It’s an understated kind of place that we happen to find appealing. It isn’t as well-known as other Florida areas and we like it that way. In spite of it being (how shall I phrase it . . .) a high-rent district kind of place (definitely not us), it has a quaintness, houses with character and to our liking (if not for the millions-of-dollars price tags) and the best sugarfine white sand in all of the state. We can bike to our hearts content, browse the shops and see what the “trend-setting, price-is-no-object” people are buying, and eat some pretty tasty food at little al fresco cafes. Best of all, amid this “place apart” atmosphere, we can camp in very scenic, civilized, beachfront state parks. Within a longleaf pine forest on the shores of rare freshwater lakes, this is truly a world set apart. We have prime campsites on the edge of these lakes with the sounds of frogs, exotic wildlife, and maybe a swamp creature or two making strange sounds throughout the night. We greet each morning with an early walk to the beach, and another one in late afternoon, when the setting sun turns the gulf waters to liquid bronze. These are the good moments in our lives.
It is known as the Emerald Coast. Stretching about 100 miles from the towns of Pensacola to Port St. Joe, this portion of the Florida Panhandle is perhaps best known for its beaches.
This coastline is different from others you’ll find in Florida. The deep emerald green color of the Gulf combined with the white crystal quartz beaches is unique. Although at times it is a popular place, it nevertheless remains amazingly undeveloped commercially. If you are attracted to scenic places, then this place should be calling to you–but keep it to yourself.
The “Emerald Coast” moniker is not an exaggeration. The translucent waters of the gulf are not quite the color of emeralds, but light reflecting off the micro-algae gives its water a lovely green tint. The water’s clarity results from the fact that no large sediment-bearing rivers flow directly into the area’s gulf waters. The incoming water is filtered through the scattered dune lake estuaries along the coastline. What you’ll find here has been favorably compared to the more distant Caribbean Islands . . . but shhhh, don’t spread the word any farther!
Leaving Ocala National Forest we had a somewhat long drive of 300+ miles where we left I-10 and drove south toward the Gulf. Crossing over the big expanse of Choctawhatchee Bay, we had arrived on the thin finger of low-lying land, stretching between Destin to the west and Panama City to the east, where our last few weeks of Florida winter would be spent. Little more than a sandy barrier island, the area is made up a several small communities lining the Gulf. Interspersed between these developed areas are a handful of state parks attempting to preserve the natural landscape—two of which provide full-service campgrounds. For a taste of different environments, we had reserved sites at both.
Grayton Beach State Park is not one of Florida’s largest, or its oldest, or its most popular state park, but it is one of its prettiest—IMHO. With a total of 34 campsites divided into two areas with different personalities, it is one of the nicest camping areas along the Gulf Coast. The older section is tucked away in trees and shrubs, providing dense shade and privacy between sites, which are of varying sizes, but mostly amply deep. The newer section has full hookups (the older has only water and power), more open sites (some more, some less) with a scattering of pine trees that might not provide total shade, but do help to remove the sterile look of a barren camping area. A few of the sites have a view of Western Lake, while others look out into the pines and marshland area. We had made a good selection with our site—a nice view of the natural surroundings greeted us each morning. Not a bad way to start the day.
Covering more than 2,000 acres, Grayton Beach State Park has a beach on one side and access to the coastal dune lake known as Western Lake on the other. Of the 15 coastal dune lakes stretching along this coastline, the 220-acre Western Lake is one of the largest and most scenic. Dune lakes are formed by the wind and in Florida are found only along this small stretch of the Panhandle. Classified as “critically imperiled” because of their extreme rarity—other than in Oregon, they can only be found in Madagascar, New Zealand, and Australia—dune lakes are biologically diverse. A permanent body of water that is filled with freshwater and rain which can burst open, passing through the dunes and mix with the salty Gulf water, which in turn, refills the lake. This unique formation creates an interesting and divergent landscape, provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and vegetation, and exists as a estuarine transition between the Gulf and upland areas. Conservationists say the dune lake system’s intrinsic value is “incalculable.” For myself, it presented a beautiful setting for photo opportunities and a place that I spent many hours along its perimeters.
