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Panhandle

Travel the Gulf of Mexico Coastline

Mileage106 miles (170 km)
DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.3 hours
SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.All Seasons
RoadwaysUS 89, FLs 30A and 39, and Front Beach Street
ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.Gulf Breeze, FL, Pensacola, FL, Navarre, FL, Fort Walton Beach, FL, Shalimar, FL, Destin, FL, Niceville, FL, Miramar Beach, FL, more...Pensacola Beach, FL, Sandestin, FL, Santa Rosa Beach, FL, Grayton Beach, FL, Panama City Beach, FL, Lynn Haven, FL, and Springfield, FL
Rating
3.5 average from 13 votes
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Description

The allure of glistening white Appalachian quartz sands and deep emerald green waters is mesmerizing. Hugging the coastline of Escambia Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in Walton County, this drive delivers with stunning scenery and friendly beach communities, each with its own unique vibe. Find a myriad of recreation opportunities as well as a string of spectacular state parks, rare coastal dune lakes, historic sites, and oh, let’s not forget fabulous shopping and dining. Whether you live nearby or are just visiting, exploring the Panhandle is a true getaway.

Pensacola beach dunes
Pensacola beach dunes

We begin our drive on the Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway (US-90). This treasure travels along the Escambia River south to the Bayou Texar Bridge. From I-10, take exit 17 for US-90 West.

Stop at Chimney Park (H2), named for the Hyer-Knowles Planing Mill Chimney, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the mid-1850s, the chimney is a remnant of an early steam power plant, destroyed during the Civil War by Confederate forces to keep it out of enemy hands. The original bricks were handmade by slaves in a nearby brick factory.

Continue on US-90, passing forested wetlands and quaint towns. Make your next stop the 32-acre Bay Bluffs Park (H1). Here you will find unique red clay bluffs (once use for brick making) and the highest natural vantage point along the entire Florida coastline. Have your camera ready for expansive views overlooking Escambia Bay, and a backdrop of longleaf pine, magnolia and live oak forest. Walk down the extensive boardwalk to the base of the cliffs for a different perspective.

Just below the bridge is Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (A2) featuring a wayside park, making this a great stop for watching waterfowl, gulls, and terns as well as to get regional information.

As the scenic drive arrives in Pensacola, consider a detour to the National Naval Aviation Museum (M1) which features aircraft and exhibits depicting the achievements and sacrifices made in more than a century of Naval Aviation. Climb inside the cockpit of historic aircraft, learn more about naval aviation in WWI, the Cold War, the Blue Angels, and much more. Other displays include uniforms, flight gear weaponry, medals and photographs. A valid ID is required to enter. The museum and parking are free.

Just across the street from the museum is the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum (M2). Built in 1859, climb 177 steps for outstanding views and explore the restored Keepers’ Quarters. There is an admission fee.

Historic Fort Barrancas (H3) is also nearby. Tour the fort and the Advanced Redoubt, unique in Pensacola for being designed solely to resist a land-based assault. At the Visitor Center, learn about the Civil War and how the barrier islands were formed. Also enjoy hiking, picnicking and the extraordinary Gulf Islands National Seashore. To reach Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt onboard Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, use the Blue Angel Parkway (Florida Route 173).

Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels. From March to November you’ll see (and hear) the Blue Angels practice on most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

To continue our scenic drive, turn left onto North 17th Ave which will bring you to the Pensacola Bay Bridge. If you took the detour to downtown Pensacola, you can follow Main Street east to the Bayfront Parkway which will bring you to the bridge. Note a toll is charged.

After crossing the bridge, continue straight to Santa Rosa Island (part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore) via Pensacola Beach Boulevard and turn right on Fort Pickens Road. In the town of Pensacola Beach (W1), swim, boogie board, snorkel, or try your hand at standup paddle boarding, parasailing, scuba and wreck diving. Submerged in the waters of Florida’s Panhandle are twelve unique shipwrecks which are a big draw for divers. Outfitters have everything you need including lessons, tours and rentals. Festivals regularly punctuate the calendar.

