My 9 Favorite Stops Along the Florida Panhandle

Florida’s grip is nicknamed the Forgotten Coast. Having grown in popularity, the nickname may not really fit these days, but you can still find relaxing areas to visit.

As a travel writer, I sometimes sit as a means to explore a new area while saving money. Recently, I found myself living on a mini farm near the Florida pant and exploring from the western edge of the Gulf Shores National Seashore to the fantastical border of the eastern pant. Here are my favorite stops, as well as some great ice cream parlors to visit along the way.

1. Gulf Island National Seashore Island

Driving through busy cities and congested highways, I was simply amazed when I reached the bridge from Pensacola to the island, giving me a view of white sand beaches bordered by an emerald sea that blended into a blue sky. Soon, I was on the famous Gulf Island coastline, a barrier island bordering the Pantel coastline.

Rolling dunes speckled with long strands of leathery grass rolled on either side of the road. The most noticeable feature was the smell of the sea and the taste of salt from the stifling air. The 25mph speed limit was too fast and I must have stopped a million times to watch a bird, take a picture or just look at the pristine ocean scene.

Pro tip: Allow plenty of time as it will take an hour to drive the entire route at the speed limit, but it’s worth every minute. I made the trip three times and never got tired of it.

Fort Pickens in Pensacola Beach, Florida

The exterior of Fort Pickens in Pensacola Beach, Florida

Photo: Krumpelman Photography / Shutterstock.com

2. Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens, located on the west end of the island, is one of four military forts built in the 1800s to protect important waterways and seaports, particularly Pensacola Bay. Designated as a historic landmark and managed by the National Park Service, the site displays ruins that have been nearly weathered by the windswept sand dunes.

A short hike to the top of the gunnery is a popular spot to watch the sunset. A tour by a ranger is available in the interior sections of the ruin with sleeping quarters, dining rooms, escape tunnels and where the cannons were ready for action.

A nearby campground offers access to hiking trails, a fishing pier, and Langdon Beach. Swimming is permitted and accessible beach mats and wheelchairs are available at the Ranger Station.

Pro tip: Stop by TJ’s Chilling Treats in Navarre, an unusual secret that’s popular with families. Their creative flavors with fun names, like my smurf cone with mixed raspberry and blueberry ice cream, make decisions difficult.

Okaloosa Fishing Pier in Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Fishing pier near The Boardwalk Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Photo: Andriy Blokhin

3. The Boardwalk On Okaloosa Island

In between swimming and sunbathing at the beaches as we drove along Highway 98, we stopped at the Boardwalk located on Okaloosa Island Beach for lunch one day. An official provincial park that doubles as a public beach, the Boardwalk is a fun and lively shopping center that serves thousands of people with places to eat and listen to live bands. The shops there don’t mind sandy feet.

After checking out their pier and beach and avoiding the kids from building sandcastles, we went shopping for food. There were several places with mouth-watering menus, but in the end we chose Crab Trap Seafood and Oyster Bar on the second floor overlooking the beach from a shaded deck. Delicious and inspiring.

Pro tip: Around the corner from the crab trap is Pino Gelato Café, a nice little Italian ice cream parlor that offers very interesting flavors.

Hike to Henderson Beach State Park in Destin, Florida

Walking up the boardwalk at Henderson Beach State Park overlooking the ocean

Photo: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock.com

4. Henderson Beach State Park

Once a private ranch donated to the state by the Henderson family, this exceptionally beautiful strip of coastline near Destin was our choice to hit the beach for an entire morning. We were almost the first person on the beach and had a peaceful hour before people started lining up along the shore.

The area is an important king tern nesting area with a fence surrounding a small area about 60 feet from the ocean. We soon discovered little chicks right behind our sunbeds and watched terns dive in front of us in the chilly ocean having breakfast and then fly over our heads to feed their young. It was a magical morning. I never imagined that I would be so close to such a touching scene.

Pro tip: Get there early as they limit the number of people on the beach to reduce damage to the terns.

