Florida’s Forgotten Coast

Consider visiting the panhandle — you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how vacation-worthy this part of the sunshine state is.

By Ann Bush, F516383
January 2024

When my friends needed a house sitter for their miniature chicken farm and a very large, adorable dog, I was asked to help out. Starting from eastern Texas, I added a road trip through the Florida Panhandle on my way to their home.

My Florida journey began near Pensacola at Gulf Islands National Seashore and followed U.S. 98 east, hugging the coastline. There’s no better way to cool off in Florida than soaking in an emerald ocean, and beach hopping was high on the agenda. Except for a few detours, the road trip ended near the imaginary panhandle border near Tallahassee.


Fort Pickens was designed to protect Pensacola Bay and the Pensacola Navy Yard and Depot.

Fort Pickens was designed to protect Pensacola Bay and the Pensacola Navy Yard and Depot.

At the westernmost tip of the barrier island south of Pensacola, inside Gulf Islands National Seashore lies one of four military forts built in the 1800s to protect important waterways and seaports. Fort Pickens is a designated historic landmark managed by the National Park Service. The crumbling ruins scattered throughout the fort grounds are almost engulfed by the wind-swept, ever-changing sand dunes.

Self- and ranger-guided tours of the ruin’s interior sections cover the history and purpose of each section, such as the soldier’s sleeping quarters, dining area, escape tunnels, and areas with cannons and storage for ammunition. Arriving after lunch, I was surprised by how cool the fort was inside. Outside was full of action because my friend and I arrived just in time for a cannon firing demonstration.

Fort Pickens offers a shaded campground with access to hiking trails and beaches. When making a reservation, check for height, length, and slideout restrictions.


Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves both natural and man-made wonders.

Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves both natural and man-made wonders.


I was stunned by the contrast of quiet nature at its best compared to the bustling city life on the mainland when we began our drive along Highway 399, the famous Gulf Islands National Seashore road. Snow-white sand dunes blotched with patches of wild grass border an emerald sea meshed into a baby-blue sky. The most remarkable feature is the lack of human sounds, followed by the smell of the sea and the salty taste of sultry air.

The 25-mph speed limit was too fast, and I must have stopped a zillion times to watch a seagull or take a photo. Allow plenty of time to drive, stop, and just gaze at this beautiful part of the United States. If you are feeling ambitious, the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s volunteer program is seeking people of all ages and abilities. Contact the Volunteer-in-Parks program (www.nps.gov/guis/getinvolved/volunteer.htm) for more information.

When the seashore road ends, it heads north to the small town of Navarre. Nearby in the town of Mary Esther, we found TJ’s Chillin’ Treats, off the beaten tourist path. The porch was full of children seemingly taking forever to choose their ice cream treat. We soon learned why: There are over 30 unique flavors created by blending different ice creams together, not by artificial flavors. Their creative cones also bear fun and interesting names, such as my Smurf cone, a combination of blueberry and raspberry ice cream.

Okaloosa Island’s Boardwalk is a great seaside shopping and dining spot.

Okaloosa Island’s Boardwalk is a great seaside shopping and dining spot.



Heading east, we found a place on the narrow Emerald Coast that has it all — shopping, restaurants, live music, and a beautiful beach. The Boardwalk, located on Okaloosa Island beach, was a fun and casual place with signs stating that sandy feet and wet bathing suits are welcome inside the shops.

We headed for the beach first and a famous pier that reaches for Mexico, far out into the ocean. This officially is a county park that serves as a public beach. The smells of roasted ribs, fried seafood, and fruity cocktails sent us shopping for food. Many places offered mouthwatering menus, and finally we chose the Crab Trap Seafood and Oyster Bar, seated on the second floor with a view of the beach from a shaded deck.

Stuffed after dining on delicious food in an inspiring venue, I thought it could not get better. But we rounded the corner to leave and discovered the Pino Gelato Café, a nice Italian ice cream shop offering very interesting and refreshing flavors.


Henderson Beach State Park has a mile-long shoreline.

Henderson Beach State Park has a mile-long shoreline.


Once a private ranch, Henderson Beach State Park is exceptionally beautiful and located on Emerald Beach — the perfect place to park your RV. The park has 60 campsites that accommodate either tents or RVs, with all services and comfort amenities, such as clothesline posts, heated and air-conditioned bathhouses, and coin-operated washing machines.

