Beaches / Birding / The Panhandle

Beyond the shoreline: Exploring Fort Walton Beach

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park has it all: 3.2 miles of natural white sand beaches with 25-foot-high sand dunes and a rare coastal dune lake. (Photo: Florida State Parks)

We’re happy to share a guest post today from Richard Remick, who works part time as an IT security consultant while traveling and exploring the outdoors. He spends most of his time skiing, hiking and camping in Colorado and when in Florida you can usually find him on the water either paddleboarding or kayaking. His last story for Florida Rambler was about five favorite places to paddleboard in Tampa Bay.

My girlfriend and I are both outdoorsy people, but we can’t always agree on which activity we want to do together. She says packing up the entire car and setting up a campsite for a mere overnight trip is too labor intensive. I agree it’s a lot of work, but to me, it’s worth it.

She enjoys biking, but that bores me after a while. We’ve checked out all the trails around our home in Tampa Bay. Seeing the same place over and over again does nothing to quell my need for novelty.

Freshwater lake at Topsail Preserve State Park. (Photo: Florida State Parks)

As a compromise, and in an attempt to mix things up a little bit, we began road-tripping during long weekends. Seeking out unexplored areas has become a challenge for us. We find researching an area before the trip is as fun than the trip itself!

One of our jaunts last spring took us to the Fort Walton Beach area for several days. Years ago, my family had taken a vacation there and the breathtaking image of brilliant green water against stark white sand had lingered in my mind. I remembered it as a spectacular view.

Those stunning beaches are a main attraction and the primary reason hordes of Spring Breakers descend on the area every year. While we hoped to spend some time on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, we also wanted to experience some lesser known and quieter nature areas.

With overnight bags packed, bikes hitched, and a reservation on our Airbnb app, we took a leisurely drive up US-19 toward the Florida Panhandle. (We like to take the road less travelled!)

We prefer the wild to touristy areas. While we did want to spend a few hours at the beach, our main plan was to go inland and check out some of the area parks. We spent a few hours at the beach at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

A trail in Topsail Preserve State Park. (Photo: Florida State Parks)

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

We were thrilled to come across Topsail Hill Preserve. As fans of hiking, we appreciated the trails which run for about 2.5 miles. Had we known the place had rental cabins we probably would have stayed there, but we were already committed to our Airbnb reservations.

We really enjoyed the tranquil sea-green water, the white dunes speckled with sea oats, and the solitude of Lake Campbell, a rare freshwater lake surrounded by dunes.

Florida Scenic Trail- Burnt Grocery Creek

The following day we headed north toward Milton and explored Burnt Grocery Creek, which is one portion of the longer Florida Scenic Trail. Sadly, we had to turn around after being out for about an hour. It’s not that the surroundings weren’t beautiful, but we realized well into our hike that we had forgotten our water bottles!

The portion of the trail we did see was serene and isolated and ran along the banks of a creek. We came across only a handful of other explorers while out there. In keeping with the remoteness of the area, there was no designated parking area. We had to park along the side of the road at the trailhead.

The area is a must for birders as there seemed to be a great variety. I had recently taking to bird watching, its not just for old people!

Blackwater River State Park

Blackwater River is another park and hiking area near Milton and “wow” is all I can say.

My girlfriend and I both agreed this was our favorite and we would recommend it without hesitation. It’s picturesque, featuring three hiking trails, which wind between lakes, through forests, and among swampland.

The coolest, though, are the waterfalls — a rarity in flat Florida.

For the diversity of landscape alone, this park is a must-see.

Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park (Photo: Florida State Park)

Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park

On our third day we traveled just northeast of Destin, where we visited Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park. Granted, Fred Gannon isn’t very far inland, but if did offer scenery that was unique from the coastline.

These trails were also quiet during our visit. It was as if we (almost) had the whole place to ourselves. One of the loops followed alongside a stream while another ran by the bayou shoreline. Apparently this is an aquatic preserve. Locals had gotten our hopes up, saying that we might be lucky enough to spot dolphins, but sadly, we weren’t so fortunate. We did see a bald eagle, though, which was pretty cool. Lots of waterfowl here.

 

The Long Leaf Pine forest is being restored at Rocky Bayou State Park. (Photo: Florida State Parks)

Hopefully our experience in going beyond-the-beach will inspire visitors and locals alike. The nature areas in Florida’s Panhandle are amongst the most diverse in the nation and offer a rich variety of places to explore.

Resources for visiting Fort Walton Beach area

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Florida Scenic Trail- Burnt Grocery Creek

Blackwater River State Park

Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park

Indian Temple Mound Museum A small Fort Walton Beach museum in the historic downtown operated by the city. It contains early artifacts from the mound which was excavated in the ’60s. On the same grounds are other historic buildings, including Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, Garnier Post Office Museum, and Civil War exhibits.

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