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For the Florida visitor who wants to bypass crowded beaches and tourist attractions, Dunford Lake may be just the ticket. Small Dunford Lake in Florida's Panhandle West Region is not only uncrowded - it's nearly unknown! Located halfway between Chipley on I-10 and Panama City on the Gulf, little Dunford Lake is a vital part of a larger natural ecosystem: it's one of many small sinkhole lakes located among the old sand hills that recharge the Florida aquifer. Situated on the large karst plateau that underlies several counties in the middle of the Panhandle, lakes here are usually created by collapsed underground cavities in the porous limestone beneath the sand. Typical of sinkhole lakes in this region, Dunford Lake lies in a depression about thirty feet below the level of the ground around it. It is spring-fed from the water trapped in the limestone beneath the floor. The lake level rises and falls according to how much rainfall replenishes the underlying aquifer. Perhaps for this reason, State lakes databases do not list a depth for Dunford Lake, or for most lakes in the region.
Dunford Lake area was originally settled by Native Americans who valued the abundant wildlife attracted by the lakes and held many of the more obvious springs as sacred. When European settlers arrived, lumbering became the main attracting force. Much of the original pine and oak covering the region was logged out quickly, changing the ecology of the area considerably. At one time, steamships moved freight up and down the nearby Holmes Creek and Choctawhatchee River to the Gulf. Sadly, the railroads bypassed the small town of Vernon which quickly destroyed much of its economic base. Vernon still provides the closest spot for the area visitor to pick up supplies. The creek and river are now popular canoeing routes and Cypress Springs near Vernon is popular with campers, snorkelers and divers.
At 210 acres, Dunford Lake is a haven for swimming and fishing. The lake has several submerged sandbars and one large surface sandbar/island. The lake is known to hold bass, crappie & chain pickerel. As most sinkhole lakes in the region produce absolutely stunning bluegill, one can guess that the same is true of Dunford Lake. In fact, sinkhole lakes hold several state records for large bluegills. The lake is exceedingly clean and clear with little submerged vegetation. It is rumored that there is a publicly-accessible boat launch on the west shore of the lake, but state maps do not show it. The northern half of the lake is uninhabited and no roads surround the lake in this area. The southern half is part of a gated community called Paradise Lakes. The lovely homes in Paradise Lakes are primarily situated on the narrow strip of land between Dunford Lake and neighboring Lucas Lake. Most sit high above the lakes with fine views over the water. Communal docks are provided for residents in a couple of places within the community. Lots are large and heavily wooded. Residents value the wildlife they observe here, including the nesting bald eagles that call the lake home. Local restrictions require that all building must take place 300 feet or more from the water line, so the nearly 5-mile shoreline remains tree-covered and natural. One could canoe or kayak here in perfect tune with nature and still be home for lunch!
Because of concern for over-development above the aquifer, the Northwest Florida Water Management District has created a 2,155-acre Sand Hill Lakes Wetland Mitigation Bank a mile south of Dunford Lake to recover and restore wetlands, lakes and rivers in this critical ecological region. Although providing recreational activities including hiking, fishing, and hunting, the Mitigation Bank primarily acquires and restores properties in the area to pre-settlement ecological conditions. A few miles to the east, Econfina Creek Water Management Area has preserved 41,000 acres along several major and minor rivers. Although this area is open for public hunting, fishing, horseback riding, camping, picnicking and exploring, it's safe to assume that there will be less lakefront property in the area for private development in the future. Currently, much of Washington County is uninhabited except for the small cities near I-10, so the real estate purchaser wanting solitude couldn't find a more pristine location.
Although there is little settlement around Dunford Lake, one needn't feel totally isolated. At 30 miles away, it's actually close enough to Panama City to commute daily. Chipley on I-10 is only about 25 miles to the north. And for gas, groceries and the local diner, Vernon is five miles to the north-west. Panama City will provide all of the nightlife, cultural activities and shopping the country resident or visitor will desire. Popular Panama City Beach opens the entire Gulf region to the day traveler, or enjoy an upscale week-end at one of the resorts in the vicinity. Topsail Hill Preserve State bark is only a short distance west of Panama City, with beach camping, playgrounds, fishing and all types of beachfront activities to enjoy. The Dunford Lake-lubber can have the best of all worlds.
Vacation rentals at Dunford Lake are rare but sometimes exist. There are accommodations such as bed-and-breakfasts and hotels in the general area. And, month-to-month rentals are becoming more plentiful along the lake, many with lake views and lake access. So, instead of the same old Orlando vacation, experience Dunford Lake and the unique ecology of the Florida Panhandle. Bring the camera - beautiful nature shots await.
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