Northwest Florida lives outside. And why not? The sun shines 300 days a year here. You’ll run out of time long before you run out of things to do. Fish off piers, on lakes or on board ocean charters. Hike in state forests and parks. Kayak among the barrier islands. Cycle along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. View wildlife at any of the eco parks. Dive around the world’s largest artificial reef, the USS Oriskany. Snorkeling, paddleboarding, wave-running, surfing, swimming, parasailing, Snuba-ing (a cross between diving and snorkeling), aqua triking (giant bicycles that float on the water), sailing, golfing or strolling along those sugar-sand, white-powder beaches are just some of the activities waiting for you. Let your toes sink into the sand and feel its warmth embrace your soul.
The Apalachicola National Forest proffers 573,000 acres of camping, picnicking, hiking, biking, boating, hunting and fishing. Inside this silent green wonderland lies the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, interpreting the history of Native and African Americans in this region during the early 1800s. Offshore, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is a 12,492-acre barrier island accessible only by boat; the only residents you’ll see are nesting bald eagles, loggerhead sea turtles and, if you’re lucky, a red wolf.
Torreya State Park is situated on the bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River, with excellent hiking and camping facilities. In addition, the Ochlockonee and Chipola Rivers are ideal for kayaking and fishing.
If you’re looking for the most spectacular sunsets you’ve ever seen, head for St. Joe Beach and Beacon Hill. Here, a shoreline leading to the horizon offers million-dollar views of the Gulf sun, blazing with color as it sets behind the silhouette of St. Joseph Peninsula.
From there, it’s a short drive to Panama City Beach, where outdoor enthusiasts can hike and birdwatch along scenic trails, camp along the shore, enjoy unparalleled boating, fishing and diving, take kayaking tours, go off-road cycling, try stand-up paddleboarding and more. And, with everything from airboat adventures to glass-bottom boat tours and marine rescue programs, there are many ways to experience and observe the surrounding wildlife. At the newly opened 2,900-acre Panama City Beach Conservation Park, visitors enjoy boardwalks and 24 miles of unpaved trails, which are connected with other trail systems known as Gayle’s Trails through the beach area. On the eastern edge of Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park is ranked among the top 10 beaches in the U.S. and is one of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in Florida.
Across from the mainland, Shell Island is a peaceful spot to relax or snorkel; the area surrounding the island is home to one of the largest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins in the country. Shuttle boat service to the island is available during the spring and summer months. Other locations worth checking out include Pine Log & Point Washing State Forests, Camp Helen State Park and the Florida Trail at Econfina Creek.
For a quiet picnic, the best beaches are the remote and pristine sands on Dog Island, Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park and T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. For families, the beaches at state parks are always a good choice. A great all-in-one destination is the Florida District of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a collection of beaches with bicycle and hiking trails, ranger-led nature programs, historic forts and spots for swimming, snorkeling and fishing.
The best shelling is not on the most popular beaches but in sheltered bays and on remote sand spits. Horse conchs might be found on the north side of Shell Island while Crooked Island Sound is a happy hunting ground after a storm, as well as Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas. At marinas that offer day cruises, such as Capt. Anderson’s Marina in Panama City Beach, ask about shelling cruises that sail to beaches accessible only by boat.
Among the best beaches in Northwest Florida is the pristine five-mile stretch along the charming little town of Mexico Beach, where the beach consists of fine, white quartz crystals, which give the water its gemlike color. Then there’s the Emerald Coast, voted “No. 1 Beach in the South” for 14 consecutive years.
Heading inland, Florida Caverns State Park is home to the only guided cave tours in the state. Nearby is the Bellamy Bridge, said to be haunted by—who else?—the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge. Visitors in this area enjoy paddling, birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding and some of the best bass fishing in the state. For an incredible cave-diving experience, check out Cave Adventurers to book dive lessons or trips at Merritt’s Mill Pond.
Slip into a freshwater spring and learn to scuba dive at Vortex Spring dive resort (vortexspring.com) or go for tubing down a wilderness waterway with Bear Paw Adventures (bearpawescape.com).
Being the birthplace of YOLO Board, visitors can try their hand at standup paddleboarding (SUP) with experts on the region’s 15 rare coastal dune lakes. Open to the public, YOLO Board Adventures is dedicated to creating awareness of the world’s fastest-growing water sport activity. SUP is easy to learn and a perfect way to explore the Gulf of Mexico or Western Lake, one of South Walton’s dune lakes.
In addition to its white-sand beaches, South Walton boasts the Choctawhatchee River (Florida’s fourth largest in volume), Choctawhatchee Bay and many creeks and streams, providing a variety of opportunities to get out on the water. Ecotours on the Choctawhatchee River with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance are a great way to explore the extraordinary ecosystems, which are home to numerous and unusual native plants and animals. Similarly, guide Karl Renelt has been introducing people to South Walton’s extraordinary beauty since the early 1990s and leads diverse tours with Into the Wild Eco Diversions (ITW), which include hiking, biking, kayaking and sailing on either the Gulf or the Choctawhatchee Bay.
Milton is Florida’s canoeing capital, and for good reason. It’s where Coldwater Creek and Juniper Creek combine their waters into the clear, sand-bottomed Blackwater River in the heart of Blackwater River State Forest. Adventures Unlimited offers paddling and tubing trips, with cabins and camping on-site at a base camp for outdoor excursions.
More than 250 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail rambles through the wild spaces of Northwest Florida. Backpack for a week over the rolling ridges of Nokuse Plantation and Eglin Air Force Base beneath ancient longleaf pines, or dip into shorter sections for day hikes.
Follow Scenic 30A to play along one of the rarest shorelines in the world, defined by Florida’s coastal dune lakes. Found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and along Northwest Florida’s coast, these unusual freshwater lakes tip into the sea when full. Kayak, paddleboard or hike around these lakes at places like Topsail Hill, Grayton Beach and Camp Helen State Parks.
Paddle past waterfalls and bubbling springs on an adventure along Econfina Creek or take an inner tube—and the kids—to quiet Turkey Creek for a gentle afternoon on the water.
Sand under your feet and sunshine on your face—what’s not to love about these outdoor gems in Northwest Florida?
Now it’s your turn! Which places have you been? Where do you want to go? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us all!