4 Best State Parks to Explore in the South Walton
The South Walton area is packed with stunning Florida State Parks. Whether you’re a SUPer, beach bum, sunbather, birdwatcher or just a plain ol’ nature lover, they’re all lit! Here’s a list of four faves—hang in all of them when you visit and rack up points for experiencing their coastal dune lakes. No charge for Wows!
Located in Santa Rosa Beach, this 2,000-acre wonderland of a park (its beach consistently ranks among the top beaches in the U.S.) features a mile of sugar-white sand beach along pristine green waters; Western Lake—a 100-acre coastal dune lake perfect for paddling and fishing; a 4.5-miles hiking/biking trail that cuts through bent and twisted scrub oak and magnolia forests; a 1-mile trail through a dune ecosystem; and 59 camping sites.
Explore the chill waterways by canoe or kayak (bring your own or rent one from the ranger station), stay overnight in a rustic cabin or tent on the campgrounds, spot awesome birds like bald eagles and osprey (the park is a site on the Great Florida Birding Trail) and hike with your fam. The knockout views and outdoor activities combined with the warm Gulf of Mexico breezes and unforgettable sunsets are next level awesome.
Topsail Hill Preserve
Traveling between Destin and Seaside? We’re super pumped for you to see the emerald Gulf of Mexico waves at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and the towering powdery white sand dunes that look like ship sails. TFW when everything’s perfect….
What’s also cool to do here: Paddling on the park’s really rare freshwater dune lakes, like 100-acre Campbell Lake, which is surrounded by maritime forests (total W: cypress trees in the water and floating water lilies) and brimming with underwater wildlife. Also, spotting odd plant species while wandering through old-growth pine forests, scrublands and wetlands (keep your eyes peeled for pitcher plants—they look like they belong in an alien’s yard—and birds like red cardinals, ospreys and piping plovers).
Want more to explore? Paddle along the 3.2 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches where dolphins and shorebirds are likely to join you. Spotting a deer on the dune as you go—well, that’s a W! And if you cast a line and catch a redfish or pompano, your bragging rights will go through the roof (uh, dune). Biking along the paved path here is a great way to quickly tap into a lot.
We wouldn’t fault you for wanting to stay awhile. Good news is there are plenty of campsites for every kind of camper here (22 tent sites and 156 RV sites). So, what are you waiting for? TikTok is tiking….
Note: Rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard at the park store; you’re not allowed to bring your own.
Deer Lake State Park
Deer Lake State Park is located in Seagrove Beach, just off 30A. Head here to walk one of the longest and most awesome boardwalks in the South Walton area. You can access the beach from the boardwalk but also see everything from the Gulf waters to the incredible dunes and coastal dune lake ecosystem.
Speaking of coastal dune lakes—the one here share’s the park’s name and around it you’ll see scrub oaks, Southern magnolias, wood goldenrod and more. There’s more Curtiss’ sandgrass here than anywhere else in Florida, so you won’t have to spend much energy stalking it (heh—get it?). Spot birds and wildlife, like Florida black bear and deer; sunbathe on a white-sand beach (it might just be the most chill one you get to); swim in the crystal-clear Gulf waters; hike the 1.5-mile nature trail; surf fish. Vacay goals.
Camp Helen State Park
Camp Helen State Park in Panama City Beach is edged by the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell, the biggest coastal dune lake in the state. All coastal dune lakes in Florida parks are amazing but this one hits different because of its size. And the 180-acre park also has some mad history going for it: a combination of prehistoric middens and mounds (hello 4,000-year-old civilization) and post-war resort buildings for former Alabama textile mill employees. Best of all—this park is usually crowd-free.
Bring your own or rent a kayak (for one or two) or paddleboard from the park kiosk and get out on the lake—in addition to enjoying the natural vistas and observing the rambunctious wildlife, you and your squad can catch a load of fish (read: sea trout, redfish, etc.; when the outfall that connects the lake to the Gulf is open both fresh and saltwater fish bite big).
Walk the three hiking paths, too—the 0.5-mile-long Oak Canopy Trail through a scrub oak forest will put you in touch with bald eagles and tufted titmice. Their songs slap.