If you head east from the Florida state line near Pensacola, on the scenic routes of U.S. 98 and State Road 30A, you’ll encounter some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, if not the world.
Situated just a little more than 100 miles in the Florida Panhandle is the area known as the Emerald Coast. When you gaze at the miles and miles of the Gulf of Mexico’s blue-green waters washing the white sandy shoreline, you quickly see how the area earned its nickname.
The bleached gypsum that forms the glistening bone-white sand is found all along the Emerald Coast. The sand actually has its origins in the mountains of Appalachia, and feeds the beaches via inland rivers meandering to the sea. The beaches you see today started forming during the melt off from the last ice age more than 12,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted, sea levels around the world began to rise and the coast here experienced a dramatic change. Most notably, the coastline receded as much as 80 miles farther inland than it was during the Pleistocene era Ice Age.
Make The Drive Along A Florida Scenic Highway
Our Florida panhandle road trip started with sunrise at Pensacola Beach. The cool morning breeze off the gulf mandated long sleeves. But soon the sun reflected off the nearby pier and brought a definite warmth to the day.
Pensacola Beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which actually starts in Mississippi. It gets interrupted in Alabama, and then stretches about 80 miles along the Panhandle.
Driving along the pristine beaches is a choice between U.S. 98 or State Road 30A. Where you have the option, 30A actually gets you right along the water and is the best scenic route, whereas 98 takes you inland in some areas.
The coastal highway, which is designated a Florida Scenic Highway, affords beach access points and picnic shelters every few miles. After Pensacola Beach, the first beach town you come to is Navarre Beach, lined with condos and a signature pier jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico.
At Navarre Beach, you have to cross the causeway to the mainland and pick up U.S. 98 in order to reach the next beach town, Fort Walton Beach. There is a channel out to the gulf at Fort Walton, and the area offers a number of deep sea fishing charters. This part of the coast is strongly influenced by Eglin Air Force Base on the mainland. Warplanes and helicopters are common sights along this expanse of the coast. There is an Air Force Armament Museum featuring aircraft dating from World War I to the present that’s worth a look-see.
Henderson Beach State Park
Next in line is the town of Destin, a tourism magnet for midwesterners seeking soft sand and warm waters. Getting out on the water in a boat or on jet skis is a major attraction in Destin. Hundreds of small craft drop anchor in the shallows of Destin Bay, daily forming a small flotilla of boat dwellers in the pristine waters. No boat, no problem! Boat and jet ski rentals are available. Places like Blue Crab Water Sports and Destin Vacation Boat Rentals can fix you up with pontoon boats and jet skis.
Continuing east on U.S. 98 brings you to the planned community of Seaside. This area is not commonly available to outsiders, unless you are renting a home in the town. Seaside was the setting of the movie The Truman Show starring Jim Carey, where every resident was an actor and the entire town was a giant soundstage. The 1998 film garnered three Oscar nominations and put the town on the map. Art shops and galleries are also found along this stretch of highway.
Grayton Beach State Park
One of my favorite stops in this area is Grayton Beach State Park. This is a small park, with a walking trail behind the dunes, a kayak trail in the back waters, an RV campground, and of course, a great beach. Parking is limited, and when all spaces are taken, the park gate is closed. Going early is recommended, and around mid-afternoon the park will reopen as parking spaces become available.
While you wait for the gates to reopen, try a lunch stop at Crackings, just west of the state park. It specializes in omelettes for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, and has plenty of shaded, outdoor dining. After eating, check out several art galleries and shops nestled in the same location.
Panama City Beach
Heading on east, everybody knows about Panama City Beach, which used to be the spring break headquarters for college students. Things have calmed down since a ban on alcohol on the beaches was enacted a few years ago. Students still come, but things aren’t as rowdy. The best time to visit is April and May. There is less of a crowd and you get off-season rates. Traffic picks up again in the summer, and the beaches are pretty crowded until Labor Day. Fall is another great time to visit, when temperatures drop a little and you have off-season rates again.
East of Panama City you pass through Tyndall Air Force Base and come upon rejuvenated Mexico Beach. This town was literally flatted by Hurricane Michael in 2018, with only a handful of buildings left standing. Today it is on the comeback trail. Construction is everywhere … new homes, condos, small businesses. On the east side of town is a long public beach park, where the shoreline is embraced by the emerald seas of the Gulf of Mexico. With construction underway, there are still limited hotel rooms and condos for rent, but if you can find a place, this is an ideal spot for a quiet beach getaway.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
The last stop on a tour of Panhandle beaches is my personal favorite of all Florida beaches … St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It has wide, pure white beaches and towering sand dunes. Unfortunately Hurricane Michael caused extensive damage to the campground and cabins, which are still under repair. There is limited beach access, and a place to launch boats and kayaks on the bayside of the peninsula. The park is not expected to fully reopen until 2022.
The scenic drive along Florida’s panhandle is rated one of the best in the country. The beauty of these beaches is often overshadowed by publicity given to beaches further down Florida’s coasts, but Emerald Coast beaches are unmatched
Best Hotels Along The Emerald Coast
I divided my Panhandle trip into two days, starting with sunrise at Pensacola Beach. You can catch a good night’s sleep at several hotels that line the beach, including the Hilton, a Hampton Inn, and the laid back Margaritaville Hotel.
We stopped for the night at Panama City Beach. Hotels here are pricey, and I opted not to get a room on the beach. Beachside hotels include the Hampton Inn, Spring Hill Suites, a Sheraton, and a more budget-minded LaQuinta.
Just a note of warning: Hotel prices anywhere along the beach can double or even triple on weekends, regardless of the season.
Best Restaurants Along The Emerald Coast
The Native Cafe on Pensacola Beach serves a great breakfast. For a seafood dinner, try Peg Leg Pete’s. At Panama City Beach try Pineapple Willy’s for a typical Florida beach-food dinner (can you say fried shrimp, please!). You can even take your pet if you want to dine outside on the pier.
No trip to north Florida is complete without a stop at The Lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park, south of Tallahassee. This hotel is nearly 100 years old, has comfortable rooms and stately grounds, with lots of oak trees and the largest freshwater spring in Florida. Go swimming in the spring, and take the one hour boat trip along the beautiful Wakulla River, where many Hollywood films were shot years ago. Cypress trees along the river are as much as 600 years old. The spring is a great place to snorkel or scuba, with crystal clear water and access to a submerged cave network.
The Lodge has a full service restaurant. Advance reservations at The Lodge are necessary, especially on weekends.
I have traveled all over Florida and visited beach towns throughout the state. There are great beaches everywhere, but in my opinion, none are better than those you find in north Florida along the Emerald Coast. The sand is soft and cool on your feet; the dunes are high and beautiful, and the water is clean and clear. The shoreline is less lined with high-rise condos and hotels than you commonly find in the metro areas along the lower Florida peninsula.
The Gulf of Mexico is generally calmer, with light surf, except when a storm develops offshore. It should be noted the Florida Panhandle is more prone to hurricane and tropical storm strikes than other areas of the state, except, perhaps, the Florida Keys. Bear that in mind when booking fall trips, and travel insurance is a good idea during hurricane season.
The best time to visit here is late spring and early fall. My recommendation is April and May, then between Labor Day and Veterans Day. During the winter, many north Florida beaches can actually get too cold and windy for seaside fun. In summer, the beaches are usually overcrowded with tourists and locals.