Florida’s Emerald Coast
The northern coast of Florida is home to rich history, great food, and Florida’s Top Panhandle Beaches.
The region gets its nickname of “The Emerald Coast” from its beautiful turquoise waters that sparkle in the sunlight. Visitors to the Panhandle’s white sand shores will find many interesting experiences to choose from.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Gulf Islands National Seashore is more than just a giant sand bar, with this in mind, the area will change what you think about barrier islands! Home to Florida’s top Panhandle beaches, it is an area that is worth exploring. The island chain starts in Mississippi, and continues east across Florida’s Panhandle. Come along, from west to east, as we check it out:
To see all the area has to offer, take the scenic Gulf Breeze Parkway east from Pensacola. The relaxing drive will let you see a lot of cool sights, during your road trip. The area’s amazing white sand dunes remind some visitors of snow, so they make for great photo opps! Several access points to the beach offer different activities. Things to do include swimming, biking, and paddling. Don’t worry about traveling with your own gear, since rental bikes, kayaks, and paddleboards are available. Additionally, there are trails and boardwalks that are ADA accessible.
To sum it all up, Gulf Islands National Seashore an area that has something for everyone. To map-out your adventures, and to learn more about Gulf Islands National Seashore visit: https://www.nps.gov/guis/index.htm
Pensacola Beach is the one of the Florida’s top Panhandle beaches for locals and tourists alike. This is the place to be for sticking your toes in the white sugar-like sand, actually 18 miles of it! However, it’s also the place to be for shopping, dining, and other fun. Pensacola has a bustling night-life scene with lots of bars and live music venues. This, and adult beverages being allowed on the sand, makes Pensacola Beach a popular Spring Break destination for college students. That said, the town is also known for its family-friendly vibe throughout the year.
Pensacola Beach’s Gulf Pier is a great location for watching people or sunsets. It’s also a well known spot for fishing – if you don’t want to travel with your own gear you can rent at the Pier. If you want to get even more up close to the water there are charter fishing, sailing and paddling experiences to choose from.
Canine friends can also enjoy Pensacola beach at one of two designated dog beaches! You and up to three of your dogs can access their special areas from public parking lots 21E and 28B. However, these spots are popular and fill-up quickly, especially on weekends. In short, plan an early visit to enjoy this top Panhandle Beach with your doggos.
Beyond Pensacola’s Dunes
In addition to the sand and sun, Pensacola and its beaches have a rich history. There are many historic sights in the area. The U.S. Naval History Museum and several forts are fun for visitors of all ages. Pensacola is also home to the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. Each July their annual air show draws tens of thousands of spectators to the area.
For all the details to plan your visit to this top Florida Beach check out: https://visitpensacolabeach.com/
Navarre Beach Marine Park
You just need to head 17 scenic miles east of Pensacola to Navarre Beach Marine Park. Known for its 4,000 feet of powdery shore line and 1,545 foot-long fishing pier, Navarre Beach is easily one of Florida’s top Panhandle beaches. Known as “Florida’s Most Relaxing Place” Navarre Beach is laid-back, but never boring. There’s a lot to check out when on a visit to this Panhandle Beach. From shelling in the shallow water, to eating seafood from shells at one of the casual dining options near the pier, the area moves at an easy pace.
Here you can enjoy a variety of activities in, and around, the water. Navarre Beach Marine Park’s pier is the longest in the state, making it a great place for fishing. Access this 24 hour pier, for a small fee. Since it extends south into the Gulf it’s a great place to view sun rises and sun sets. Lucky visitors will also spot groups of dolphin, or even stingrays, or a sea turtle swimming along!
The Park also has scooters, paddle boards, and even sail boats available for rent near the pier. Pavilions are available, and visitors using wheel chairs and other mobility devices can use the permanent ADA compliant “Mobi Mat” that runs 100 feet from the Kayak Dune overpass to the Gulf.
Beneath the Waves at Navarre Beach
Navarre Beach has almost as much excitement underwater as it does on shore. From the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary you’ll have easy access to three complexes of artificial reefs. You can explore these by snorkeling, scuba diving, or even from above the water during a clear-bottom kayak tour.
However, if you still want to see and learn more about life beneath the Gulf, the nearby Navarre Beach Turtle Conservation Center at 8740 Gulf Blvd. offers up-close encounters with various sea creatures for visitors of all ages.
To make Navarre Beach part of your trip to paradise check out their https://www.getrelaxing.com/
Okaloosa Island/Ft. Walton Beach
For a relaxing family vibe head to Okaloosa Island. one of Florida’s Top Panhandle Beaches at the eastern end of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This laid back section of Santa Rosa Island on Miracle Strip Parkway nestled between Ft. Walton Beach and Destin.
The pace is mellow here, and beach has a nice boardwalk that leads to the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier at 1020 Miracle Strip Parkway SE. Likewise, the pier is a great place to relax with fishing or even sightseeing. There is a small fee to go out on to the pier, and it is slightly higher if you want to fish. Don’t worry if you didn’t bring your bait and tackle – you can rent it all at the pier entrance!
