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The Panhandle - Parks and Recreation

Florida Parks Along the Panhandle's 98
by James Richardson

Visiting Florida later this year? Traveling across the Panhandle of Florida to get to its big peninsula? Looking for excellent beaches without having to go to Miami, St. Pete, Daytona, or Jacksonville? The sun is just as bright and the sand is whiter in the Panhandle. U.S. Highway 98 follows the coastline of the Gulf and the "real" Florida, as the brochures say, is the state parks. They are sprinkled like the white sand along the Florida Panhandle's Highway 98.

Florida has nearly 120 state park areas, some of which are designated as parks, some recreation areas, and others as reserves. Some are operated as museums and gardens. Some parks are important because of their geologic or historic significance. Florida has divided the park system into nine regions. The Panhandle is composed of two of these regions -- the Northwest and the Big Bend. U.S. Highway 98 passes through both regions. Twelve state areas are located on the coast and ten are along 98, but only six designated as parks or recreation areas have camping facilities. These six are the focus of this article: Big Lagoon, Grayton Beach, Saint Andrews, Saint Joseph Peninsula, Saint George Island, and Ochlockonee River.

Big Lagoon State Recreation Area

Big Lagoon State Recreation Area is sort of a backtrack to get to it. Instead of cruising Interstate 10 across Florida's Panhandle, take I-110 in Pensacola to pick up U.S. Highway 98. The western-most state park in Florida is Big Lagoon. Turn west from U.S. 98 to Florida State Highway 292. Follow 292 to the Big Lagoon, which is near the Alabama state line. This park is not actually on U.S. 98, but the stop will be worth the extra few miles.

Big Lagoon is named for the body of water bordering it. The Intercoastal Waterway is also next to the park. All the ingredients are present for water sports and wildlife watching. Seventy-five campsites are available and are situated on a pine ridge in the center of the 698-acre park. Along the East Beach is an observation tower, which overlooks the Big Lagoon and the Gulf Islands National Seashore across the Intercoastal Waterway. Fishing, swimming, hiking trails, and beach activities are all available at the park.

Grayton Beach State Recreation Area

The Grayton Beach State Recreation Area is located two miles south of U.S. 98 near the town of Grayton Beach on County Road 30-A. The park offers one mile of white sand shoreline for swimming and surf fishing. The large Western Lake in the center of the park has a boat ramp for access. Freshwater and saltwater species are both catchable in the somewhat brackish water of Western Lake. Nature trails among the pine flatwoods and sand dunes allow hikers to enjoy Florida's coastal varied landscape up close.

Saint Andrews State Recreation Area

Three miles east of Panama City Beach at Thomas Drive (County Road 3031) go south to State Highway 392. Turn east at the signs for Saint Andrews State Recreation Area. This 1260-acre park is situated on a peninsula with the Gulf of Mexico on the south side and the Grand Lagoon and Saint Andrews Bay completing the peninsula. The campgrounds offer waterfront sites (Grand Lagoon side), which is a favorite feature of this park. However, the long beachfront area with its white sand and fishing opportunities are attractive to the park’s many other visitors. Gator Lake on the eastern end of the park has a platform extending into a marsh filled with aquatic plants, egrets, and an occasional alligator.

Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park

As U.S. 98 rounds the point on the Panhandle of Florida just past the town of Port St. Joe and the Saint Joseph Bay, turn on County Road 30-E and look for the signs to the Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park. The peninsula, about sixteen miles in length, is shaped like an "L" with the state park being at the top of the letter. Follow the peninsula westward then northward to the state park of 2516 acres.

Campgrounds, cabin rentals, fishing, a boat ramp, and hiking are available. The most attractive feature of this state park is the miles of natural beach that is very conducive to quiet walks and wildlife watching. The high sand dunes are a very picturesque feature of Saint Joseph Peninsula.

Saint George Island State Park

Rounding the point after leaving Saint Joseph's on U.S. 98 and traveling east again, another toll bridge on State Route 300 at East Point takes the traveler to Saint George Island State Park. The state park is ten mile off U.S. 98 and is located on one of Florida's Gulf Coast barrier islands, Saint George. The island has restaurants and a fishing pier extending into the Gulf.

Located between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf, Saint George State Park offers shelling, camping, fishing, hiking, and nature study along board walks and observation platforms. Snowy plovers, least terns, black skimmers, and other shore birds can be seen nesting along the park's nine miles of shore line.

Ochlockonee River State Park

Although Ochlockonee River State Park is six miles from the Gulf of Mexico with no beachfront, it is near enough to U.S. 98 to warrant description. At U.S. 319 between Lanark Village and Saint Teresa on U.S. 98, turn north. Go six miles to Ochlockonee River State Park, which contains 392 acres.

Ochlockonee River has diverse wildlife because of the habitat -- grass ponds, pine flatwoods, and oak thickets. Deer, bobcats, grey foxes may be seen in this habitat. Riverside campgrounds are available, as well as fishing and picnicking.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

The Gulf Islands National Seashore contains about 150 miles of barrier islands that protect the mainland from storms and waves. Although not in the state park system, the Gulf Island National Seashore meets U.S. 98 twice -- in Gulf Breeze and in Fort Walton Beach. From Big Lagoon State Park return to Pensacola on State Highway 292 and U.S. 98. Follow 98 across the long bridge over Pensacola Bay to arrive in Gulf Breeze, where the Gulf Islands National Seashore Headquarters and the Naval Live Oaks Area are located. The name, Naval Live Oaks, is derived from the fact that in the 1820's this area was important for its timber resources in the shipbuilding industry. The Naval Live Oaks area of the Gulf Island National Seashore has exhibits and trails.

The Florida District of the Gulf Islands NS contains two sections -- the Santa Rosa area, including Fort Pickens, and the Okaloosa area in Fort Walton Beach. Continuing south from Gulf Breeze and the Naval Live Oaks area take State Highway 399, cross a toll bridge, turn west and travel along the barrier island to Fort Pickens. A campground of 200 sites, a campground store, a museum and bookstore, an amphitheater, and hiking trails are available. The remains of old Fort Pickens can also be explored.

To return to U.S. 98 there are two choices -- backtrack on Highway 399 to Gulf Breeze or continue along Santa Rosa Island on Highway 399 for about 18 miles and returning to U.S. 98 at Navarre via another toll bridge. The Okaloosa area of the Gulf Islands NS, located in Fort Walton Beach is on the inland side of U.S. 98 and offers a beach for swimming and enjoyment of the sun and white sand.

Following U.S. 319 northward for about forty miles will lead to Tallahassee and Interstate 10. Now you can resume your trip to your original destination -- whether it was Florida's "Big Peninsula" or Miami, St. Pete, Daytona, or Jacksonville. Go if there is any time left after visiting the state parks along Florida's Panhandle and U.S. 98, or if you think there is something you have not seen.

For more information:
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Park Information
Mail Station # 535
3900 Commonwealth Boulevard
Tallahassee, FL 32399-3000
1-904-488-9872

Big Lagoon State Recreation Area
12301 Gulf Beach Highway

Pensacola, FL 32507
1-904-492-1595

Grayton Beach State Recreation Area
Route 2, Box 6600
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
1-904-231-4210

Saint Andrews State Recreation Area
4415 Thomas Drive
Panama City, FL 32408
1-904-233-5140

Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park
Star Route 1, Box 200
Port St. Joe, FL 32456
1-904-227-1327

Saint George Island State Park
HCR Box 62
Eastpoint, FL 32328
1-904-927-2111

Ochlockonee River State Park
P. O. Box 5
Sopchoppy, FL 32358
1-904-962-2771