Continuing west leads to Fort Pickens (A1). The largest of four forts, Fort Pickens was built between 1829-1834 to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. Named for Revolutionary war hero Andrew Pickens, it was one of only four forts in the south not captured by the confederates. It also claims fame for once housing Apache prisoner Geronimo. Ten concrete gun batteries remain, as well as many brick structures set amid breathtaking landscape. Learn more about the fort and region from ranger-led guided tours. Along with exploring the historic fort, there are abundant water recreation opportunities such as swimming, diving, snorkeling, and fishing for snapper, flounder, blue crab, shrimp, and mackerel. Walk a portion of the 28.2-mile section of the 1300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail which begins near the fort and travels to the western-most point of Santa Rosa Island. Though not a difficult trail as there is no elevation gain, this trail is exposed to strong winds and sun. Be prepared with sunscreen, sun hat and plenty of water. Kayaking or canoeing is one of the best ways to explore the diversity and natural beauty along a stretch of the 1550-mile Florida Circumnavigational Paddling Trail that passes through here. Wildlife watchers and bird enthusiasts will love the Santa Rosa Barrier Islands, a hotspot for over 280 species of migratory birds as well as breeding grounds for loggerhead turtles and views of the most common mammal found here, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. With so much to do here, consider a longer stay at developed or primitive campsites for tents and RV’s.

Retrace your way to Pensacola Beach Blvd. and cross back over to continue our drive along US-98/Gulf Breeze Parkway. If you want to spend more time on Santa Rosa Island, stay on Fort Pickens Road which becomes Via De Luna Drive to access the Santa Rosa Day Use Area (H5). At Opal Beach, swim the life-guarded areas and enjoy miles of unspoiled shoreline and towering sand dunes which are sculpted by wind and stabilized by the roots of sea oats. From May through October is turtle hatching season. Please do not touch the nests, turtles or hatchlings and respect posted signs. There is an entrance fee for the park covered by an America the Beautiful Pass.

The scenic drive continues on US-98 heading east. Hurricanes have done some major damage and the rebuilding along this coastline has created an interesting mix of old and new Florida.

Those craving just one more beach, but certainly not the last on this drive, should take the Navarre Beach Causeway to the Navarre Beach Park (H4). Wooden walkways and covered shelters lead to resplendent white beaches. Here you’ll find solitude and pods of dolphins doing their acrobatics in the distance. And don’t miss fishing off the longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico. The 1,545 foot Navarre Beach Fishing Pier is not only for fishing, but a great spot to soak in the views or watch the sunset. There is a fee for fishing and you can walk along the pier for only $1.

If you have taken the detour, cross back to US-98 via the Navarre Beach Causeway. As you arrive in Fort Walton Beach, consider a detour to the Air Force Armament Museum (M3) where you’ll discover an interesting collection of aircraft and weaponry from World War I to today. Visit indoor exhibits of aircraft, gun collection, bombs, and missiles and learn about the history of Elgin Air Force from a short film. Outdoor exhibits include vintage military aircraft and the fastest plane ever built — the SR-71 Blackbird. Admission is free. To reach it, follow the Eglin Parkway SE/FL-85 North.

Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island and Destin are three small seaside towns ready to restore and energize. Along the Emerald Coast, water sports reign supreme and the possibilities are endless. Relax on the sugary beaches and dip your toes in the surf, or immerse yourself completely by scuba diving or snorkeling. There are outfitters and guided tours galore, offering nature or fishing boat excursions, canoe and kayak rentals and for the more adventurous, parasailing. And when the sun sets — the towns comes alive with theater, concerts, performing arts and other cultural events. Destin’s Harbor Walk is lined with restaurants and beach bars intermixed with a deeply-rooted fishing life. There’s a reason it’s known as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village. Visit the Destin History and Fishing Museum (M4) for the complete story and history of this village.

Henderson Beach State Park (H6) is a refreshing oasis, especially for families as many facilities provide everything you need for a day at the beach. Sheltered pavilions for picnicking, BBQ’s, playground, accessible boardwalks that lead to the beach and more. Explore the shifting dunes and coastal scrub along the 3/4-mile hiking trail or pass the hours away swimming, fishing and beachcombing. Take advantage of beachside camping in one of the 60 tent and RV sites. There is a day use fee to enter.

The scenic drive continues passing a number of fabulous beaches, the only problem — selecting just one. Crystal Beach, Miramar, Sandestin, Santa Rosa, Seagrove with sandy bluffs. Stop as the craving pulls you.