No sooner had we set up camp, than the cumulus cloud formations caught my attention. Western Lake provided the perfect canvas to capture the moment.
That afternoon was just the beginning of a beautiful attraction. Calculating where the sun would rise in the morning, wouldn’t you know it would be that exact same spot? Now on Central Time, my body clock would be pushed one hour earlier (what a bummer!) and 5 am felt like the depths of the night. But the magic was mine!
And once out of bed, despite the early hour, no use to go home. Time to see the hidden side to this state park, time to catch the dunes bathed in early morning light. I trudged on through the sand.
The pristine white sand of the Emerald Coast is unique—it is as pure white as the newly fallen snow. As it is with snow, these dunes also make for a perfect canvas, reflecting all the colors that natural light can bring. And there’s one extra bonus to the sand—you won’t be freezing while you work the scene!
This wasn’t our first time to experience the Emerald Coast . . . not even the second. As I have already written, we have been attracted to this area from our first visit. Besides the appeal of an unblemished setting, the scenic highway passing by the gates of entrance to Grayton Beach offers a different but every bit as magnetic draw for us. Ever heard of Scenic Highway 30-A? Neither had we until we came. But let me assure you—it is another hidden asset of this area. (But please don’t spill the beans!)
Thirty-A is a 28.5-mile corridor that hugs the Gulf of Mexico coastline running through Walton County. Along this idyllic drive you’ll see those sugar-white sand beaches with plenty of public accesses. It passes through small communities that all have their own personalities. It is an exciting blend of Caribbean colors and soft pastels, with architecture to match each community’s charm, whether it be Old Florida’s traditional 2 & 3-story homes, or the cottages of Seaside with their white picket fences and pedestrian pathways to New Urbanism.
But the best asset of all—from our perspective at least—is the Timpoochee Bike Trail running alongside Scenic 30-A—for 18 miles. The paved trail passes through a variety of sceneries, through pine flatwoods, over sand hills and coastal uplands, along wetlands and marshes, and many of the coastal dune lakes. Interspersed between the natural settings are the little communities that will capture your attention, perhaps tempting you to take a detour to check them out. You’ll get the best of both worlds from a biking perspective—seeing all the charms at a slower speed that insures you see it all. And can more easily pull over when the spirit moves you.
buying fresh-caught Grouper at our favorite seafood market . . .
or just stopping for a breather—
bagging some rays
and watching the world pass by.
It’s important to save some stamina in reserve, once you’ve returned to camp. If the day has held its good conditions and the sky seems full of promise, it’s for sure you’ll want to spend it on the beach. You’ll find you won’t be all alone, but then again, the show is big enough for all. No high-rises or million-dollar homes to mar the scene . . . that’s what truly makes this park a rare treasure.
Along the way you’ll pass a landscape of rolling sand dunes . . . knobby shapes topped with stunted oaks and shrubbery, bent and twisted by the frequently strong salt winds. You’ll find a long boardwalk cuts through these dunes to protect them, the most direct route leading to the beach. Hidden behind the undulating dunes, it’s not until the last few steps do the gulf waters come in view. If you’ve timed your arrival to be there before the sun sets, you’ll soon see what kind of show the sky will be giving.
One thing I’ve learned during all my efforts to shoot the sunsets, is how very popular this event is to the people. On any given night . . . in all sorts of different places—but waterscapes are by far the most popular . . . as the sun makes its final drop of the day, the people gather round. Some with cameras, most without, and silently, almost reverently, they quietly watch the event unfold.
If a sunset isn’t enough to stir your senses, perhaps observing how it touches other people might be the better reward.
