The Ultimate Guide to Northwest Florida & Florida Panhandle Beaches
By Laura Spinale
There's no arguing that Florida Panhandle beaches are captivating, pristine, relaxing -- and plentiful. If you're not sure which beach to visit, read on for insider tips.
Why You’ll Go: Variety. The area known as Pensacola Beach is really a roughly 8-mile section of the Santa Rosa barrier island. Here you’ll find everything from family-friendly Northwest Florida beaches (replete with lifeguards and other amenities), to far more secluded areas. Casino Beach and Quietwater Beach are two of the more popular bathing spots.
Gulf Stroll: Bring your rod and reel to the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier and Observation Posts. This boardwalk stretches nearly 1,500 feet into the Gulf. Even non-fishers enjoy the view.
Off the Sand: Strut down the Quietwater Beach Boardwalk for beach gear, henna tattoos and food.
Perdido Key State Park
Why You’ll Go: To explore this secluded 247-acre barrier island about 15 miles southwest of Pensacola. Check out the rolling sand dunes. Hike the boardwalks and try to spot Florida wildlife. Learn how barrier islands protect the mainland from storms.
Eatin’ Out: Enjoy a family feast (one you’ve packed yourself beforehand), at the picnic tables overlooking the water.
Ed Walline Park, Santa Rosa
Why You’ll Go: There are several public beach-access points in the town of Santa Rosa. Ed Walline Park is a popular one. You access the beach from a boardwalk, down 25 steps to its silky sands. Lifeguards are on duty here during the summer season, and the beach is popular with families. Rent beach chairs and umbrellas during the season. The water is clear enough that you can see schools of tiny minnows.
Unexpected Art: Across Route 30A from Ed Walline Park, you’ll find about 10 cottages operated by a group called The Artists of Gulf Place. Spend a half-hour checking out locally made jewelry, Adirondack chairs, copper art, tie-dye art, pottery, photography, watercolors, painted windows, sculptures, acrylics and more.
Where to Cool Off: Visit Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor in Gulf Place. Here you can buy iced coffee, ice cream, sandwiches and other goodies, including beer and other alcoholic beverages.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Why You’ll Go: You love the sense of isolation and rugged natural splendor that defines this Santa Rosa Beach.
What You’ll See: The park’s 1,640 acres are home to a dramatic landscape, including sand dunes topping 20 feet and old-growth longleaf pine forests bordering a pristine, 3.2-mile shoreline of Florida Panhandle beaches. The crystalline water feels blessedly cool, and the surf crashes with some vigor.
Off the Sand: It’s a .7-mile trek from the park entrance in Santa Rosa to the beach itself. You can hoof it, but the lazier among us prefer to travel through the forest to the beach via a tram that leaves from the park entrance every hour on the hour during the spring and summer, and every two hours in the fall and winter.
You Need to Know: A beach house here offers restrooms, changing rooms, and an outdoor shower. That’s the extent of amenities at Topsail. Pack your picnic, drinks, and plenty of sunscreen in advance. During the hottest part of the day, a beach umbrella is an absolute necessity.
Talking point: Want to sound like a local? Call it Top-sill.
Grayton Beach State Park
Why You’ll Go: Scenic beauty is promised here; park officials promise that the trees in the park have a gnarled “Middle Earth” look because of winds. The winds sculpt the land too; sand dune drifts rise so high that magnolia and oak trees sometimes appear to be no more than shrubbery – the sand blocks the view of their trunks. A unique ecosystem including scrub, pine flatwoods and salt marshes surround a body of water called Western Lake. Explore nature via a four-mile trail.
Stay a While: Cabins and camping facilities are available at this park, which is near Santa Rosa Beach and right off Route 30A.
Bringing Your Best Bud? Leashed dogs are allowed on the nature trail and in the campground, but not in cabins or on the beach.
Why You’ll Go: The “new urbanism” design, and notable buildings by neo-classical architects like Leon Krier, a favorite of Prince Charles. To any fan of walkable towns, the vernacular architecture and New England-style commons seem familiar. It's one of the most charming Florida Panhandle beaches on the list.
You Need to Know: Only select areas of the beach have lifeguards on duty. Keep a close eye on the kids.
Off the Sand: The town of Seaside awaits your exploration. A beach bazaar called Perspicacity serves up everything from jewelry to clothing to linens.
Panama City Beach
Why You’ll Go: For everything. This is northern Florida’s unabashedly tourist-friendly beach. Families flock here to take advantage of the surf, fishing charters, water sports concessions, seafood restaurants and family-favorite attractions like Miracle Strip at Pier Park, Shipwreck Island Water Park and Gulf World Marine Park.
Down Deep: Divers find a plethora of wrecks to explore.
Grownups’ Night Out: Hire a sitter and while the night away at the city’s beach bars and clubs.
Why You’ll Go: To enjoy a pristine waterfront mixed with a Southern small-town flair. The bustle of larger shore enclaves is decidedly lacking here, and that’s how regulars like it. Spend your vacation swimming, trying to spot dolphins in the Gulf, and shelling. Don’t forget to bring your fishing rod – plenty of people cast right from the shore, making it one of the favorite Northwest Florida beaches for anglers.
Off the Sand: Despite Mexico Beach’s laid-back feel, you will find a town boasting souvenir shops and other stores to explore. Seafood restaurants abound.
St. George Island State Park
Why You’ll Go: Nine miles of undeveloped, isolated beach graced by towering sand dunes. Camping sites are available, lifeguards are not. You’ll find terrific shelling and boat ramps. Launch to catch sea trout, redfish, mackerel and other species.
What the Locals Know: Birdwatchers visit in the fall, when you can spot migrating birds heading for their winter homes in South America. Falcons, hawks, and kestrels also flap their wings.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled: You’ll love driving the four-mile bridge that provides access to St.George Island from mainland Eastpoint. When you get there, restaurants include Blue Parrot Oceanfront Café and Harry A’s Restaurant & Bar. Learn more at floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland.