Our family loves camping!! This spring break we opted for a camping trip not far from our home for a fun adventure with little travel there and back. We had seen many photos of the tree houses at Camp Chowenwaw Park, the old Girl Scouts Gateway Council camp that is now owned and managed by Clay County and we wanted to check those out. We were surprised to find openings for camping when every state park and state forest was booked for the Easter weekend from here to Miami! What a gem we found at this off the radar, yet not far off the beaten path! Scroll down to find family fun and tips and tricks for camping at Camp Chowenwaw!
Camp Chowenwas is just north of Green Cove Springs and just south of Fleming Island at 1517 Ball Road, Green Cove Springs, FL, 32043. It's about an hour or less from Jacksonville depending on traffic. From Jacksonville, take the Buckman Bridge and head south on US 17. When you cross over Black Creek, it is immediately on your right. Beware of construction right at the entrance of the park with a dirt road leading off US 17. Black Creek is a very large tributary of the St. Johns River and the park has views of the creek as it enters the river. The creek is relatively undeveloped with forest on the north and south banks.
Pick a Campsite
One of the first things to do is pick a campsite! We had no idea which one was best so we worked with the helpful office staff to find the best fit for our family with what was still available. There are many to choose from with the tree houses, tent camping, and cabin camping so we want to help choose the best location for families. Let's start from the back of the property with the tree houses and move to the front and you can download the pdf map here to follow along.
Tree house rentals are $35/night and there is a centrally located restroom bathhouse area with dining hall that hosts a stove and fridge. The tree houses just have room for 4 beds so there's not really room for luggage or food. There is no running water or electricity in the houses so no AC. You would probably keep everything in the dining hall and do all of your changing and eating there. The kids will love sleeping in them and the views of the forest are spectacular! Bring a group and rent them all to have privacy in the area and the dining hall and other guests are not allowed to hike around the tree houses while you have it rented.
Here are some tips:
1. The tree houses open for booking for the following year on October 1 each year. You can call now for openings, but if you are looking to bring a group camping in the tree houses plan ahead! If you like tent camping.
2. The tree houses are on beautiful wetlands on Peters Creek. Wetlands = mosquitoes. Be sure to schedule your camping when it is cold and dry - usually late November - March.
3. Stick with camping in the tree houses for ages at least 5 and up. They are up steep stairs and the stairs can be wet and slippery so it is safer to camp with older kids here.
4. Beware you can't drive back to this location. Grab a wheelbarrow from near the main entrance to walk your items back!
Bring a group and enjoy the spaces for tent camping!
Magnolia Hill has 6 tent pads and a bath house that has an outdoor grill under an over hang. I liked the fire pit that was surrounded by benches so a big group of families could sit together by the fire.
Hickory Flats: These are a long hike into the woods so bring your wheelbarrow.
There are many different cabin locations. Some have lots of cabins in a group with a central bath house and no restrooms in the cabins. Others have restrooms in the cabin, like our Cook's Cabin. Some have AC and some don't.
Muscogee Cabin: One cabin with private bath, electricity, fire ring, fridge and right near the pool. Not much privacy as the fire ring is right on the road with people walking to see the pond and tree houses in the main part of the park. Families might like the convenience to the parking area to not walk far with kids and gear.
Big Pine Shores Cabins: These looked larger than Cook's Cabin, they have AC, and views of Otter Pond. Separate restroom right near the cabins. Right near pool. Not as much privacy either as they are located in the main part of the park. Families might like the convenience to the parking area to not walk far with kids and gear.
Cook's Cabin: Since we went in March, we chose Cook's Cabin with no AC, but indoor restrooms. That was a hard choice, but we went with ease of restrooms at night with very young children and having a morning shower in the cabin and gave up AC. It was a cool weekend so it was perfect. Cooks Cabin is also the only one with views of Black Creek and quick access to the fishing spot. It also had a fridge (game changer for camping!) and a microwave. Later in the year we may have gone for AC! A bit more privacy as the fire ring is behind the cabin and easy access to cars as you can park right at the cabin. Next door to the main building, we got to see a wedding!