In Santa Rosa Beach, over 1640-acres of gorgeous await at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (H11). Diverse habitats from idyllic beaches, three coastal dune lakes, wet prairies to longleaf pine forests allow for a huge variety of activities. Spot an interesting mix of wildlife including river otters, armadillos, raccoons and opossums on more than 13-miles of trails. Observe shore birds, red-headed woodpeckers, snowy plovers along the 2.5-mile Morris Lake Trail (part of The Great Florida Birding Trail), take part in a ranger-led activity, or catch the big one while fresh and salt-water fishing. An on-site tram takes you to different points of interest. Settle in one of the spacious shaded camping spots or rent one of the cute cabins. This park is a popular camping destination and it has a swimming pool — reservations are highly recommended.

At the fork after passing Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, turn right for the FL-30A. Along Scenic 30A, a greenway trail system is being developed, much of it already in place featuring biking and walking trails connecting Point Washington State Forest, Grayton Beach State Park, Deer Lake State Park, Topsail Hill State Preserve, Butler Elementary School and many residential developments. Upon completion, this trail system will provide over 27 miles of trails for recreational use.

The multi-colored cottages of the Dune Allen Beach neighborhood are also home to three of Florida’s 15 rare coastal dune lakes. These geographic wonders only occur in the U.S. along the Gulf Coast. A coastal dune lake is a permanent water body 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 combination of fresh and salt water creates an interesting array of flora and fauna.

At Country Road 283 S, consider a detour heading north to Point Washington State Forest (H9) is a refreshing sight after huge expanses of beach and water. This 15,000-acre forest boasts many hiking and biking trails on which you can spot deer and fox, or rare species such as American kestrel, gopher tortoise, flatwoods salamander, white-topped pitcher plant and the world’s largest population of Curtiss’ sandgrass. Note in season, there is hunting here.

Grayton Beach State Park (H8) is another full-facility park replete with a wide range of amenities — canoeing, kayaking, fishing in both fresh and saltwater, interpretive exhibits and hiking trails through coastal forest. Pick up a self-guiding leaflet at the ranger station and explore the Grayton Beach Nature Trail. Marvel at the twisted tree trunks that struggle to survive in salty winds. Cyclists will like the 4-mile off-road trail. Nearby is a 10-mile section of the walking and cycling path along Scenic 30A. This is a great camping spot and also offers cabin rentals. As for most Florida state parks, there is an entrance fee.

In Seagrove Beach, Deer Lake State Park (H7) is home to more coastal dune lakes. Admire rare plants such as Gulf Coast lupine, spoonflower, pitcher plants and Curtiss’ sandgrass all of which attract a wide variety of wildlife such as birds, butterflies, beavers, loggerhead turtles, coyotes, bobcats, fox and deer. Take the mile-long network of wooden walkways that lead to sparkling beach, or trails through dense, lush forest. ADA accessible trails allow easy access to beach and dune views. Enjoy swimming, fishing. There is a small entrance fee. Note there are no facilities for food or drink here so bring your own. And please, Leave No Trace.

Back on the Scenic 30A, you’ll cross Camp Creek Lake, pass Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach. At the end of Scenic 30A keep right on US-98.

Camp Helen State Park (H10) is another beautiful spot bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on three sides and Lake Powell, one of the largest coastal dune lakes. Enjoy swimming, beachcombing and fresh and salt water fishing, walking the wooded nature trails and wildlife watching. Along with incomparable natural beauty, the 180-acre day use park offers a fascinating look back in history through middens and shell mounds (basically ancient landfills) revealing that this area had been inhabited more than 4,000 years ago. In 1945, Camp Helen was used as a resort for Avondale Mills’s employees and some of the old structures are still in use today.

At the fork after Philips Inlet Bridge, continue to the right on Front Breeze Road which hugs the shoreline eventually leading to the tip of the peninsula and St. Andrews State Park (H12). This park has it all — small jetties that make kid-friendly pools, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, on-site canoe and kayak rentals, two fishing piers, campgrounds, playground, restaurant and more. Tucked away from building developments, this park has a thriving wildlife. Look for blue herons, great egrets, pelicans, dolphins, deer and alligators on two hiking trails.

Now, we don’t really need a getaway from a getaway, but Shell Island (A3) is a not-to be-missed gem. Take the ferry, or your own boat, from Saint Andrew’s Park to this little oasis and explore. Rejuvenate in the natural splendor of swaying sea oats, frolicking dolphins and scurrying of fiddler crabs across the sand. There are no services on this remote barrier island (really it’s only a mile away), so pack a delicious picnic, water and enjoy.

Our scenic drive officially ends at St. Andrews Park but do visit Panama City Beach, the largest beach town in the Panhandle. Here you will find a vibrant town with a dizzying array of amenities.

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