Florida campground

Florida campgrounds are packed–here are 5 secret ones to book right now

Terry Ward
Published: February 28, 2022

Florida campgrounds, you could say, are booming. If you’ve tried to book a camp site at one recently–not to mention snag an oceanfront hotel room anyplace across the state this winter and spring–you might have noticed they’re about as hot of a commodity as a cafecito at Little Havana’s Versailles (which is to say, literally flying off the shelf).

I’ve been trying to land my own little scenic pied a terre to open up a tent for my family at gorgeous Fort De Soto Park, in our backyard here in Tampa (and one of the best Florida campgrounds for beachy camping), for weeks now. With no luck. The state is just so beyond busy this winter. I’ve never seen it quite so popular. 

So it got me thinking about secret Florida campgrounds that might have more availability for tent and RV camping during this loveliest season of the year–when the mornings break cool and misty, then warm right up before I’ve even poured my second cup of coffee.

I tapped friends who know their way around a Florida campground, mined my mind for my favorite spots to escape and turned to a few tourism pros, too, for the below unexpected spots for campong if you, too, have been coming up short on options.

Read on for some of the best secret Florida campgrounds that are more likely to have available sites when all the more popular places (Bahia Honda State Park, we’re looking at you) are full. 

Westgate River Ranch, River Ranch 

Conestoga wagon cabins for rent at Westgate River Ranch in Lakes Wales, Florida, which also has tent and RV sites.

Many people don’t know that Florida is a big time ranching state–not to mention that you can have a proper ranch vacation here at the super scenic Westgate River Ranch Resort, located roughly in the middle of the state, less than 1.5 hours south of Orlando’s theme parks.

In addition to glamping in luxury teepees and staying in the fun Conestoga wagons fronting a little lagoon rippling with alligators here, you can also settle in for RV and old-fashioned tent camping at sites shaded by oak trees and rustling with the sounds of the breeze through the palms.

The ranch has a ton of onsite activities, including a weekly Friday rodeo (Florida’s oldest), airboat rides, trail rides on horseback, an archery range, mechanical bull and lots more. Bring your bikes along or rent one of the house golf carts to get around, as the ranch’s gorgeous grounds cover a lot of terrain.

Sertoma Youth Ranch, Brooksville

RV sites, tent sites and primitive camping sites are among the many options for camping at Sertoma Youth Ranch in Brooksville (photo courtesy of Sertoma Youth Ranch)

Friends in St. Pete and Tampa rave about this youth camp just an hour’s drive north of the bay area, in Brooksville. Among the 225 sites at Sertoma Youth Ranch, you can usually find availability at this tucked away Florida campground, even on a weekend night (unless there’s an event going on, like the Soggy Bottom Bluegrass musical gathering that meets here once a month). 

You can choose from sites with full electric and water and hookup or the wilderness ones “beside a creek that runs down to a lake.” As usual, remember that fresh water in Florida means gator country. So be safe–and have fun!

O’Leno State Park, High Springs  

A suspension bridge over the Santa Fe River at O’Leno State Park in North Central Florida (image courtesy of O’Leno State Park and River Rise Preserve)

During my days at the University of Florida, my friends and I made it our goals to escape our ramshackle student apartments for time spent at as many Florida campgrounds as possible. As a result, I spent many a winter’s night around the campfire with my hippy entourage at O’Leno State Park, less than 45 minutes northwest of Gainesville, doing some admittedly questionable activities we considered recreation while basking in North Florida’s beautiful natural world.

We’d walk across the suspension bridge over the Santa Fe River after dark and shine flashlights at the glowing red eyes of alligators and stay up all night clinking beer cans and waiting for the moonrise. I’d be a little more careful if I visited the wild river edges after dark now, but the campground remains one of my fondest Florida camping memories. And it’s less known than more popular spots in the region around the famous freshwater springs.

All 60 family campsites here, spread between two park loops, have water and electric hookups as well as in-ground fire rings and grills, and there are primitive backpack camping sites nearby, too, that you can hike in to at Sweetwater Lake. 

Hillsborough River State Park, Thonotosassa

Campers enjoying views of the Hillsborough River at Hillsborough River State Park, with 112 camp sites just north of Tampa.

Class II rapids along the Hillsborough River less than 30 minutes north of downtown Tampa? Pretty surprising, but that’s what awaits at this sweet little Florida campground. Hillsborough River State Park blew me away on my first visit, with seven miles of hiking trails through the woods to explore and riverside fishing holes. The park has 112 camping sites, all with full hookups, and it’s pet-friendly, too, so you bring along your dog(s). The best part? If you just want to camp and not cook, Tampa’s great dining scene (or just a casual Cuban sandwich) is just a short drive away.

Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey Lodge, Lake Wales 

Along the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in Lake Wales, Camp Mack hosts regular music festivals and is a hot spot for bass fishing (photo courtesy of Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey Lodge)

Here’s another Florida campground you might not have considered in the great search for a Florida campground with last-minute availability. You’ve got access to three lakes in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes–including Lake Kissimmee, Lake Hatchineha and Lake Cyprus–when you stay at Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey Lodge, located 45 miles from Orlando (and 80 miles east of Tampa) in the interior town of Lake Wales. In addition to camping, people come for the world-class bass fishing on the lakes (you can head out on guided trips with the onsite pros) and airboat tours.

A few tips for booking last-minute camp sites Florida campgrounds  

  • Keep refreshing the campground’s website on repeat a few days before you plan to go, if you still haven’t found a spot. Last-minute spots regularly open up as people change plans and cancel within the refund window.
  • Call your favorite Florida campground and ask if any campsites have opened up last minute–it happens.
  • In addition to Florida’s amazing campgrounds at state parks, search for youth ranches and county parks across the state that offer camp site, too. Websites like ReserveAmerica can help you cast a wider net.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, consider hike-in and boat-access-only campgrounds, too, which often have much more availability since they’re harder to reach. A few great ones that come to mind include Caladesi Island State Park on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Blackwater River State Forest in Northwest Florida.
  • Book as early as possible. This is an obvious one, but especially for a beachfront site at a more popular Florida campground during the simply divine months of winter and spring, you’re not too early if you’re trying to land your favorite camp site a year in advance.
  • Got a boat? You’re in luck. There are some great campgrounds–including Caladesi Island State Park–which can only be accessed by ferry or private boats and have plenty of wild camping along miles of untouched beaches. The spoil islands in the Indian River Lagoon are another place to consider wild camping if you can get there by water on your own (or tap into a tour operator like Happy Pineapple Boat Tours in Hutchinson Island to customize a true camping escape).

Next: Amazing beach camping under the stars on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Did we miss your favorite Florida campground? Drop us a line–there’s still time to get out there before summer heats up.

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