Oftentimes, the people take their leave too soon. If any clouds remain behind the setting sun, chances are there will be an afterglow. The water grows dark, the light is fading, but wait and see—a flash of brilliant last color might deliver a final encore. You just never know.
We spent nearly two weeks at Grayton Beach campground—and enjoyed every day that we had. Once you find a particular place that resonates with your senses, it never becomes “old” or mundane. Whether headed out for a day’s adventure, or staying in camp and soaking up the neighborhood’s ambiance, we relished our time as well-spent.
Our last morning held one last interesting experience. With heavy cloud cover predicted for early morning, I had my doubts as to the prospects for a satisfactory sunrise shot. As it turned out, the skies were heavily overcast and it appeared I would lose out on this opportunity. Nevertheless, I was on the beach as the sun was rising (some habits are hard to break) . . . and wouldn’t you know, it produced some interesting results.
Sometimes in moments of doubt, a little “miracle” can happen. A crack in the clouds . . . the sun peaking through . . . a shaft of light as strong as a beacon can illuminate an otherwise ordinary landscape.
And so it was on this particular last morning—a beam of light in the east backdropped by storm clouds rolling in from the west. It didn’t last long—the light was soon gone.
And the gulf coastline became a palette of muted pastel colors.
But if you’re not there, then you can’t reap the rewards.
We were on our way down the road—another campground, the last of our trip. Not far away . . . still on Scenic Highway 30-A . . . Topsail Hill State Park, which is often mentioned as being “the most pristine piece of coastal property in the state of Florida.” A sweep of fragile dunes along a shore line that’s all but vanished under the crush of development, Topsail Hill is a very special place. Protecting more than 3 miles of the gulf shore, as well as 1,600 acres of delicate scrub and pine flatwoods that lie behind the dune line, this is a long linear park that offers a variety of easy and more difficult hiking trails.
As the gulf dunes go, this park is a doozie. One of the most dazzling—rising a whopping 25 feet above sea level—is the Topsail Hill. Walk down the beach a mile or more to see it, or walk the inland trail to find it rising above Lake Campbell, another of the coastal dune lakes.
Topsail Hill’s campground is very civilized, a top-rated place with over 150 sites having full hookups. Located in a pine forest providing deep shade, the sites are deep and most have paved pads. We were among the most fortunate, having a site backed up to one of the park’s larger lakes. A very scenic spot.
Once again, a campsite to bring us closer to nature . . . the changing complexion of the lake waters backed by longleaf pines. A place to savor as evening closed in, the twilight colors reflected in clear water. Where our patience would be rewarded when wildlife slowly emerged from the shores. These are the times that make our travels worthwhile, the moments we remember long after we’ve left.
Topsail Hill is a unique and special place on Santa Rosa Beach; you can’t help but feel fortunate when camping here. It would surely be time well-spent, especially if you make good use
of what is offered.
(But keep in mind—it’s our little secret).
With camera in hand, I set out to capture the essence of this park.
A full moon rising above a stand of
elegant, old growth longleaf pines.
An early morning sunrise catching the first rays breaking through a pine-bordered lake.
A place where stately pines are often reflected in mirror-calm waters, dotted with lilies.
And the clear waters of another coastal dune lake offer a good place for quiet retrospection.
With 15 miles of hiking trails to choose from, a path through rolling dunes could easily be mistaken for a high plains prairie dusted with snow.
. . . as fine as the wind-blown snow, this is sand you’ll want to dig your toes in.
If sandy hikes aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of paths to follow through the pine forests. Morris Lake Nature Trail has the perfect combination—giving you a taste of both environments. It’s a delightful 10-mile hike that gives you a true sense of what once this land was like.
When the sun drops low and the evening approaches . . .
. . . there’s the shimmering, emerald-green waters of the Gulf to entice you.
There really isn’t a much better spot to end your day, or to conclude a winter’s sojourn.
–Just don’t forget—mum’s the word!
Until we set out again . . .
Melinda and Chris