By Kevin McGeever
Hello, Georgia. Got a Florida vacation on your mind?
You are a day’s drive from Atlanta to Destin and its snow-white Emerald Coast beaches and world-renowned offshore fishing. The journey is probably six hours, but we can recommend some Florida points of interest along the way.
For a good stretch of the legs, you can ascend the highest point in Florida. (All right, that fact is the only stretch here. The highest point is not very high at all.)
You can baptize your senses in the 72-degree, clear-as-glass waters of Vortex Spring, one of 700-plus natural gushers in Florida.
You can observe yellow-billed cuckoos, Bachman’s sparrows, and broadwinged hawks on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
You can create your own travel itinerary for driving to Destin with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool -- but here are some thought starters on what you can appreciate on your road trip through Florida, and what to expect when you reach Destin.
Distance from Atlanta to Destin: approximately 330 miles (531 kilometers)
Driving time: 5-6 hours
Best route(s): I-85 southwest to Montgomery; I-65 south, then local highways into Florida. But there are three routes depending on your location and preference.
Fuel costs: use this calculator.
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare.
Rest areas: Interstate 85, Interstate 65
Alternative transportation: Greyhound bus to Fort Walton Beach; travel time 11 to 12.5 hours
PLACES TO STOP ALONG THE WAY
Depending on where you cross the Sunshine State line, here are some Florida diversions from east to west, as well as the distances from Destin and the addresses of each point of interest, so you can program them into your GPS.
3449 Bonnett Pond Road, Chipley
Seacrest is a sanctuary for 30 Gray, Arctic, and British Columbian wolves. VISIT FLORIDA’s Gary McKechnie wrote: “Guests find themselves in a clearing within the forest. Echoing the call of the guide comes the eerie, unified howling of dozens of wolves who, at this point, are still hidden in the woods. When the wolves appear, the instinctual urge to flee is replaced by a stronger urge to meet them. As curious as kittens and as gentle as puppies, the wolves greet you with “muzzling,” a sign of friendship. For an extended time, they’ll sit by your side, lie by your feet, and bump against you as a gentle reminder they want their ears scratched.”
Time allowance: 3 hours.
Distance from Destin: 68 miles (109 kilometers)
1517 Vortex Springs Lane, Ponce de Leon
The location name is apt because the Sunshine State’s 700-plus natural springs are the real fountains of youth. From central through north Florida, the springs are water wonderlands that must be experienced to fully appreciate them. Consider these basic characteristics: 72 degrees year-round and clear-as-glass visibility for snorkelers and divers. This is your lens into the massive Floridan Aquifer that runs beneath Florida.
Time allowance: 3 hours, but you can camp overnight.
Distance from Destin: 57 miles (91 kilometers)
35 N 8th St., DeFuniak Springs
This north Florida city came of age with the railroad in the 1880s. During the Victorian era, a campus/resort known as the “Education Resort of the South” welcomed presidents and poets, songwriters and stars to its annual Florida Chautauqua Assembly. The resort is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Little Big Store celebrates that past with nostalgic treats and treasures: a working wall phone with hand-held earpiece, steel wind-up toys, and vintage goodies (Necco wafers, Moon Pies, RC Cola, and sarsaparilla).
Time allowance: as long as curiosity and your sweet tooth allow.
Distance from Destin: 43 miles (69 kilometers)
Contrary to the sneers of those states enamored of their Rockies and Cascades and Appalachians and Adirondacks, Florida is not flat as a sand dollar. We have Britton Hill, 345 majestic feet above mean sea level. Roughly 500 people have scaled the highest points in all 50 states. VISIT FLORIDA’s Florence Snyder wrote of peak Florida: “You can summit without a Sherpa. Your grandmother can get to the top without breaking a sweat.” C’mon. We dare you.
Time allowance: 345 feet … 115 yards … you figure it out. But the park is lovely. Take your time.
Distance from Destin: 53 miles (85 kilometers)
7720 Deaton Bridge Road, Milton
According to the state park website, the Blackwater River is the highway through “the largest contiguous longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem left in the world.” Canoeing, kayaking, camping, and picnicking are common activities for humans. The park and forest are also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Among the residents here are yellow-billed cuckoos, red-shouldered hawks, and brown-headed nuthatches (left).
Time allowance: four hours to four days.
Distance from Destin: 52 miles (83 kilometers)
WELCOME TO DESTIN
The Florida destination dubbed the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” is also the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast. When your feet touch the sugar-white sand, know that you are walking on Florida Gulf-coast beaches that rank among the best in the world. Here are some of the things to do in Destin.
A one-stop-fits-all for rentals of paddle boards, kayaks, pontoon, jet skis, parasailing, glass bottom boats, dolphin cruises and pirate ship excursions. It also is loaded with restaurants and shops.
Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park has more than 40 water play areas with huge slides, a wave pool and lazy river, along with miniature golf and race go-karts. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park dolphin shows and wildlife encounters for ages 3 and up.
Available by sea, land, and sky, from leisurely to a degree of difficulty. Calm waters and shallow depths make the perfect runway for kiteboarding, a viewfinder lens for snorkeling, and a playground for rookie paddleboarders. Farther offshore, certified divers can explore artificial reefs and charter boats provide the first step in a sea-to-table fishing experience (more on this in a moment). On the mainland, wooded trails await riders on bikes and horses.
Between Destin and Fort Walton Beach, there are 24 miles of soft white sand beaches that are blessed by surf that transitions in color from pale green glass to emerald, and all of it is backed by blue sky. There are five beachfront parks with amenities and 12 access points. Pick your pleasure from Henderson Beach to Topsail Hill. Or lavish yourself with a Gulf-front resort.
Twenty miles from land and you are at “The Edge,” the edge of the Continental Shelf and the fishing ground for blackfin tuna, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel and the occasional wahoo and sailfish. There are dozens of charter boats with knowledgeable captains available to take novice and experienced anglers on memorable excursions. For those looking for even more adventure and deeper depths, some boats head 50 miles out to hunt marlin and swordfish.
Driving from Atlanta to Destin is a road trip full of possibilities. The Destin beaches may be your ultimate destination, but along the route there are numerous Florida points of interest and memories to make. Enjoy the ride.