Squirrel Run: Group cabin camping site a bit into the woods. Separate bathhouse, AC/heat, dining hall, fire ring. I'd recommend this spot for a youth group that can use the wheelbarrows to hike back.
Awenassa Cabins: These looks really neat with log cabin style and a porch. A porch is handy with kids so you can relax and watch them play. These are on a hike into the woods so bring the wheelbarrows, but they have AC, a bathhouse nearby, and a dining hall with microwave and fridge. Not far from the wildflower field!
If you're bringing a group, use the larger group cabin areas. If you're with just your family, try a cabin close to the main area and from there enjoy the hiking, fishing, and pool.
What to Bring:
Of course bring everything you would for camping, bug spray, sunscreen, closed toed shoes, long pants, items you can cook via fire, etc. However specific to Camp Chowenwaw, bring sheets for cabin camping AND your sleeping bags. The kids played for hours on the beds and the sleeping bags moved around so the sheets would have helped to keep them off the mattresses (which were very clean, by the way). Bring towels, soap, and shampoo, toilet paper is provided. Bring swim suits if you're going May - September. Bring flip flops to walk in the cabins and for showers. We just have said put your shoes on 5 gazillion times and flip flops would have helped! Bring fishing gear. Bring a boat if you have one as there is a boat ramp directly across the street on US 17 and you can boat west onto Black Creek for Old Florida views and park at Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area as found in my book, Backcountry Trails of Florida. Don't bring too much stuff if you're hiking back to camp!
What To Do:
There is plenty of outdoor fun at Camp Chowenwaw! If you like fishing, bring your poles and cast net as you can fish right on Black Creek. My kids caught some small fish with their dad and their cast net and kept them in a bucket for a day to examine and learn. We let them go at the end of the trip. Beware the dock leading out onto Black Creek is closed due to hurricane damage.
There is a playground right near the main event building. We loved being in Cook's Cabin so we could sit at our fire ring and watch them from there. It's a great nature playground with views of the creek, over 200 year old pine trees, a squiggly tree stump, a tree stump that my 6 year old could fit in. It has an outdoor amphitheater with steps and a platform overlooking the creek that my kids ran up and down over and over again.
There is a pool open May - September and it is free entry for campers and a small fee for day visitors.
We hiked back to the tree houses and enjoyed learning about pond life at Otter Spring on the way (there are old steps leading into the pond so it must have been used for swimming once!). There is a kiosk and the kids can try to find all the animals in the pond that are mentioned on the kiosk. The boardwalk back to the tree houses is stunning. There were blue flag irises in bloom all along the wetlands and many trees have fallen due to hurricanes and the kids liked looking at the big root balls and the ponds created where the roots once were. You can't explore the tree houses if they are in use, but it is fun to peek out from the boardwalk and then hike the actual dirt road back to the main area. Note: The boardwalk path is longer than the road so if you want a shortcut back, take the road path if you don't mind hiking through possible tent campers along the way.
We hiked the yellow trail for a bit and wish we had gone farther. There is a wildflower field at the farthest point in the trail before you turn back and I'd like to make it there next time!
Enjoy your fire. We love making fires! The kids find small twigs and find paper to burn and I try to start the fire. We eventually have to call in my husband for reinforcements (I know, prescribed burner by trade no less!) and then we enjoy throwing things in, cooking, roasting marshmallows, and more.
Play in the cabins. To our surprise as first time cabin campers, our kids loved being in the cabin the most! They climbed up and down the bunk beds, they ran around the common area, and they loved bring in the wooden room with open, screened windows overlooking woods and the river. Cabin camping was fun for them, but next time we'll be shooing them outside more for peace and quiet for the adults!
We had a nice camping trip at Camp Chowenwaw! We hope this helps you get a feel for which area to pick for camping with family, activities to experience, and how to have fun on your trip. We may go back to tent camping to be sure these kids of ours stay outside during their trip, but we sure are spoiled now with the beds, microwave, and fridge found in our Cook's Cabin! We definitely want to go back with a group and camp in a tree house and we're calling our big group of cousins now to plan ahead! We hope you enjoy your trip and comment below with your tips and tricks or experiences growing up visiting Camp Chowenwaw as a Girl Scout!