Exploring the Rare Coastal Dune Lakes of Walton County, Florida

Topsail Preserve State Park, Florida.
Topsail Preserve State Park, Florida. Jamie McKee
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Madagascar. New Zealand. Highway 30A, Walton County, Florida?

While it may sound like a bad game of darts being tossed at a map, each of these locations—along with Australia, South Carolina, and Oregon—are home to a rare global phenomenon called coastal dune lakes. These exceptionally uncommon gems are largely classified by their proximity to the shore: bodies of water must be within two miles of the shoreline to be considered a coastal dune lake, and while their salinity and water levels vary, these bodies of water are more often than not permanent fixtures among the landscape.

Walton County has claimed and named 15 of these lakes, all of which are situated along the famed highway 30A. Paddlers, photographers, birding enthusiasts, and the occasional unsuspecting tourists have flocked to or stumbled upon these lakes for years, and yet they still remain largely protected and secluded.

Morris Lake in Topsail Preserve State Park, Florida.
Morris Lake in Topsail Preserve State Park, Florida. Jamie McKee

The dune lakes in Walton County, specifically, are estimated to be more than 10,000 years old, and they were formed by winds redistributing sands. Most of the lakes are shallow, with an average of around five feet deep, but perhaps what is most interesting about them is the keystone role they play in this coastal paradise. Each lake forms an intermittent structure called an outfall,  which happens when heavy rains flood the waters, and the small berm of sand separating the lake from the Gulf is broken. Lake water rushes over the dunes and into the gulf, creating a mixture of water, nutrients, and organisms.

Once water levels drop to a point of stability, the berm reforms and the lake once again becomes just that—a lake. But before this system reverts back to its standard state, an exchange of all the aforementioned elements—water, nutrients, organisms—happens, making both the lakes and gulf richer for the break in uniformity. The lakes are part of an essential wetland system and also serve as estuaries, and with their varying salinity and therefore varying biology, every single lake is absolutely vital to the health of the coastline.

Kayaking on Western Lake, Florida.
Kayaking on Western Lake, Florida. Tommy Crow/Visit South Walton

Today, many of the lakes have essentially been privatized either by business or residential areas, but every lake with the exception of the westernmost one, Fuller Lake, have public access points. Some require appointments and guided tours, and some have heavily limited access points. But for those willing to try, these incredibly rare ecological phenomenons are simply waiting to be explored. Go hiking, birding, or rent a kayak or paddleboard and see for yourself what all the fuss is about. Some of the lakes are strictly freshwater while some are high in salinity, so take the time to travel the 26 miles to see each lake and experience their diversity. Swimmers should exercise extreme caution, as while rare and often shy, alligators do inhabit some, if not all, of these lakes.

To experience the best of what these lakes have to offer, planning is essential. Many a tourist (myself included) have jaunted down 30A without thought to access points only to be thoroughly disappointed. Western Lake, located in Grayton Beach State Park, is the most popular and easiest lake to reach and explore. Oyster Lake is almost exclusively accessed via a footbridge and requires parking alongside 30A, which, while legal, can be tricky in heavy traffic summer months.

Alligator Lake and Little Redfish Lake are limited in accessibility, but sometimes this can mean a more rewarding experience for those with determination, while Eastern and Powell lakes are more easily reached. Almost all of the lakes can be accessed from the beach, and for several of the lakes, that is the only way to reach them.

Wildlife in Grayton Beach State Park, Florida.
Wildlife in Grayton Beach State Park, Florida. Florida Fish and Wildlife

Even if these lakes require a little extra planning, these lakes provide fantastic places for paddle boarding, birding, kayaking, boating, canoeing, hiking, and birding. The quiet serenity of paddling out along the marshes and thriving ecosystems is a rare find amongst the hustle and bustle of the usual beach traffic, and if travelers of 30A are lucky enough to see one or more of the lakes after an outfall, they can experience something so few people worldwide have ever, or will ever, see.

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