A limited number of people are allowed in the park, so if you’re only spending the day, as we did,  arrive early. We waited in line before the park opened and soon had a line of cars behind us. The area is an important royal tern nesting site, with a fence 60 feet from the shoreline that protects tern nests. Little chicks chirped for food right behind our beach chairs! It was a magical day, hanging out on this lovely beach watching terns dive into the sea to catch a meal and then fly over our heads to feed their young.

Rolled ice cream makes a unique treat.

Rolled ice cream makes a unique treat.

Early the next morning, my friend headed back to Louisiana, and I continued on U.S. 98 looking for a breakfast hot spot. In Miramar Beach, I passed the Frozen Dune Rolled Ice Cream shop, which was open and serving coffee. They hand-mix fresh strawberries with a secret recipe of rich cream that’s poured onto a very cold slab. Once the pancake-shaped cream and berries are frozen, the mixture is sliced into long strips that are rolled and resemble sushi. Topped with more strawberries, the enormous, delicious collation became a perfect breakfast.


Gregory E. Moore RV Resort is part of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

Gregory E. Moore RV Resort is part of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.


An important turtle restoration site on Santa Rosa Beach, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a wonderful place with five rare coastal dune lakes accessible via hiking and biking trails. Day-pass visitors can park their vehicles in a large parking lot and hop on a tram to the beaches, which was so much fun and easy. Well-maintained bicycle trails also lead to the beach and offer a nice bike parking area.

I did not camp here but found shady RV sites available at the adjoined Gregory E. Moore RV Resort. Strolling through the campground, I met FMCA members who had a colorful surfboard on their camper. They told me this RV resort is so popular that they make their reservations almost a year in advance.

Topsail boasts a variety of biking trails.

Topsail boasts a variety of biking trails.



An inland drive along Big Bend Scenic Byway south of the Apalachicola National Forest offered a pleasant change of scenery. It stretches for 220 miles along U.S. 98. I took the Coastal Trail through a forest of longleaf pine trees mixed with a wiregrass ecosystem of ponds, rivers, flatwoods, bottomland forests, and freshwater-spring pools.

I haven’t found a seaside village quite as pretty as St. George, accessible via a slight detour off Big Bend Scenic Byway and a very long bridge to St. George Island. The main attraction is the Cape St. George Lighthouse, which is open to the public. Those who climb all 92 steps to the top receive a special gift.

Recovering with style after a terrible hurricane season, St. George now has a new pier, with rows of pastel-colored beach houses lining the shore and a historic area along East Gulf Beach Drive that is full of quaint shops. Don’t miss Aunt Ebby’s Ice Cream for views of the Gulf while enjoying delicious hand-dipped ice cream. The island also has a state park, with one of the few pet-friendly beaches in Florida, plus well-designed fishing piers.

The Cape St. George Lighthouse was rebuilt many times.

The Cape St. George Lighthouse was rebuilt many times.



My last stop before heading for the mini farm was St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Learning that it is designated a Globally Important Bird Area with over 300 species of birds recorded, I grabbed my binoculars.

Stop at the visitor center to pick up a map and drive slowly, stopping often to stare at stunning views on both sides of the road. It ends at a picturesque lighthouse built in 1830. With a remarkable history of survival, the structure has endured hurricanes, shelling during the Civil War, and water cracks. The lighthouse is occasionally open for tours.

St. Marks Lighthouse is the second-oldest light station in Florida.

St. Marks Lighthouse is the second-oldest light station in Florida.



Our first pleasing observation of the Florida Panhandle — distinctive from the mainland in many respects — was that it had fewer crowds, which explains the “Forgotten Coast” nickname. The habitat just above the beaches includes thick forests, clear natural springs, and protected land empty of splashy tourist attractions. Cool breezes that pass over the ocean, swirling at the feet of the impenetrable cool forest, knock down the temperature, rendering every month a worthy occasion to visit.

Campsite reservations at Florida state parks can be made online at www.floridastateparks.org from one day to 11 months in advance. Or call (800) 326-3521.



Cape St. George Lighthouse
2B E. Gulf Beach Drive
St. George Island, FL 32328
(850) 927-7745

Gulf Islands National Seashore Headquarters
1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway
Gulf Breeze, FL 32563
(877) 444-6777

Henderson Beach State Park
17000 Emerald Coast Parkway
Destin, FL 32541
(850) 837-7550

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
1255 Lighthouse Road
St. Marks, FL 32355
(850) 925-6121

The Boardwalk
1450 Miracle Strip Parkway
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
7525 W. County Highway 30A
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
(850) 267-8330

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Source: https://familyrvingmag.com/2024/01/01/floridas-forgotten-coast/