The Florida Panhandle is a mecca for a variety of wildlife, and Panama City Beach offers great opportunities to see those critters in their natural habitat. From cypress swamps to the emerald-green coastline, visitors can catch glimpses of rare birds, marine mammals, and prehistoric reptiles—and they can do so on their own or with the assistance of professional guides. New ordinances coupled with an abundance of pristine coastal habitats have made it have made it easier than ever to explore the real wild side of Panama City Beach.
St. Andrews State Park
St. Andrews State Park is an exceptional introductory park for those looking to experience a traditional beach environment. Take a chartered boat to Shell Island, rent a kayak, or paddleboard to experience the Gulf of Mexico from the top of the water. You can go deeper with a snorkel or scuba adventure along the jetties to check out marine life. Two nature trails offer excellent birding opportunities, and groups can make a day of the park with picnic tables, concessions, and even camping.
Binoculars are recommended for birders and those hopeful of spotting the tell-tale dorsal fins of everyone’s favorite marine mammal, the bottlenose dolphin. Two hiking trails, Heron Pond and Gator Lake, give visitors a chance to see transitional animals, like alligators, blue heron, and ibis, as well as more traditional woodland creatures, like whitetail deer and raccoons. Bring insect repellent and plenty of water for this quiet park trip.
Novice and seasoned cyclists alike love this still-growing network of trails, and with a current standing of 19.2 paved miles, Gayle’s Trails are highly recommended. These trails, named after Panama City’s current mayor and conservation advocate, Gayle Oberst, connect Frank Brown Park to Panama City Beach Conservation Park, a newer haven for native flora and fauna. Even the paved portions of the trail are surrounded by forests, where wildlife enthusiasts can expect to see local animals like osprey, raccoons, rabbits, and deer.
Camp Helen State Park
Take a walk through history and spot plenty of wildlife at Camp Helen State Park, once a company resort for local mill employees and now a carefully protected bit of sanctuary listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Camp Helen offers another excellent opportunity for birding, with migratory species and shorebirds all calling the park home, for a time, at least, and the luckiest of adventurers will spot a bald eagle, whose populations have been slowly but steadily increasing in the panhandle region.
Hiking along the saltwater marsh, the Gulf of Mexico, and a rare coastal dune lake all give wildlife enthusiasts the chance to see animals from multiple ecosystems, as Camp Helen’s position along both the gulf and the woods make it rich in biological diversity. The ever-popular whitetail deer, sneaky opossums, and the occasional—and usually shy—black bear can all be spotted within the park.
Panama City Conservation Park
Panama City Conservation Park, the most recent addition to the area's burgeoning conservation scene, boasts nearly 3,000 acres of protected wetlands, boardwalk trails, and traditional hiking and biking trails. Visitors may almost forget that they are indeed at the beach; alligators, deer, and osprey are home among the towering pines and cypress trees, all barely north of the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. One mile of the boardwalk and 24 miles of additional trail make up this serene oasis, and riders on the aforementioned Gayle’s Trails can continue on their bikes throughout this hidden gem.
The folks at Water Planet have perfected getting guests up close and personal with marine life without the smoke and mirrors. Authentic, conservation-oriented tours that take swimmers into the Gulf of Mexico with wild bottlenose dolphins—free to hang around or leave as they please—have given Water Planet an edge in an often tourist-trap game. Their invaluable research both in the water with these animals and in their wet lab have helped fuel the conversation for both conserving these creatures’ homes and using them in their natural state to help humans with what they call “dolphin therapy.” Internships and expeditions to the Bahamas are also offered for those who are ready to turn their vacation into an education experience that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.