Stretching along the coastline just south of Interstate 10 in Florida’s Panhandle is a string of hidden gems that have been delighting those in the know for ages: the beaches of Florida’s Emerald Coast. Named after the gleaming green hue of the Gulf of Mexico lapping up against sugar-white sand, the region holds a treasure trove of world-class fishing spots, nature preserves, and more, all with staggering watercolor views.
But it's a whole different kind of Florida here than the trendy neighborhoods of Miami’s South Beach or the amusement parks of Orlando. Instead, the Emerald Coast is a naturalist’s dream come true, with its eco-adventures, outdoor lifestyle, and laid-back vibe. Here, we explore the best beaches in Florida’s quiet western crescent.
Henderson Beach State Park
Perfect for a picnic in the sun or a weekend camping, Henderson Beach State Park stretches along 6,000 feet of scenic shoreline in Destin, Florida. Given the town’s reputation as the “luckiest fishing village in the world” thanks to the shape of the continental shelf along its perimeter, it’s a prime spot for anglers to cast their lines and return an impressive haul at the end of the day. With 60 campsites, outdoor showers, campfire circles, a playground, and a small pet-friendly nature trail (although four-legged friends aren’t allowed on the beach itself), it’s also sweet spot for friends and family to gather for some downtime.
James Lee County Park
Managed by Okaloosa County, this public beach in Destin near the Walton/Okaloosa County line is a perfect place to spend an afternoon kicking back and enjoying the crystal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers simple pleasures like dune walkovers, picnic tables, and three pavilions providing some much-needed shade in the warmer months; there are also restrooms. As an added bonus, there’s a Publix conveniently located a mere mile and a half away—for those from out of state, it’s Florida’s (unofficial but overwhelmingly agreed-upon) favorite grocery store.
John Beasley Beach Park
Nestled into a leisure-friendly stretch of Okaloosa Island, the park is a quick walk, bike ride or drive from attractions like The Boardwalk, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone, and a wide array of popular seafood restaurants. It’s also a great spot for beachgoers in need of a wheelchair-accessible entry point with ramps and dune walkovers that make visiting the beach a breeze for those using mobility aids. Free daytime beach wheelchair rentals also offer a welcoming space for travelers who just want to kick back and relax at the shore without exerting too much effort.
Newman Brackin Wayside Park
Also known to locals as “The Boardwalk,” this small patch of waterfront property is well-suited for beachgoers who prefer their experience with a few extra amenities. Just beyond a host of shops, restaurants, and hotels lining the most bustling section of Okaloosa Island, Wayside Park offers beach access (and volleyball nets!) with creature comforts like air-conditioned burger bars and beachfront grills just up the shore, plus easy access to hotels, condominiums, and department store dotting the coastline. It’s also steps away from the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, which stretches nearly a quarter-mile into the gulf and never closes.
The Shores at Crystal Beach Park
To make like a local, find the access point known as The Shores at Crystal Beach Park—a small space featuring a pavilion, restrooms, showers, and a handful of picnic tables nestled into a residential area of mostly rentals in Destin. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s a great place to park for a few hours of beachfront fun, followed by a bite across the street at Camille’s, a cozy local restaurant that serves up local fare with a coastal flair. (Pro tip: Try the coconut latte if it’s on the menu.)
O’Steen Beach Access
Perched near Destin’s western edge is the O’Steen Beach access point, just off Gulf Shore Drive. For visitors craving a no-frills, less-traveled beach, this is just the spot. Open from dawn to dusk, the beach is free to access and comes without the usual amenities—just white sand, aquamarine sea, and a whole lot of sky.