allow free camping and backcountry camping, but I only recommend this for experienced campers who understand their family’s limitations and wilderness comfort levels. You also need to be aware of hunting seasons and safety warnings.
- County Parks
County-run campgrounds are a great family-friendly option. They often offer similar amenities to state parks, but like the state parks, the good ones also fill up fast. In Orange County, Moss Park has a lovely campground with a playground, volleyball courts, and hiking trails. Trimble Park offers a lovely campground with nice, shaded campsites. Checking surrounding counties in the area you want to camp to see what kinds of campgrounds are available is time-consuming, but there’s often a big payoff!
This option is only available for RVers. It is a giant network of farms, breweries, wineries, and museums that offer free overnight parking for RVs in exchange for visiting their establishments. There are a lot of limitations to this (ie: you cannot cook outside your RV, you must be fully contained with a restroom inside your vehicle, and cannot set up tables outside), but it is still a lot of fun if you’re looking for a unique experience. This is less about camping and more about the experiences at the destination. They’re designed to be overnight parking spots and are not campgrounds. A HarvestHosts membership costs about $100/year.
State Parks are still the best option in Florida. The lack of last-minute campsite availability has really put a damper on my family’s favorite pastime these last couple of years. That’s why I started looking for these alternative options. They’ve allowed us to continue to make lasting family memories and I hope they’ll help you create your own fun “campcations” and experiences too.