Adventurous Activities in Panama City Beach, Fla.
By Janet K. Keeler
Water is the main attraction in Panama City Beach, especially for adventure travelers seeking thrills and challenges along this stretch of Gulf of Mexico shoreline.
From fishing to snorkeling and paddling to pedaling, nearly every outdoor activity is done with the water in view.
And what a view it is. The beaches of Florida’s Panhandle, and specifically the Emerald Coast, are miles and miles of white sand beaches with rolling dunes in some places. Rare coastal dunes lakes offer unique ecosystems to explore.
Panama City Beach is where the South comes to cool off in summer and get out of the cold in the winter. And thrill seekers from far and wide are beginning to discover its year-round adventure opportunities. You should be among them.
10 ways to be adventurous in the Panama City Beach area...
Camp Helen State Park is a natural respite just a few miles from busy Panama City Beach and a worthy spot for a traveler who wants to see natural Florida but doesn’t have a lot of time. Despite its name, there is no camping though visitors can fish and boat on the lake and nature-marvel along the trails. Visitors hike through the scrub oak forest to get to the beach dunes and should know that Lake Powell on the eastern border is one of the unique chain of coastal dune lakes on the Gulf Coast. Dogs on leashes welcome, too.
There are a number of bike trails in Bay County but for those who want a real workout, the 24-mile ride along State Road 30 from Panama City Beach to Sunnyside is the ticket. There and back is nearly 50 miles and the sightseeing along the way is superb. Much of the road runs along the water. Arrived without your bike? There are lots of places to rent bicycles in Panama City Beach, including Barley’s Bike Rentals which can also give tips on a local biking hot spots. Also check out Gayle’s Trails, the paved paths for bikers, hikers and skaters (no cars allowed!) that run in and near Panama City Beach.
TAKE THE ECO TOUR
Northern Florida and the Panhandle have many natural springs that provide cool water for recreation year-round. About an hour north of Panama City Beach is Cypress Spring, a worthy daytrip away from the beach. This is the place to glide via kayak or canoe though crystal waters and spy the wildlife under the surface, including a variety of turtles and mullet, a favorite Florida Fish. Coldwater Excursions offers adventures such as guided eco tours and snorkeling via underwater scooter. Transportation from Panama City Beach provided in a 12-passenger van.
Coastal dune lakes are unique to the Gulf Coast and there are several that can be explored at state parks. Deer Lake State Park east of Panama City is a hot spot for birders around the shore of the lake. There is a 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads to the beach. Farther west toward Grayton Beach is Topsail Hill Preserve Park that has two coastal dune lakes, Campbell and Morris. There is a lot to explore here on hiking trails, on the lakes and at the beach. Camping is a prime activity and there are places for RVs and tents, plus bungalows. Personal watercraft are not allowed but can be rented in the park. Access to the beach is by foot, bike or tram.
DROP A LINE
West Bay is a large body of water that borders Panama City Beach to the north and is an excellent spot for fishing. Just a few miles from the beach scene, West Bay seems to be a world away with its rural feel. Inshore fishing is a highlight and there are plenty of outfitters to take you out on the water and supply the equipment. Locals think of it as the Panhandle’s smaller scale version of the Everglades because of its rich ecosystem. And just like in the Everglades, you can book airboat rides here that move you fast over the water. The water is just four inches deep in some spots as the boats glide over marches and creeks. Saltwater in the Gulf of Mexico is also a popular pastime and TomCat Fishing Charters is one of many outfitters that offer a variety of excursions including shark fishing.
Seeing the sights from up high is thrilling but an adventurer wants to do more than look. Parasailing combines the love of the thrill with old school sightseeing. Adventures at Sea is a premier provider of water fun including pontoon boat rentals and tours that get travelers up close with dolphins and shell-laden beaches. The parasailing experience shows off pristine beaches from up high and lucky thrill seekers might spot jumping dolphin in the wake of the boat pulling them along.
A PARK WITH A PURPOSE
Just a few miles from the beach is Panama City Beach Conservation Park, a 2,900-acre oasis with 24 miles of trails for bikers, hikers and runners. Cypress tree forests flank boardwalks and natural trails. The connection with the quiet side of nature is strong here and birders, and bird-watcher wannabes, can spy up to 140 species, including hawks, ospreys and black-bellied whistling ducks. Bring binoculars. There are also guided tours for those who want a side of education with their adventure.
Shell Island is a popular spot for snorkelers who explore just under the water’s surface. There are many tours that transport travelers to the island where they can see sea urchins, seahorses and sea stars in the shallow water around the island. Dolphins like to cavort in this area, too. The beauty of snorkeling is that mastering the breathing tube and mask doesn’t take much time so novices can be underwater sightseeing in no time. Make sure to slather backs with sunscreen because it’s easy to lose track of time kicking around in the 80-degree water.
AND MORE DOLPHINS
A JetSki and dolphins? What’s not to love? A two-hour personal watercraft excursion is fun for friendly bottlenose dolphins, which love to jump in the wake. Travelers can rent water vehicles and set out on their own or arrange for guided tours. Most tours stop at Shell Island to swim and hunt for shells, those that aren’t occupied by live critters can be taken home for souvenirs.
DOUBLE THE CHALLENGE
You’ve mastered the paddleboard. And you are pretty good at finding your bliss through yoga. But can you do them together? Consider a paddleboard yoga class with Yoga Elements. You will need to make reservations and they will arrange for paddleboard rentals. 30A Paddleboard Yoga is another option and their sunset and full moon tours will certainly be something to talk about back home. They also have workshops and retreats.