With interesting towns and wildlife galore, any Northwest Florida has tons of options for exciting road trips. Pick a route, pack your camera and immerse yourself in the beautiful landscape that you’ll surely stumble upon.
The town of Mexico Beach boasts some of the best side trips in Northwest Florida. The Dead Lakes State Recreation Area, 23 miles away, offers perhaps the best freshwater fishing in the state, along with unusual vistas due to the stumps and dead tree trunks sticking out of the water. Another “natural” day trip from Mexico Beach is St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by boat. Here you’ll see an incredible variety of wildlife, including many species of birds, Sambar deer and the endangered red wolf. A good starting point is Indian Pass, an historic trading post and, supposedly, the site of Spanish buried treasure.
The Washington County town of Chipley has its fair share of interesting historical buildings in the South Third Street Historic District, such as the imposing County Courthouse. You can take an extraordinary look at early life here at the Washington County Historical Museum.
South Walton has 16 beach neighborhoods that make for a beautiful drive along the coast. You’ll drive along Scenic 30A through a variety of distinct neighborhood styles—so distinct, in fact, that you’ll know when you’re going from one town into another. The area’s upscale aura is evidenced by its many artists and galleries, funky local boutiques and farm-to-table dining philosophy. This route also offers opportunities to kayak on coastal dune lakes, play golf at a PGA-quality course and bike along the 18-mile Timpoochee Trail.
The Chautaqua Vineyards & Winery is a nice day trip from the Emerald Coast. You can tour the winery and learn the ABCs of grape-growing, pruning, harvesting, crushing and bottling. You’ll be able to taste some of the wines that have earned Chautauqua over 140 awards, from dry wines and southern favorites to sweet muscadine and blueberry.
Drive U.S. 98, the 157-mile-long stretch referred to as the Emerald Coast Route or the Gulf Coast Highway, from the forgotten hamlet of Carrabelle and historic Apalachicola to Gulf Breeze for almost non-stop views of shining waters and white sands. Although the trip can be done in a day, every mile tells a story and every pull-off beckons visitors to take a video and an Instagram pic. The unhurried visitor can detour from the main highway to explore stunning St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula. Both are slender sand spits, alight with scenery but requiring backtracking to get back to U.S. 98.
Traffic gets denser around Panama City and Panama City Beach, both ideal locations for lodging and attractions.
Continuing west, drop down to State Road 30A at Inlet Beach for a beachfront ramble through beachside neighborhoods, including Seaside, and a visit to picturesque Grayton Beach State Park. Destin is a quaint village known for its fishing fleets and Fort Walton Beach offers sightseeing plus urban shopping, dining, lodging and attractions. Here, there’s a chance to leave U.S. 98 again for a leisurely drive to Okaloosa and Santa Rosa Island. If you’re on a fast track you may prefer to stay with U.S. 98. There will be other bridges later to take you out to Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Depending on tourist traffic, shore roads can be slow, and the only way back is to retrace your route through the same dazzling scenery.
St. Augustine and Pensacola
The fast lane through this region is Interstate 10, an alternate route with its own appeal. The route follows the Old Spanish Trail, blazed more than 400 years ago by Spanish traders traveling between St. Augustine and Pensacola. Just off the highway are the hospitable small towns of Chipley, Bonifay and DeFuniak Springs and such natural treasures as Ponce de Leon Springs, Falling Waters and Florida Caverns state parks, and the 189,848-acre Blackwater River State Forest.
Along the Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway, you’ll see huge oaks and magnolia trees, quaint restaurants and beautiful Escambia Bay.
An excellent drive takes you from Perdido Key to Pensacola Beach and across a three-mile-long bridge. Make it a point to drive along the Gulf Islands National Seashore—especially at sunset. It’ll take your breath away.
In the Apalachicola National Forest, the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway immerses drivers in the wilds of one of Florida’s most botanically rich regions. Along the Big Bend Scenic Byway, connecting Apalachicola with Carrabelle and points east, the views across calm Gulf waters and shimmering bays are almost as good as the fresh oysters at the seafood shacks.
Hit the road in Northwest Florida and discover incredible places no matter where you go.
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