Beaches and Outdoors

By STEVE WINSTON

Northwest Florida’s beaches are world-renowned. Frolic on more than 227 miles of white, fine-grained, sugar-sand beaches stretching from Apalachicola in the east to Pensacola in the west. And often, they’re so uncrowded that you may come to think of them as your own private playgrounds!

The Apalachicola National Forest proffers 564,000 acres that are perfect for camping, picnicking, hiking, biking, boating, hunting and fishing. Offshore, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is a 12,490-acre barrier island accessible only by boat; the only residents you’ll see will be wildlife, such as nesting bald eagles, loggerhead sea turtles, and, if you’re lucky, a red wolf and perhaps a pup from last season’s new litter.

Situated on the bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River, Torreya State Park offers 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 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 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 and 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 spring, summer and fall. Other locations worth checking out include Pine Log & Point Washington State Forests, Camp Helen State Park and the Florida Trail at Econfina Creek.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is one gigantic playground, which includes the barrier islands of Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and Okaloosa Island.

Among the best beaches in Northwest Florida is the pristine five-mile stretch in the charming little town of Mexico Beach, where the beach consists of fine, white quartz crystals, which give the water its gem-like color. Then there’s the Emerald Coast, voted “No. 1 Beach in the South” for many years.

Heading inland, Florida Caverns State Park is home to the only guided dry 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.

Falling Waters State Park in Chipley has the tallest waterfall in the state, at 70 feet, and an observation platform from which to enjoy the falls and the surrounding forest. And Ponce de Leon State Park in Marianna has a wonderfully-scenic recreation spot in Merritt’s Mill Pond.