It’s that time of year. Northwest Florida beaches are in season as warm weather brings water and white sands to the minds of many. The fact is, the Panhandle’s beaches are in season all year. Some have familiar names like the Beaches of South Walton or Panama City Beach and are known for spring and summer fun. Others, like Alligator Point, St. George Island and Carrabelle, are just as special to many and hold an allure all their own. Some of the best-kept beach secrets in Northwest Florida are its state park beaches.
Here are the top Florida State Park beaches in Northwest Florida:
146 Box Cut Road, Alligator Point, FL 32346
Some of the most picturesque scenic areas of the region can be found amid this 4,000-acre state park. In addition to marshes and uplands, Bald Point has two beach areas on the shores of Apalachee Bay. Popular activities here include swimming, sunbathing, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing and fishing. Facilities include picnic pavilions and a fishing dock.
6350 E. County Road 30-A, Santa Rosa, FL 32459
This park offers inland solitude and one of the most serene beaches in the region. Amid the diversity of the coastal dune habitat, a boardwalk offers access to Deer Lake’s sugar-white sand and clear waters, perfect for swimming and other beach fun. There are restrooms and a picnic pavilion onsite.
357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Grayton Beach can often be found at the top of the country’s list of most beautiful beaches. As if that beautiful beach isn’t enough, amid the park’s nearly 2,000 acres, visitors also find trails for exploring and Western Lake, where fishing and paddling are popular. The park includes a campground, cabins, boat ramp and kayak launch as well as picnic pavilion and restroom facilities.
1900 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island, FL 32328
This park sustained substantial damage from Hurricane Michael, but is now open for day use and camping, though beach accesses are still being repaired. Known for amazing sunsets and spectacular stargazing, nighttime beauty on St. George is second only to, you guessed it, daytime beauty! This barrier island sits between the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay and its miles of undeveloped beaches are an ideal setting for the park, offering access to both the Gulf and inland waters. In addition to sunbathing and water activities, birding and shelling are popular here, as well.
7525 W. County Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Here, the dunes rise like a ship’s sails and overlook the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as wetlands and pine forests give way to beautiful white beaches. Swimming, fishing and hiking are all popular activities here. This 1,600-acre park includes a large campground (155 RV and 22 tent sites) as well as cabins and bungalows. Interpretive programming, bike, kayak and SUP rentals are also available.
These Florida state park gems offer year-round recreational opportunities. Check for details on entry fees and park regulations before you go; but, going is a must! These state parks are a not-to-be-missed part of a visit to the Panhandle and an excellent way to Explore Northwest Florida.
A Good Look Back in Northwest Florida
From forts and lighthouses to downtown districts, Northwest Florida has preserved a wide array of its historical sites. History buffs, whether interested in early settlements, military engagements or the critical economic influences of the region, will find a wealth of sites to explore.
Downtown historic districts in Apalachicola, Chipley, Havana, Marianna, St. Andrews and Quincy are excellent places to begin exploration of the area’s history. Here, the maritime, railroad and agricultural history of the region is depicted, along with the stories of topics as varied as Civil War battles and “Coca Cola millionaires.” Nearby historic homes provide an exceptional look at the area’s people and their way of life during earlier eras.
Historic sites throughout the region include monuments, interpretive exhibits and preserved structures. Among them are sites as diverse as a Native American settlement, a Spanish Mission and a military arsenal, just to name a few. More of the cultural history of this fascinating Northwest Florida region can be found among its museums and in a series of murals that dot the quaint downtown areas.
And, as one would expect in a coastal area such as this, there are two historic lighthouses to explore and they are among the most popular sites in the region. The grounds of the Cape St. George Lighthouse on St. George Island are home to a reconstructed replica of the original lighthouse, which stood from 1852 until 2005.
The Crooked River Lighthouse, in Carrabelle, is an original 103-foot iron and steel structure. Each site includes a keeper’s house museum and gift shop.
In a region known for its scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and abundance of water-related activities, its storied history is just one more reason to explore Northwest Florida. For information about all there is to see and do, visit Explore Northwest Florida and choose your adventure.
Paddling Northwest Florida Seriously
Rivers, creeks and streams are an integral part of the landscape throughout Northwest Florida, as this region is home to an extensive network of pristine waterways and natural springs. Serious paddlers find the area to be a dream come true, with its diverse landscapes and wealth of waters.
Many have discovered the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee rivers, but the Ochlockonee and Chipola rivers and Holmes creek add even more diversity. And let’s not forget Apalachicola Bay and Merritt’s Mill Pond. Here are some excellent paddling trail recommendations offered by Paddle Florida, an organization of avid recreational kayakers offering first-hand reports of Florida’s best kayaking and canoeing destinations. Note that many of these trails traverse remote areas, without amenities, so offer an excellent primitive experience. Choose your adventure and take to the waters.
- The Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area Paddling Trail System includes 11 numbered paddling trips crossing more than 100 miles of waterway.
- The Chipola River Designated Paddling Trail details a 51-mile trek starting at Florida Caverns State Park. Limestone bluffs and mysterious caves can be seen along the banks of this scenic river, which is fed by 63 springs and also runs through both swamp and hardwood forests. For those looking for a shorter route, there is also a separate 4.5-mile trail through the upper Chipola.
- Holmes Creek flows from near the Alabama state line to the Choctawhatchee River. There is a 34-mile Holmes Creek Paddling Trail which starts at Burnt Sock Landing and extends to Cedar Tree Landing, on the river. High banks and sandbars are common on the northern section, but the creek opens up for a slower current and easy paddling.
- Ochlockonee River flows from South Georgia to Apalachee Bay and into the Gulf. There are two designated paddling trails, the lower one covering 27 miles and the upper totals 62. Wind and tides make for varying degrees of difficulty here, when traversing diverse brackish water environments.
- Merritt’s Mill Pond is a crystal-clear spring-fed pond near Marianna, Florida. While known more as a popular spot for springs divers, this 200-acre pond is ideal for canoeing and kayaking, as well.
A full list of paddling destinations, as well as other useful planning information, is available on the Explore Northwest Florida website, which also features descriptions of other area attractions and activities.
Just as Northwest Florida is much more than its famous, beautiful beaches, the region’s hiking opportunities are much more than shoreline trails. From those sandy shores to steep cliff terrain, there is a hike for adventurers of all levels and ages. Hikers also enjoy an abundance of wildlife amid the vastly diverse terrain, from dolphins playing in coastal waters to eagles flying high above the pine forests.
The region boasts nearly a dozen state parks that have hiking trails. The park options range from a variety of leisurely walks down nature trail loops to tougher, long distance treks. The region is blessed with these and other preserved lands, including recreation areas, wildlife management areas and state forests. Here are just a few of the trails not to be missed during your journey through Northwest Florida.
Two favorites are state park trails and couldn’t be more different. The short but steep two-mile loop to see Florida’s only waterfall in a sinkhole at Falling Waters State Park is a one-of-a-kind experience that is a no-brainer for any hiker’s bucket list. At the other end of the spectrum, the 16 miles of challenging trails on the bluffs at Torreya State Park are said to be some of the most challenging hiking trails in Florida.
The 15 miles of trails at Topsail Hill Preserve offer the opportunity to see the rare phenomenon a coastal dune lake makes. The Morris Lake (2.5 miles) and the Campbell Lake (5 miles) Trails are both beautiful coastal hikes. Hikers will also find dune lakes along the trails in Grayton Beach State Park a forested beach environment with four miles of hiking trails as well as excellent wildlife viewing.