Grayton Beach anchors the west end of a scenic ribbon of Gulf Coast west of Panama City known as the 30A Scenic Highway. Colorful and vibrant, 30A is home to the iconic planned community of Seaside and the pastels of neighboring Watercolor.
If there is a heaven, this might be it.
The timing of our visit could not have been better.
We have long wanted to camp and visit Grayton Beach State Park, where the Gulf of Mexico sparkles like emeralds as it rolls onto a sugar-sand beach with majestic dunes.
The day we set up camp here, Dr. Beach announced his annual beach rankings, and Grayton Beach ranked No. 4 in America. It’s not the first time Grayton Beach has been on his radar, and that’s one of the reasons we included this stop on our campground safari through Florida’s Panhandle in 2017.
Another reason would be to paddle on the unique chain of “dune lakes” tucked behind the dunes, and if you’ve never visited the picturesque oceanfront communities of Watercolor or Seaside, then this would be your chance. They’re next door.
Sandwiched in the middle of the 2000-acre state park is Grayton Beach itself, a tiny beachside enclave that pops out of the sand, a real throwback to yesteryear.
This is bicycle heaven, as well. You can really get around here on multi-use coastal trails and unpaved forest roads and trails in the adjacent 15,000-acre Point Washington State Forest.
Grayton Beach State Park camping at the beach
Separated from the beach by sand dunes and a dune lake, the campground feels right at home in this natural coastal hammock.
The old campground loop is my first choice with dense ground vegetation with dappling shade, affording seclusion from site to site.
We were camping in our 25-foot travel trailer in the old campground loop (site 19). Although not directly on the lake, we faced a short path to the lake directly across the campground access road.
Excellent for tent campers, the campsites in the old loop (sites 1-36) can be a tight fit for larger RVs, and the back-in angles of some sites, though manageable, can be a challenge. Intruding tree branches may limit your ability to extend awnings.
The new campground loop (sites 37-59) favors larger RV’s, although the recently planted understory doesn’t quite provide the same privacy, and the immature tree growth allows a sunnier, open sky view. Welcome in cooler weather, not so much on hot summer days.
Sites in the new campground have 20/30/50-amp electric, water and sewer hookups.
Both camping loops have restrooms with hot showers, although the restrooms in the old loop are closed until the end of the year for renovations.
The camping fee at this beachfront campground was just $24 per night (half that for Florida seniors over 65) plus a $6.70 booking fee per visit.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites and cabins at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.
Grayton Beach State Park cabins
Pulling in to the gated driveway to the cabins at Grayton Beach State Park, you almost feel like one of these millionaires who owns a beach side getaway in this sought after neighborhood.
In an unusual arrangement, the cabins are located on a beach front parcel separate from the rest of the park — one mile west of the main park entrance along Scenic 30A, on the western side of the town of Grayton Beach.
The 30 two-bedroom, one-bath duplex cabins are a really sweet deal.
Surrounded by a beautiful forest where you are likely to see deer, they are a five or 10 minute walk to the boardwalk over the dunes to the magnificent beach.
Because the only ones who have the code to enter via the cabin entrance are people staying in the cabins, there are never more than a handful of people at this beach.
The cabin area was a separate and later purchase by the state parks system from the original Grayton Beach State Park. It was slated for development when purchased in the 1980s. The area still has the blacktop roadways of the never-built community, which make nice walking or biking trails through the forest.
Like all state park cabins, you should come prepared. Bring dish soap, hand soap, shampoo, paper towels.
Even though they are duplexes, these cabins have great deal of privacy, including a really nice screened porch that overlooks the woods where we saw two spotted by fawns one morning.
The cabin has an electric fireplace with a heating element that was a cozy experience on chilly November nights. Typical of Florida parks, there is no Wi-Fi and no TV.
The cabins run $130 in season (Feb. 1-July 31) and $110 in the off-season (Aug. 1-Jan. 31). Weekly rates are available.
The beach and kayaking dune lakes at Grayton Beach State Park
This beach boasts of sugar-white sand and emerald green water where development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape. — Dr. Beach
Campers enjoy a section of this award-winning beach all to themselves, away from the day-use beach area. Both sections of this mile-long beach are stunning.