The skyline in Destin, Florida

An aerial view of the skyline in Destin, Florida

Photo: pisaphotography / Shutterstock.com

5. Destin

Early the next morning, my friend drove back to Louisiana and I continued east on Highway 98. Of all the beach towns I had driven through, Destin seemed to be the least crowded. There are five waterfront properties with twelve access points, all with plenty of parking along the way, which is a major hurdle to overcome when visiting Florida.

I drove past the Dunes Rolled Ice Cream Shop advertising coffee and realized I hadn’t had breakfast yet! They hand-blend fresh fruit (strawberries for me, please) with a secret recipe of rich cream spread on a very cold slab. When frozen, the ice cream is cut into strips that are rolled up like a sushi roll. With more strawberries, the treat was a delicious and perfect breakfast on the beach.

Turtle at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Florida

A turtle is sunbathing at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Photo: Ann Bush

6. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Still smacking my lips, I stopped at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park mainly to see turtles. Take a detour on Highway 30A to Santa Rosa Beach at this lovely park with five rare coastal dune lakes accessible via hiking trails. Vehicles go no further than a large parking lot and guests board a tram to the beach. Well-maintained bike paths lead to the beach with plenty of bike parking at the tram stations. Nearby there is a long wooden boardwalk that leads to the beach.

This park is a major US site for restoring sea turtle habitat for 3.25 miles along the Gulf of Mexico. Four species of nesting sea turtles are protected at Topsail, in addition to shorebirds such as gannets and terns. For this reason, some areas are off limits to humans. Dogs are rarely allowed on Florida beaches.

Pro tip: Further down Highway 98 is Panama City, a good place for lunch and ice cream of course. Two places for interesting twists on a cone are Riviera Creamery (their mango is made with natural fruit) and Monkey Licks Sweet Shoppe (as fun as that sounds). Both stores are located on Front Beach Road.

7. The Big Bend Scenic Byway

Taking the Big Bend Scenic Byway through the Apalachicola National Forest, I saw an unexpected Florida site that stretches 220 miles along US Highway 98. I took the coastal path route where I saw a unique ecosystem of longleaf pines combined with deciduous oaks thriving alongside freshwater rivers and ponds. Deer cross the road instead of alligators in this peaceful forest. Many rare plants and the endangered woodpecker live here. They are protected under the Florida Wildlife Legacy Initiative.

Saint George Lighthouse in Saint George Lighthouse

View of the exterior of the Saint George Lighthouse

Photo: Ann Bush

8. St. George Island

Take a short detour from the Big Bend Scenic Byway via a very long bridge to the island of St. George (a 22-mile barrier island). The main attraction is the Cape St. Lighthouse. George which is open to the public. Collapsed in 2005 during a terrible hurricane season, pieces of the lighthouse were salvaged and used to rebuild the lighthouse using original designs. I climbed all 84 steps to the top for a view that is worth it. The island has one of the few pet-friendly beaches in Florida.

Pro tip: This quaint fishing village offers many excellent restaurants and ice cream. I live in a yellow and blue house, Aunt Abby’s ice cream gave me the biggest scoop I’ve ever seen.

St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge

The shoreline with vegetation and a cloudy sky at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Ann Bush

9. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

My last stop before reaching my destination home was the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge mainly to see “Pinky”. Designated a ‘Globally Important Bird Area’ with over 300 bird species recorded, migrating flamingos from Mexico stop here after their long journey across the ocean. However, a few years ago when it was time for them to migrate back to Mexico, a lone flamingo was left behind and has never left.

St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge also has a remarkable lighthouse with an interesting story of survival. Built in 1830, the lighthouse has survived hurricanes, Civil War bombing, and water cracks. There was no road to the lighthouse until 1930. Soon after, the lighthouse was modernized with electricity. In 2000, the lights went out and a solar light now flashes every 4 seconds.

Pro tip: Lighthouse hours vary depending on available volunteers. Even when it’s not open, the lighthouse bay is perfect for a picnic and a good place to launch small fishing boats or kayaks.

For more information on traveling to Florida, check out these articles:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *