Northwest Florida is well known worldwide for its beautiful, white sand beaches with clear blue water. It is worth making the trip just to spend some time on the shores. But if that is all you see during your visit, you’ll miss many amazing things. Here’s just a taste of the many places you can find in northwest Florida—away from the Gulf of Mexico—that are bound to impress you.
1. Econfina Creek
Econfina Creek is a beautiful paddling trail located near Panama City Beach. Many clear, cool springs feed the creek and provide ample opportunities to take a break from paddling and jump in the water. You can rent a canoe or kayak or bring your own, and the Econfina Creek Canoe Livery can provide transportation for you and your boat back to your vehicle. The Northwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission manage the creek and the land surrounding it. Restrooms and campsites are available and there are boardwalks and trails providing access to the springs and creek in the Econfina Creek State Park. The creek features limestone boulders and outcrops, lovely natural vegetation providing shade and exciting rapids in some areas.
2. Eden Gardens State Park
Eden Gardens State Park in Santa Rose Beach features a beautiful ornamental garden as well as a mansion built in 1897. The gardens are especially nice to visit from October through May when you can find blooming camellias and azaleas. Tours of the mansion are available Thursday through Monday each week on an hourly basis, and a one-mile nature trail offers a nice tour of the grounds. Located on Tucker Bayou off of Choctawhatchee Bay, the park allows fishing in the bayou as well as canoeing or kayaking via a boat launch. While the park is a quick trip from the beach, it provides a peaceful, quiet escape from the crowds along the coast. Bring a picnic and eat along the shore of the bayou.
3. Florida Caverns State Park
Florida Caverns State Park, in Marianna, Florida, offers one of the only guided tours of a cave in the state. It is a perfect place to stop off of Interstate 10 on your way to the beaches. The cave, which travels 25 feet underground, remains a cool 68 degrees year-round. The cave tour itself takes about 45 minutes, and you will see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, as well as bats if you are lucky enough. Long ago the cave was under the sea and you will also see proof of this with shells in the limestone walls. The park also offers more than 6 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails, a full-service campground, a swimming area, and canoe rentals so you can paddle on the Chipola River—all, of course, above ground.
4. Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens was built more than 175 years ago on Santa Rosa Island, and until 1947 was used by the military to protect the entrance of Pensacola Bay. Located on the Gulf Islands National Seashore and run by the National Park Service, the park features both guided and self guided tours of the fort, giving visitors an understanding of the role it played in U.S. history. In addition to the historical structures on the grounds, you’ll also get to explore the amazing natural setting of the national seashore with some incredibly scenic beaches. Fishing, swimming, biking, hiking, bird watching, and camping are all popular activities for visitors to Fort Pickens, in addition to the historical tours.
5. Fort Walton Indian Mounds
The Fort Walton Temple Mound and the Indian Temple Mound Museum are located just off of Highway 98 in Fort Walton Beach. The Temple Mound is 12 feet tall and more than 200 feet across its base. At the top of the mound was the temple that served as the home of the chief of the Fort Walton culture, as well as a center for religious and ceremonial purposes. The mound also serves as a burial ground and is still considered sacred today. The mound was abandoned but then rediscovered by Civil War soldiers. Archaeologists from the Smithsonian excavated the area and found many artifacts from the earlier cultures in the area. The museum contains some of these artifacts as well as information on the history of the mound builders and later Florida history.