To learn more about the Gulf and the creatures that call it home, stroll over to the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park at 1010 Miracle Strip. This attraction is a hit with adults and kids of all ages. For instance, the Gulfarium features encounters with dolphins, rays, and even sharks! From here you are just steps away from the white sand beaches and the restaurants and shops that line the popular boardwalk. https://www.theboardwalkoi.com/
Additionally, Okaloosa Island is also home to John C. Beasley Park (1550 Miracle Strip Parkway). Access this Park from the boardwalk and hit the volley ball courts, or maybe even give surfing a try. You can also pick up lunch at the park’s restaurant and eat in or take it to one of the picnic tables or pavilions while you enjoy the refreshing Gulf breeze.
To discover more of what awaits you at Okaloosa Island visit: https://www.destinfwb.com/discover/ft-walton-beach/okaloosa-island/
Destin is one of Florida’s Top Panhandle Beaches for fun, food, adult beverages, and lots of activity. This well-known Spring Break spot for college students. After that ends each year, it remains busting with visitors of all ages.
As the sun goes down on this popular area, the neon lights up. Locals and visitors alike come to the Harbor Boardwalk to check-out the nightlife options, including many bars and live music venues.
The boardwalk is also home to the Destin Harbor Marina. From here you can catch a dolphin or sunset tour, or even a charter fishing trip.
To explore the natural wonders of this area, head east on the Boardwalk to the shallow tide pools of Norriego Point. Here, at East Pass (end of Holiday Isle) is a special place for explorers of all ages. Visitors can snorkel and hope to catch a glimpse of some of the creatures that call this part of the Gulf home, including dolphin, octopuses, crabs, and starfish to name a few.
Destin’s State Parks
More of the natural side of Destin can be found at Grayton Beach State Park. The area has plenty of activities for those who want to do more than chill on the white sand beaches. For fun on the water you can book a charter with one of the many boats of the “Mosquito Fleet” for fishing and sightseeing.
Additionally, Grayton Beach has something you won’t see in many other parts of the Sunshine State – Walton County residents and property owners can apply for permits to bring their vehicles on to the sand! Permits are also available for residents who want to bring their dogs to the beach. For details visit: https://www.co.walton.fl.us/FormCenter/Administration-3/Dog-Beach-License-Permit-Application-80.
Visiting Henderson Beach State Park might make you think you’re no longer in Florida. For example, the 30 foot-high white sand dunes can make you think you’re in a far-away desert, or exploring another planet as you check out the trails and quarter mile boardwalk. A low entrance fee and ample parking spaces make this an easy, relaxing top Panhandle beach.
To further consider making Destin your vacation Destin-ation visit: https://www.destinfwb.com/
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is among the longest of Florida’s Top Panhandle Beaches. With 27 miles of white sugar-like sand , and nearly 100 public beach access points, you’ll have lots of options to choose from. Whether you’d enjoy people watching or a quiet escape to relax and catch the sunset, Panama City Beach has what you’re looking for.
While all of the access points give beach goers free public beach access, only some of the access areas have public parking. To help decide which area of Panama City Beach is right for you check out beach access options here: https://www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/things-to-do/beaches/beach-access-points-and-map/
Beach goers who also love shopping, dining, and entertainment, will find Pier Park (600 Pier Park Drive) is a beach-side oasis they’ve been dreaming of. Bustling with 124 stores, and dozens of restaurants, and several entertainment options, no matter what you’re in the mood for, it’s here: https://www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/pier-park/
For pet parents who want to enjoy the dog days of summer, or any other time of the year, with your furry friends head over to Russell-Fields Pier (12213 Front Beach Road). To the right side of this pier is a designated dog beach. You and up-to three of your leashed furry friends can enjoy this popular spot. Parking is limited here, and it does get crowded, so an early visit is the way to go.
St. Andrews State Park
1,200 acres of unspoiled white sand dunes and two piers make St. Andrews State Park one of Florida’s top Panhandle Beaches. Just three miles east from the bustle of Panama City Beach, and a stone’s throw from the artsy and fun town of St. Andrews,
St. Andrews State park is nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay. Therefore, this park offers two piers – one over the Gulf and one over the Bay – that anglers and sightseers can enjoy. The calm protected cove on the Upper Grand Lagoon side is popular with snorkelers, divers, and shell collectors. Meanwhile, on the Gulf side, at the end of the beach is a large rock jetty that makes for an interesting photo opp.
This beach is popular with locals and visitors. Everyone seems to enjoy the beautiful white sand, well maintained bike trails, and picnic areas. Therefore, even though there is an $8 entry fee (per vehicle) this top Panhandle beach fills-up early, especially on weekends and holidays.
Discover all St. Andrews State Park has to offer: https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/st-andrews-state-park
Much More to Explore…
There are many more beaches and attractions to visit along Florida’s Panhandle and beyond. To learn more about this region of the Sunshine State check out our articles on Florida Mural Tours, Florida’s Hidden Destinations, and an overview of Florida’s Best Beaches.
Before embarking on any travel check these important general pre-travel tips.
For more fabulous Florida experiences be sure to check out all the OutCoast has to offer here.
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Also, while we do our best to highlight LGBTQ-friendly destinations and businesses, info provided is based solely on personal experience and recommendations by community partners. We hope that nobody experiences discrimination or homophobia while visiting Florida, but we make no guarantees. Please inform us if you experience discrimination or homophobia while visiting any destination so we can make updates to our recommendations.