Emerging onto the beach, you find a coastal paradise: emerald sea broken by bright white sandbars and framed by round rocks as dark as lava. Tidal pools shimmer in the sun. Across the inlet, riders on horseback canter down the beach.
A secluded cove off A1A in Big Talbot Island State Park, Blackrock Beach gets its name from boulders shaped like wave-rounded basalt on this island. But here, sand mixes with dark peat from the eroding bluffs and the estuary surrounding Amelia Island, where kayakers glide through the needle grass.
With more than 1,260 miles of coastline, Florida offers a colorful quilt of beaches, from sand as soft as baby powder to shell-strewn strands, hard packed sands and solid rock. Here are samples of the many types of terrain you can explore.
Shades of Orange
Waves tug at strings of seaweed along a shoreline of jumbled rocks at Coquina Beach, part of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Just south of Marineland, this rocky beach isn’t for swimming, it’s for exploring. Tidal pools cradle limpets, periwinkles and crabs. Coquina is an important part of historic St. Augustine, a treasure uncovered by Spanish settlers and put to use in building houses, the city gates and the Castillo de San Marcos, where the shell-laden rock absorbed cannonballs. The color of coquina lends a coppery tint to sands between St. Augustine Beach and Flagler Beach, where Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area offers a quiet coastal escape.
Eroded to a fine powder, Appalachian quartz and flecks of mica make the beaches between Apalachicola and Pensacola a bright, dazzling white. Wind sculpts soft, light sand into mounds and dunes, spectacular at places such as St. Joseph Peninsula State Park near Port St. Joe, where you can camp along a wild shore. At Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, ever-changing dunes protect a chain of coastal freshwater lakes. Pensacola Beach beckons with dunes, family fun and a brilliant white shoreline that stretches to historic Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Bluffs and Sea Caves
At Gilbert’s Bar on Hutchinson Island is the House of Refuge Museum, built in 1876 as salvation for shipwreck survivors and now a maritime museum with a commanding view. Waves spray high into the air over a ridge of rock, the Anastasia Limestone, which forms bluffs up to 15 feet tall from Stuart south to Jupiter. On stormy days, you may see fountain-like spurts through erosion holes in the limestone at Blowing Rocks Preserve, protected by The Nature Conservancy. At low tide, the rocks are fun to explore. Adjoining Coral Cove offers a wonderland of jumbled, eroded rocks calving off into the sea not far from the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum.
Families flock to Bathtub Reef, just south of the House of Refuge, where rocks tame the waves and there’s a living reef to see – bristle worms build clusters of tubes atop the limestone. Parrotfish dart over rippled rock in the shallows at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach, a perfect place to snorkel, especially in the summer. The limestone ridge dives under the sea, forming rocky reefs dense with marine life. Between Jupiter and Fort Lauderdale, divers have more than 30 popular sites to explore.
Created on Coral
The famed coral reefs of Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys shape the beaches at the tip of Florida’s peninsula. Sand from eroded rocks is replaced by sand created by eroded corals, seashells and algae. Beaches here are true treasures, and the best of the best is at Bahia Honda State Park. Lapped by crystal-clear waves, its popular beaches have the longest sweep of natural sand in the Florida Keys.
Off the coast of Sarasota, the sand is as soft as baby powder at Siesta Key. Leave the shoes in your room: It’s a sensory delight to walk down this strand, thanks to tiny sand grains that are almost pure quartz. South along Crescent Beach is Point of Rocks, where pancake-flat limestone creates marine habitats to snorkel. Coming in first in America’s Best Beaches 2011, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman’s annual roundup of the best, Siesta Public Beach shares stardom with Caladesi Island, named the Best Beach in America in 2008. A ferryboat ride delivers you to serenity on the shoreline of this Florida State Park, just north of Clearwater Beach.
Solid for Speed
In 1903, the first timed trial between Ransom Olds of Oldsmobile fame and Alexander Winton kicked off a craze that continues today: driving on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach. With fine sand above and coquina below, drivers found “the ideal race course” between Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach, setting world speed records on a 23-mile stretch of sand. While the Daytona International Speedway now hosts racing’s finest, the beach is still a spot to see and be seen. Thirteen auto ramps are located off A1A from Granada Boulevard to Ponce Inlet, and the beach speed limits are capped at 10 mph.
Explore More Florida Shores
With sands that sparkle and drift, rocks in fanciful shapes and shells and corals to see, Florida’s beaches offer much to explore. Whether it’s sea caves, sea shells or serene strands you crave, you’ll find them all along the state’s shores.