If you didn’t know better, you would think you were on a Caribbean Island. Your first sighting is memorable and, for many, it is also breathtaking. Nearly pure white mounds of sand lead down to sparkling waters that mix together many shades of blue, turquoise and green. This is the Emerald Coast of Florida’s Panhandle, and it came by its appellation honestly.
The translucent waters of the Gulf are not quite the color of emeralds, but light reflecting off the micro-algae gives it a lovely green tint. The water is known for its clarity—rivaling even the waters that surround the Keys—which results from having no sediment-bearing rivers flowing directly into this part of the Gulf. Instead, the out-flowing waters filter into the bays between the mainland and the barrier islands.
The Emerald Coast begins where the Forgotten Coast ends. Stretching for slightly more than 100 miles, this pristine shoreline includes the better-known towns of Panama City, Destin and Pensacola, as well as a multitude of smaller communities. Strung out along U.S. Highway 98, they all have a slightly different personality . . . but high-rise condominiums, resort developments, shopping centers and restaurants seem to be a common denominator. Fortunately, we had found a spot that was somewhat isolated from all that. Like an oasis in the desert, Grayton Beach State Park preserves what is best about the Emerald Coast and therein was the great attraction for us.
It helped that it was slightly off the beaten track, that being Highway 98. What we were soon to discover was Scenic Highway 30-A, a less commercial route that paralleled the busier highway. Stretching for 28.5 miles, this road hugs the Gulf coastline, giving the traveler occasional glimpses of the sugar-white sand beaches and the emerald waters stretching to the horizon. With building restrictions prohibiting high-rise developments, there are long stretches where only tall pines border the road. Residential areas are intermittent; the private homes being pretty and adding a touch of Florida character to the scenery.
Turning off 30-A, we entered Grayton Beach State Park . . . and left the outside world behind us. We didn’t realize what was waiting here for us to find within these boundaries. The next few days would reveal a diversity of scenic pleasures. We got situated in the campground and then set out to explore.
Composed of more than 2,000 acres, Grayton Beach State Park opened in 1968. I can’t help but use superlatives when describing what this park has to offer. The 34 campsites are divided into two sections—one is tucked away within a forest of dwarf trees and tropical shrubbery that provide shade and privacy between sites, while the newer section has full hookups and taller pines shading most sites. You can’t go wrong with either.
Nature trails are a highlight of this park. One will take you through a coastal forest where scrub oaks, southern pines and magnolias stand, some bent and twisted by the salt winds.
The Dune Trail twists and turns around the mounds of sand and swales, and through a tunnel of windblown oaks that create a roof of foliage over the trail. Sand fences are intended to prevent the fragile dunes from being overrun . . . they also add an interesting juxtaposition to the soft curvatures of the sand hills.
And then there is the 220-acre Western Lake, which is no ordinary pond. Bordered by elegant, coastal pines, this is one of the largest and most scenic of the dune lakes that are interspersed within this area. Found in only about five areas of the world, a dune lake is formed by the wind, where fresh water meets the salty Gulf waters. Classified as “critically imperiled” because of their extreme rarity, they are an important source of fresh water to migrating birds and other beach organisms. Conservationists say the dune lake system’s intrinsic value is “incalculable.”
I saved mention of Grayton’s beach for the last, if not the best, feature. For many years, Grayton consistently won recognition as one of the best beaches in our country. But when Hurricane Opal came through in 1995, the winds tossed Grayton’s vaunted dunes over to Alabama and Mississippi. As goes the natural cycle of dune building, although they are a shadow of their former selves, the dunes are slowly being re-established.
Once discovering what bounty this park had to offer, Melinda would be returning to these special places several times during our stay here. She made mental notes and memorized locations, determined to capture each place in the best possible light.
No matter how far we travel as our destinations add up, it’s never easy to leave a place that stirs a response in us. Especially when the place seems to be a slice of paradise. Nevertheless, our designated time here had ended and another place was waiting up the road. We find contentment in having found Grayton Beach . . . as well as knowing that we can always return again.
From an idyllic place along the Emerald Coast,
Chris and Melinda