High dunes trickle down a gentle, family-friendly slope to the Gulf, peppered with sea oats, grasses and patches of stubborn ground vegetation that hold the dunes together.
When we parked ourselves on the beach for an afternoon of sun and swimming, there were very few interlopers, leaving this stunning scene ours alone to enjoy.
This beach is not only stunning, but its dunes shelter a rare 100-acre brackish lake that squiggles through the dunes, creating an ideal paddle trail for kayaks and canoes.
The lake balloons on two ends, offering crossings to the public boat ramp in neighboring Grayton Beach, or to a spur off the lake that takes you behind the dunes that frame the communities of Watercolor and Seaside.
We were fortunate to have access to a kayak launch directly across from our campsite in the old campground. Another kayak launch is located in the day-use area of the park.
Bicycling at Grayton Beach State Park
The park has a 4.5 mile hiking/biking trail that will take you through the forest.
Outside the park is the paved multi-use Timpoochee Trail, which runs parallel to County Road 30A, the popular tourism corridor that includes Watercolor and Seaside.
A trail also enables bicycle access to shopping a mile away in Grayton Beach, including a convenience store at the corner of County Road 283, or Watercolor and Seaside in the opposite, or easterly direction.
Across CR 30A from Grayton Beach State Park is Point Washington State Forest, which has three off-road double-loop trails of 3.5-, 5- or 10 miles, as well as miles of unpaved forest roads for hiking, biking and equestrian use.
A greenway trail is also under construction that will connect the forest to Grayton Beach State Park and two other state parks, as well as several residential neighborhoods.
The charming town of Grayton Beach
Grayton Beach is a historic town founded in 1890 and has a number of charming older houses clustered in the village right next to the dunes. It has all the Florida authenticity that the new developments along County 30A lack.
It’s located where 30A meets Walton County Road 283, about a mile from the park entrance. Here you’ll find cute cafes, an oyster bar and a sports bar tucked away in a couple of unpretentious shopping plazas. You’ll also find a bundle of art galleries in small cabins.
Undoubtably, the most popular place in town is the Red Bar, which was destroyed in a fire in 2019 but has been rebuilt on the same site one lot from the beach. It reopened in 2020. On a Monday night in November — definitely the off-off-season — there was a 40 minute wait for a table.
We thought it was worth it. The eclectic crowd, the live music and ultimately the excellent food made for a great time.
The Red Bar is at 70 Hotz Ave, Grayton Beach, FL 32459. (850) 231-1008.
There are plenty of other appealing spots in the neighborhood but hold onto your wallets. The prices at nearby shops and cafes are a little over the top. But sometimes you have to pay for sheer elegance, and that’s just what you get in the picturesque planned communities of Seaside and Watercolor.
A leisurely bike ride through Watercolor won’t cost you anything, though, and you might think it’s OK to pay $18 for a cheeseburger at “World Famous” Pickles Seaside Grill just to say you ate there. (We did, and the burger was quite tasty.)
If you want to do any serious grocery shopping, the nearest Publix is in Watercolor Crossings Plaza, six miles away on a back road in Watercolor. It might be easier to find the Public on U.S. 98, about 8 miles away.
For fresh seafood, I recommend Shrimpers in Santa Rosa Beach, about 10 miles south on U.S. 98. This a wonderful little seafood market features fresh-caught shrimp, oysters, grouper and other local catches at attractive prices, and they’ll steam your shrimp in Old Bay right there if you wish.
Grayton Beach State Park
357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, FL. 850-267-8300.
Web site: floridastateparks.org/park/Grayton-Beach
Activities: Beach, bicycling, birding, boat ramp, camping, cabins, canoe/kayak, fishing, hiking, picnicking, swimming.
Camping: $24/night plus tax and a non-refundable $6.70 reservation fee. Cabins: $110-$130/night. For campground reservations up to 11 months in advance, Visit the state-park website or call (800) 326-3521. (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern).
Pets: Yes, but not on beaches
Cellular: Decent signal for both ATT/Consumer Cellular and Verizon.
TV at campground: Received seven stations over the air (antenna), and satellite reception should be good in the more-open new campground loop.
Accessibility: Accessible cabins, campsites and picnic pavilions and tables. Also: beach Mobi-Mats and beach wheelchair.
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.